Faith, Fat Chances, and Gentrification


Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I’m always talking about gentrification, displacement, and diversity. That’s one of the reasons why I was commenting earlier this month in a #DiverseBookBloggers thread about how we need books by authors of color about neighborhood change. Then I happened to pick up Carla Trujillo’s Faith and Fat Chances and found exactly that conversation on the page.

Faith and Fat Chances takes place in a (as far as I can tell) fictional community right outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico called Dogtown that is being threatened by a winery development that would force most of the residents to relocate elsewhere. Just fyi, for anyone who has read What Night Brings, Trujillo’s first novel about a child growing up in a household of domestic violence, Faith and Fat Chances feels like a much lighter read.

Faith and Fat ChancesI didn’t find the book as riveting as I wanted it to be. Some of the characters seemed underdeveloped and the plot moved slower than I’m used to. That being said, I really loved a couple of the main characters, especially Pepa, an older curandera (a type of folk healer) whom all the residents of Dogtown come to with their ailments, both physical and spiritual.

I also enjoyed Tala, a character whose brother is trying to build the despised winery, and who leads the fight to try and save their town. Tala and several other characters fall on the LGBT spectrum, which is great since more books need gender and sexual orientation diversity. Many of the residents of Dogtown are Latino, and the book has lots of Spanglish going on, which felt important to the story voice.

There’s also a healthy dose of magical realism here, which in my opinion usually makes a book more intriguing. Think: a mysterious rain that menaces the town and won’t stop until people get their *ish* together. A few other details like this add some of the humor and lightness to the book.

I can’t help but wonder if Trujillo was interested to write on this subject matter given that she’s a Bay Area local, where the conversation around gentrification and demographic change has been raging for years. While Dogtown’s landscape looks a lot different from that of Oakland or San Francisco, I kept getting eerie chills on hearing the rhetoric of the developers and the mayor of the fake city. It hits close to home.

While I’ve seen a lot of nonfiction, especially online articles, talking about changing neighborhoods, there are fewer fiction books that I’ve come across that really address the topic. One that does come to mind is Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, a large family drama set in present-day Detroit (great book, go read it!). But I’m hoping that talking about gentrification is a new trend in literature.

Who Is Oakland

Seeing Cities

Who Is Oakland

Intro wall for Oakland Museum’s “Who Is Oakland” exhibit.

Glancing through a national magazine this week I saw an article about Oakland that started with this:

Talk about core strength: Oakland’s urban center has gone from dodgy to trendy as newcomers fill its forgotten architectural gems with happening new restaurants, bars, and shops.

Hearing such remarks about Oakland doesn’t surprise me anymore — in fact it’s pretty much all I’ve heard about Oakland from people who don’t live here, as well as from a lot of the people who do. But it still makes me sad. The underlying message is that Oakland wasn’t a place to be before the “newcomers” arrived to make it spiffy and fun.

Full disclosure: I’ve only been in Oakland a few years myself. So I can’t say from personal experience what it was like in the past. But I know that thousands of people lived here. Diversity abounded. There were local jobs, and plenty of people grew up and raised families here. In short, Oakland was home to many, many people, just as it is today.

I would never want to sugarcoat it and say that Oakland was perfect before. The city has, and always will struggle with a variety of the issues that dense places tend to struggle with. And again, I wasn’t here to make any definitive statements about what the before looked like. But what I’m wishing is that we could at least respect peoples’ history here. I want us to stop pretending that Oakland was just some vacant wasteland of crime and poverty before the people with money decided they wanted to invest in the city again. That story just isn’t true.

I’m worried about the way that new folks approach the cities that are repopulating with wealth and whiteness across the U.S. When we get somewhere new to visit, to live, are we really looking for the good things that are already here, or are we looking to make that place ours and fill it with the things that are important to us?

