Tag: Inequality


On Becoming a Historic Resident of Oakland

by Brock Winstead

When knowing your history doesn’t help

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

In March of 2011, after signing our names so many times that our wrists ached, my wife and I took into our weakened hands the keys to a modest wooden rectangle on a slightly larger rectangle of dirt in Oakland’s Golden Gate neighborhood. Never mind that we bought it with borrowed money, we now “owned” a home.

This was something we never thought we’d be able to do when we moved to California in 2004, each from states with far lower costs of living. By the time we finished graduate school and found satisfying but not extravagantly compensated jobs, we’d consigned buying a house in the Bay Area to the same category of laughable impossibilities as commuting to work in a flying jet car or playing the harp.

The messy pop of the housing bubble changed all that. As sources of easy money shriveled and foreclosures swelled, home prices dropped precipitously. We came out okay; our jobs were stable. The crash—that is, the collective misery of those around us—gave us the opportunity to join one of California’s long traditions: the land grab.

We’d been renting in this neighborhood in Oakland’s northwestern corner for more than four years before we bought. We’d seen the area change and mostly, we felt, for the better. Three cafés had opened since we arrived in 2006, followed shortly by a cupcake shop, then a knitting and fabric store. When the latte-drinking, cupcake-eating knitters arrive, you know your neighborhood has arrived, too.

We watched these changes accrete happily, first as renters who were glad to have a spot to grab coffee or a beer just a short walk from our place. Later, as owners, we were excited to see this process of change continue south along the main thoroughfare from the cottage we’d rented toward the house we bought, reassuring us in our investment with every half block’s advance.

This process of change, of course, has a name. “Gentrification” is a dumb word, in the same way that a hammer is a dumb tool, and likewise it must be used with special care. To a lot of people who use the word, everything looks like a nail. It floats in a cloud of imprecise definition, like “middle class” or “pornography.” But we know it when we see it.

http://maps.burritojustice.com/oakland/Click here for full screen map.

So we knew that what gentrification meant in our neighborhood wasn’t just coffee shops opening in long-vacant storefronts. In April 2010, the national brokerage firm ZipRealty named our zip code the second “hottest” in the entire country, as measured by the percentage over asking prices that houses were fetching. This new rebound boom, like those that had come before, was producing winners and losers. We happened to be on the winning side, almost entirely owing to forces beyond our control: the timing of our lives with respect to the crash, the untimely death of a relative whose modest bequest constituted our down payment, and the fact that we’d been born white and able-bodied and the beneficiaries of good educations at great universities. Even that good fortune, however, would not have been sufficient had many others not lost their homes, savings, and livelihoods in the crash.

Plenty of others could see the changes in our neighborhood. To some, these changes spelled opportunity. Actually, they spelled “NOBE.” In the fall of 2012, local real estate agents attempted to brand our area “North Oakland/Berkeley/Emeryville.” One agent produced a video cataloguing the virtues of “NOBE,” interviewing beaming local residents, all relatively recent arrivals like us. It was as if the neighborhood had been a blank spot on the map prior to 2009 and had now been christened by its discoverers in the language of their aspirations.

I wasn’t the only one who found the tone (and tone-deafness) of the NOBE video off-putting. A contingent of local activists had been working to slow displacement and keep the neighborhood affordable and livable for the people who were already there, not just the café-and-cupcakes set that was growing with every “SOLD” sign. These activists saw the rapid increase in housing prices in the area not as opportunity but as oppression, a further kick to a population that was already down. The video was like cold water dropped onto their hot skillet.

The reactions and counter-reactions boiled up, among other places, on our neighborhood email lists and web message boards. I was only an observer to the impassioned debates that followed—I try to avoid arguing on the Internet for my own mental health—but they gave me a lot to chew on. I thought of myself as someone who cared about affordable housing and creating neighborhoods that are accessible to everyone. I agreed, I believed, with the local activists about the problem, and I shared their despair at a lack of substantive local solutions.

I thought I was on their side, but here they were talking about people like me—people who had moved to the neighborhood fairly recently, who had bought houses in the depressed post-crash market, who enjoyed and supported new local businesses—as if we were the enemy. Our presence was an offense. Our individual and collective actions, we were told, were leading to the displacement of the neighborhood’s “historic residents.”

