It’s a new day for Oakland politics. November’s elections brought about much-needed change, as longtime City Council members Ignacio de la Fuente, Jane Brunner and Nancy Nadel were replaced by fresher candidates, who can hopefully avoid the gridlock and infighting of Council members, which many saw as an obstacle to any real progress.
What does this mean for District 3, which includes West Oakland? The election of Lynette Gibson-McElhaney offers new hope for an area which faces distinct challenges and is in many ways an anomaly. West Oakland includes the Port of Oakland and Jack London Square, as well as the dubiously-nicknamed “Ghost Town” and the infamous Acorn housing projects – a seeming paradoxical mix of development and underdevelopment.
West Oakland’s population is 67% black, a number almost three times higher than Oakland’s overall African American population. Its median average household income of $26,000 is almost 50% lower than Oakland’s overall figure of $51,000. Many of West Oakland’s black residents live below the poverty level. Perhaps unsurprisingly, West Oakland also suffers from high crime rates, underemployment and unemployment, and low graduation rates for its youth – 35% of residents don’t finish high school.
The wave of gentrification which has swept over West Oakland has resulted in the influx of 20,000 new residents over the past ten years, most of them white, and in many new lofts and condos, as well as a rise in property values– which still lag far behind Oakland as a whole–but has done little to improve the socioeconomic and environmental health conditions for many longtime residents. In addition to its socioeconomic woes, the area also has the dubious distinction of having some of the worst air quality in the entire Bay Area, resulting in higher-than-average levels of asthma, heart disease, and diabetes.
Urban Releaf has a long history of community engagement and involvement in West Oakland, where we’ve planted and distributed more than 12,000 trees over the last ten years. Our projects and programs have focused on creating innovative new approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through planting trees, which have also furthered youth development by creating green jobs for at-risk and hard-to-employ young people. Some of our work in this area includes a two-year study on climate protection in West Oakland; the 31st Street Green Demonstration Project, which integrates tree planting with scientific research and community outreach; and the Ettie Street Watershed Restoration, an experiential/environmental youth education training program. Most recently, Urban Releaf partnered with St. Mary’s Church for a community tree-planting exercise at San Pablo and 32nd, a low-income neighborhood and high-traffic vehicular corridor which suffers from a dearth of urban greenery. Councilwoman-elect McElhaney joined us for the event, which also brought out church members and interested neighborhood observers.
From an “on the ground” perspective, the needs for West Oakland are clear: more jobs, especially for youth, as well as economic development initiatives which also address the region’s ongoing environmental health issues. While we support the idea of green initiatives for West Oakland, these projects should not only address existing air-quality and environmental health problems, but also support job creation for youth from economically-disadvantaged neighborhoods. Otherwise, the gap which results in huge economic disparities between new residents of West Oakland and its longterm residents will only increase. Urban Releaf is committed to improving not only the air quality in some of the poorest neighborhoods in District 3, but also the quality of life for all of the district’s inhabitants. It is our hope that the infusion of new blood into Oakland’s City Council will also result in the adoption of programs and initiatives which support this notion.