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Scorned Oakland 'gentrifier' accepts the label but calls for truce

  • February 13, 2014

By Matt O'Brien
Staff Writer, Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND -- Steve Kopff was one of many San Franciscans who cascaded last year into sunnier, cheaper, hipper Oakland.

He bought and began restoring a historic but rundown mansion. He planted vegetables, raised backyard hens and bees, launched a neighborhood newsletter and peppered his Facebook account with paeans to his new city.

But this year, Kopff became a scorned symbol of the angst over Oakland gentrification. He wrote an online essay describing his diverse, working-class neighborhood east of Lake Merritt as "mostly undiscovered" and a "virtual food desert" in need of an organic supermarket, better restaurants and "a coffee kiosk with patisserie bites."

Online critics swiftly labeled him a pushy colonizer with a "white settler mentality." They denounced him as representing a wave of tone-deaf newcomers trying to remake the city in their own image without consulting their African-American, immigrant and lower-income neighbors who held it together for years.

Kopff and his partner were horrified.

"We weren't sure if they were going to be throwing bricks in the window," he said. The mostly anonymous critics, he added, "want to make me the poster boy of gentrification."

Adding to the symbolism was the couple's hilltop Victorian home, built from mining wealth in 1888 but more recently used by the Center for Third World Organizing, an advocacy group fighting for low-income communities of color -- the same groups getting priced out of increasingly expensive Oakland real estate.

The website that published Kopff's essay, OaklandLocal, agreed with him to remove it after three days of furious comments. It also published his neighbor Dannette Lambert's counter-perspective, "20 ways to not be a gentrifier in Oakland," that further exposed tensions between new and established Oaklanders.

Adopting an analogy commonly used against immigrants -- of a presumptuous houseguest rearranging the furniture -- Lambert advised newcomers to be more considerate.

"Why do you think you can move into someone's ancestral land and start taking it over, evicting them from their homes and pushing out their businesses?" wrote Lambert, who moved to the city eight years ago.

She declined to be interviewed, noting her job as an aide to Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb, but she made a phone call to Kopff last week, and they made amends. Kopff reached out to other neighbors who criticized him, persuading one to edit his newsletter. But the emotional debate over Oakland gentrification is not going away. Neither is the defiant Kopff, who regrets some of his phrasing but believes civic-minded newcomers should be welcomed, not pilloried.

"I'm the most inclusive person," Kopff said. "The one agenda I have is beautification, and everybody knows that."

He lives in Clinton, part of a cluster of neighborhoods on the cusp of economic change. Downsizing a San Francisco mortgage, Kopff and his partner bought the house after considering a wealthier and whiter Oakland neighborhood they found too elitist.

"We're a gay couple. We can be discriminated against as well. We wanted to find a place where we could kind of melt in a little better," Kopff said.

The 23 blocks stretching southeast of Lake Merritt -- encompassing ZIP code 94606, a place known historically as Brooklyn -- make up one of the Bay Area's most diverse districts, dotted with Vietnamese cafes and Asian markets. About 42 percent of residents are Asian, 20 percent Latino, 19 percent African-American and 15 percent white, according to the census.

At least until recently, the area was barely touched by dramatic demographic changes occurring elsewhere in Oakland. The share of Asian and white residents grew only slightly from 2000 to 2010 while the black population dropped and the Latino population held constant.

The neighborhood also resisted the sudden rise in affluence that defines gentrification. More than 60 percent of households still struggle on less than $50,000 a year. But housing prices are skyrocketing, raising doubts about how many poorer families can stay. Median rents rose 26 percent in the past year, according to research firm RealFacts. House prices rose 24 percent, according to Zillow.

Kopff, an accountant, founded a beautification nonprofit upon his arrival one year ago, earning praise from some neighbors but anger from others who disliked the changes he proposed. He cut down the dense vegetation surrounding the mansion and sought to landscape medians to discourage illegal dumping.

"Somebody said I thought I was like the savior of the neighborhood. That's such a fallacy," Kopff said. "I have no desire to change things; I just want to be a part of it and help move it along."

The controversy brought to light private battles happening in the culturally diverse district long before Kopff arrived. Neighbors opposed a Southeast Asian immigrant family's practice of raising and slaughtering backyard goats. Another neighbor called police over Mexican music blaring from an apartment. And a white resident said she bristles at being called a gentrifier after 35 years living here.

"Sometimes when people use gentrifier, they truly don't want to engage," said Ellen Lynch, recalling a stranger who shouted the word. "Gentrifying? I've been here since 1978, I'm just fixing my house up."

Lynch calls it "a horrible insult and it's laden with a lot of other suggestions, like white supremacist, wealthy, carpetbagger, displacer, anti-low-income. It's code for a bunch of other things."

Kopff, however, now says he is learning to accept the label. "I don't need to be ashamed," he emailed neighbors this week, while also pledging to work against displacement.

But without a massive program to restore low-income neighborhoods, even the most considerate gentrifiers will push people out, said Benjamin Bowser, a professor emeritus in sociology at Cal State East Bay.

"People say they move into a neighborhood because it's diverse, and that's great, but the question is, how long will it be diverse?" Bowser said. "It has more to do with market forces than people being nice to each other on the street. There's no way you can have property values go up, gentrify the neighborhood and keep the lower income families in that community. It's just not going to happen."


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