I knew what they meant by that phrase: the mostly lower-income African Americans who had predominated in the neighborhood before people like me started moving in. But that rested on a very narrow definition of history. The loudly denounced NOBE video pretended the neighborhood sprang to life fully formed from the head of the god Re/Max around 2009. The antigentrification activists were doing the same thing, except they’d set the dial on their time machine to about 1970. While I remain wholly sympathetic to those struggling to remain resident in this community, the “historic resident” phrase brought home a more complicated truth about gentrification. This place was not always thus. Neighborhoods are constantly in flux, and change itself is not necessarily where the problem lies.

Watercolor and ink map showing settlements and geographical features of Rancho de San Antonio, 1852. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

About six months before the neighborhood shouting matches reached peak ALL CAPS online, the Census Bureau released the full archive of the 1940 census. My wife and I dug into the forms to find out who had lived in our house seventy-two years before we moved in. We also scanned through the records for the rest of the neighborhood to get a sense of the area’s demographics. The vast majority of residents were working-class laborers and craftspeople. There were some middle-class professionals and a few wealthier outliers. And they were almost all white.

This made me want to know more than the census’s seventy-two-year-old snapshot could tell me. The papers we’d signed said our house was built in 1905. Who lived in our house in the century before us, and who lived on the land before the house was built? Who was displaced when they moved in? If this neighborhood had seen demographic and economic shifts many times before, was the present wave of change just part of a long pattern?

Of course, I had some self-interest in this investigation. If the local antigentrification crowd could use history as a cudgel, perhaps I could use it as a shield. I’m not a historian, but I could play one on the Internet. So that’s what I did. I spent the better part of six months, in-between real work, researching this history. I learned where and how to find old property transfer records. I massaged archival newspaper databases to find traces of long-dead real estate speculators. I located and interviewed the great-grandson of the man who built my house. I had a great time.

By the time I was done playing historian, I’d answered all of the questions that I had started with. But I also realized that history raised even more questions, and it didn’t provide many of the answers I really needed.

The story of my house starts like the story of most of California. The original historical residents of this area, at least as far back as we have any archaeological and historical records, were the Huchiun band of the Ohlone people, whose ancestors migrated here tens of thousands of years ago. They ate from the land and drank from the creek that flows just 750 feet south of my house, now buried underground in a culvert. Their territory bordered areas held by other Ohlone groups with whom they traded, married, and occasionally fought. They had no system of individual land ownership, but this place was theirs—until it wasn’t.

In the first decades of the sixteenth century, Spanish explorers made their way across Mexico and claimed the land to the north for the Spanish crown—even though they had no idea what it was they were claiming. They thought this part of the world was an island, and they named it accordingly after a mythical island from a novel published in 1510: California. By the middle of the 1500s, California was firmly a part of Spanish territory, part of the larger Nueva España. Nobody had the courtesy to inform the Huchiun Ohlone that their neighborhood had been renamed. The Spanish didn’t know they existed. Their earliest explorations up the Pacific coast missed the San Francisco Bay entirely.

It wasn’t until the late 1760s that Spain began settling the northern part of its claim, by then named Alta California. Spanish settlers developed a tripartite pattern of Franciscan missions, forts (presidios), and towns (pueblos). They treated native populations such as the Huchiun Ohlone as cogs in their engine of empire: they were removed from the land, forcibly converted, and put to work in the missions’ agricultural and craft operations. Missions, presidios, and pueblos were small polygons of order in the great unruly geometry of Alta California, with wide stretches between largely ungoverned by the Spanish. They wanted a way to control the rest of the territory and put it to productive use. In the 1780s, they began granting vast tracts of land to prominent men, often as a reward for military service. They called these grants ranchos.

Luis María Peralta, an ex-military and later civilian official in Pueblo San José, was the recipient of one such grant. One warm mid-August day in 1820, Peralta rode north with a small party of companions and a bag lunch. He marked out a claim of nearly 45,000 acres bounded by creeks on the north and south, hills on the east, and the bay on the west, with views of the San Francisco peninsula on the other side. The land would one day comprise all of the present-day cities of Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, Piedmont, Alameda, and part of San Leandro. Peralta called it Rancho San Antonio.