Maybe it’s an overly-rosy view to think that we can all live and thrive here together, but that is where I fall. New, old, black, white, multicolored, queer, straight, differently-abled, etc. folks coexisting and supporting each other is sort of the dream of what Oakland is all about. So before we go denouncing Oakland’s past, or any other city’s past, let’s make sure we actually realize the richness that sources from it.

telegraph hill

A Trip Across the Bay

telegraph hill

Doing a photo walk of San Francisco’s North Beach area has me contemplating that age-old Oakland vs. San Francisco rivalry. I’ve been through so many versions of this conversation — the one where someone says anything great about the city they live in and then those living on the other side of the bridge have to come back with a reason for why their city is better. Back and forth.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone — I’ll defend Oakland’s awesomeness to the end. (Seriously though, it’s 10 degrees warmer here — is there really still a question?) But under the friendly rivalry about Oakland being better than San Francisco there are some complicated truths, some realities that make it hard to see this banter as just a game, especially from the Oakland perspective.

Truth One: San Francisco is an undeniably pretty city.

San Francisco Financial Districtdoorplantcoit towerfog hill marketstairs

The water. The bridges. The hills. The architecture. The greenery. From an aesthetic point of view there’s a lot to love about the city. There’s a mystery and quaintness to all those little alleys and 45 degree streets.

But all that beauty is tainted by the reality of how hard it is to afford to live there, especially the parts that make the front of postcards.

Which brings us to Truth Two, one most Oaklanders have understood for quite a while: San Francisco is an exclusive city.

When I see a building like this, with a balcony overlooking the Bay Bridge, I wonder who lives there. Probably either someone with a lot of money or someone who is in rent-controlled unit and has been there for a very long time. You could even put your money on both.

San Francisco view

And when I see a rare empty lot in the area I have suspicions about who owns the land and how much money they will make in selling it or putting up some real estate.

empty lot

What I struggle with in being in San Francisco is a feeling of alienation, that I am not meant for any of the city’s residential space. Instead I am relegated only the occasional entertainment or shopping. Or perhaps I am only meant to pass through. It is not a city I find easy to be comfortable in.

It’s not that San Francisco has zero affordable housing or that Oakland isn’t struggling with the same challenges of rising costs. Most of Oakland is quickly skyrocketing in price toward comparable levels, and we’re rapidly losing our diversity. I think all of us in Oakland realize how much of a cautionary tale our sister city represents across the Bay.

But for now there is still some integrated diversity in Oakland, even as it declines and we struggle to hold onto what’s left. Oakland still very much feels different from its completely gentrified counterpart. Things are changing, but there’s a hope that not everything will change if we plan our cities smart enough and quickly enough, if we protect the people who are most vulnerable to being pushed out.

So maybe there is a little bite to those conversations about which city is better. On the Oakland side maybe there’s a defensiveness and a fight to protect the diversity and the affordability that Oakland has known in its past.

And I can’t speak firsthand, but perhaps on the San Francisco side it hurts to acknowledge what one might be losing by living there. Even as you relish the charm and beauty of your neighborhood, I wonder if you might feel the absence the kinds of people you don’t meet because they can’t afford to be your neighbor.

golden gate

So Oakland vs. San Francisco? Let the debate rage on. But be gentle to us over here in Oaktown. We’ve got a lot to lose.

social justice and permaculture

Social Justice and the Permaculture Movement: Where Do They Intersect?

social justice and permaculture

My Southern black grandmother grew up on a farm in the years before they migrated to San Francisco as part of the Great Migration. I’ve heard her talk about her childhood family life a number of times. Her stories of growing their own food, the backbreaking work of caring for their own livestock, and the necessity of older children taking care of the younger ones always felt so removed from my clean, amenity-rich life growing up in a quiet California suburb.

Her stories have also always felt disconnected in my mind from the permaculture and urban farming movements of today. These sustainable lifestyle choices seemed branded by (often white) liberals in a way to which I sometimes still have a hard time relating. Living in Oakland it’s hard not to see the ways that urban homesteading and urban farming can be tools of gentrification and displacement if not integrated into the full richness of the community fabric.

But my grandmother’s experiences growing up and the modern permaculture movement are not supposed to be separate. While I don’t consider myself a part of the permaculture movement, I know that its participants aim to live off the land in a more sustainable way, particularly when it comes to growing one’s own food. The deep wisdom and reliance on the earth that black folks, indigenous peoples, and many other communities of color have cultivated for centuries is permaculture.