The next year, after a decade-long war, New Spain became the independent Empire of Mexico. Peralta’s claim on his rancho was secure, but he never moved there himself. Instead, his four sons made Rancho San Antonio their home. They moved up from San José during the 1820s and 1830s, bringing their families, building houses, barns, and corrals, and establishing a bustling ranch, with over 2,000 horses and 8,000 head of cattle spread across the land at its peak. Their father had helped clear the land of its previous inhabitants in his soldiering days. But it was the sons who first truly gentrified my neighborhood, in an etymologically literal way not seen since. For twenty-five years after Mexican independence, as far as we can tell, the vast rancho of this landed gentry was largely untroubled by anything but the vicissitudes of weather and perhaps the usual quarrels between brothers and their families.

The fictional island namesake of California was rich in gold, but Spanish settlers never found the precious yellow metal here. James Marshall fulfilled that aspiration when, on the morning of 24 January 1848, he spotted shining nuggets in a mill trace in the Sierra foothills. News spread slowly in the days before widespread telegraphy, but by 1849 the Gold Rush was on.

Another rich nugget of news was also creeping across the continent. Just nine days after Marshall’s find, Mexican and American authorities signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in Mexico City, ending the war between their nations and ceding a huge swath of the West, including Alta California, to the United States. The negotiated treaty included an article guaranteeing the validity of Spanish and later Mexican land grants. When the US Senate ratified the treaty in March, however, Senators struck that provision, throwing those claims into a legally unsettled area. A new set of rules now governed this land, and another wave of displacement was about to begin.

By 1878, the subdivision of north Oakland was well underway. Page from the Thompson & West Atlas of Alameda County from the David Rumsey Collection. © 2000 by Cartography Associates.

California was admitted to the union in September of 1850. As people from all over were still streaming into the Golden State hoping to strike it rich one way or another, the Gold Rush soon produced a land rush. One of the first laws passed by the brand-new California State Legislature allowed squatters to claim up to 160 acres of unoccupied public lands by continuously occupying and cultivating it for a period, with the definitions of both “unoccupied” and “public” often stretched for the benefit of new arrivals.

In 1851, Congress created the Public Land Commission, charged with settling the Spanish and Mexican rancho titles left in the lurch by the amended 1848 Treaty. The grantees were required to present documentary proof of ownership, lest their lands pass automatically into the public domain in two years. Brothers Vicente and Domingo Peralta presented joint claim documents for their half of their father’s ranch—the half that included the land where I now live—in January of 1852.

Not long after the Peralta brothers filed their documents, a wagon arrived on their land bearing George and Lucena Parsons. Tilling the soil on his northern Illinois farm, George learned of the far more lucrative harvest that could supposedly be found with ease in California dirt in late 1849. He developed a powerful case of gold fever. He ditched the farm and headed to Janesville, Wisconsin, where wagon trains were assembling for the journey west. There he met Lucena Pfuffer, the cousin of another member of his still-stationary traveling party. They married on 18 March 1850 and left the next day for California.

Lucena kept a diary for most of their journey, and from that diary we know how she and George wound their way to Utah, wintered in the Salt Lake Valley, and then in February of 1851 resumed their journey through Nevada and into California. By the time they made it to the source of George’s fever dream of easy riches, the Gold Rush had moved into a more established phase, one nearly impossible for newcomers to enter. They traveled on, eventually making their way to a spot on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay, about three miles north of the brand new town of Oakland, which was incorporated in 1852. It was here, on land they had no right to occupy, that they established a farm. They grew beans and onions. They grew peaches that won awards at the fair. They grew children.

All over the East Bay, farmers like the Parsons were squatting on Peralta land. Rustlers were stealing Peralta cattle and felling Peralta timber, all to feed the appetites of the growing boomtown across the bay. Even as they submitted their Public Land Commission claim, the Peraltas were watching their estate disappear bit by stolen bit. Political power at every level was shifting to the English-speaking newcomers, and Spanish-speaking Californios found themselves on the losing side of that change.

A much wealthier and better-connected group had been scheming for portions of the Rancho San Antonio well before the Parsons arrived. These men convinced Vicente and Domingo Peralta to begin selling their land, in part to pay their legal bills, even before the Public Land Commission made its ruling. By 1853, both brothers had sold the majority of their holdings to a group of squatter-investors that came to include San Francisco Sherriff John C. Hays, US Senator William Gwin (coincidentally, author of the law that created the Public Land Commission), and William Tecumseh Sherman, who managed a bank on our Pacific shore a decade before he marched across Georgia and burned Atlanta down.

After lengthy appeals, Vicente and Domingo Peralta’s land claim wound up before the US Supreme Court in 1856. The Court ruled that they had rightfully owned all the land that they had already sold away. Through all the legal turmoil, George and Lucena Parsons had continued building a family and a farm on their parcel, now labeled Plot Number 40 on the official map of the Peralta lands. They failed as squatters, but they did well enough as farmers to purchase the full seventy-four acres from its post-Peralta owners in 1858 for $2,590.

Vicente and Domingo Peralta, meanwhile, had been left with only a few hundred of the roughly 9,400 acres their father had deeded each of them. Their cattle were stolen, their patrimony was lost, and the Californio ranch culture was fading rapidly. They were historic residents, but that counted for little in the new order.

In the late 1860s, newspaper advertisements in this area shifted from offering prime farmland to touting tracts suitable for subdivision. As the growing city of Oakland spread northward and local transit lines sprang up, the Parsons began to cash in. In 1869, Oakland became the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad. The same year, George and Lucena sold a seventeen-acre portion of their farm—the land that now contains my house.

The new owner of this parcel was DeWitt Clinton Gaskill. He had made his fortune selling mining supplies in the northern gold fields. He bought the Parsons land while still living in Butte County, but did nothing with it for several years. When he finally relocated to Oakland in 1877, all around him people seemed to be making fortunes turning the productive farmland into housing parcels. He filed a subdivision map for his seventeen acres and sold most of his lots by the end of that year.

He did so just in the nick of time. The country was still reeling from the Panic of 1873 and the recession that followed. Unemployment in California was high and still rising. The primary cause of the boom around Gaskill’s property was land speculation, not a genuine demand for new houses. The bubble popped and real estate values plummeted.

Over the next decade, the economy recovered, development accelerated, and houses began to replace the farms on the Gaskill tract and neighboring parcels. By 1890, the area wasn’t yet fully developed, but the farmers were almost entirely gone. (George Parsons, the farmer who had owned my land before Gaskill, had died from a terribly metaphorical blow in August of 1882: he was thrown from his wagon against a car of the new railroad connecting a neighborhood station to the San Francisco ferry pier.) Once more, historic residents were giving way to new arrivals: middle- and working-class residents commuting by rail to downtown Oakland and via ferry to San Francisco. It would take an unexpected cataclysm, though, to finalize the neighborhood’s transition to something resembling what it is today.

In July of 1905, railroad worker John Kavanagh and his wife Johanna bought a 50-by-91-foot lot in the Gaskill tract. A small house occupied the lot’s western half. The previous owners had rented it to a succession of working-class tenants for the previous decade. John and Johanna moved into that house with their two teenaged sons, John, Jr. and Matthew. The neighborhood, which had been annexed into the city of Oakland in 1897, was still sparsely developed, with as many empty lots as houses on most blocks.

Home Owners Loan Corporation map, 1937. Courtesy LaDale Winling.

Less than a year later, on the morning of 18 April 1906, the Kavanaghs’ investment received a tremendous boost when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake clapped just off the coast of San Francisco, shaking the city apart and setting much of it on fire. Oakland and the East Bay fared much better, and roughly 200,000 suddenly homeless San Franciscans fled on eastbound ferries. Three quarters of the refugees decided to stay. The aptly named but sparsely developed Golden Gate neighborhood would not remain that way for long.

In 1907, John Kavanagh built a new, larger house on the eastern half of his lot. A few years later, in 1911 or 1912, he tore down the old house and built a duplicate of the newer one in its place. His twin houses still stand today. The slightly younger twin is my home. John, Sr. would go on to build a third house next door. When John, Jr. married, he moved into one of the houses with his wife, Marie. They eventually had two sons of their own, William and John.

All around the Kavanaghs, lots were filling in. By 1925, the neighborhood had taken the form that it still holds: a streetcar suburb with a central commercial strip; relatively close transit connections to downtown Oakland and San Francisco; a mix of Victorian houses and early Craftsman bungalows, some apartment buildings, and, here and there, a reminder of a previous age in the form of a larger estate home or old farmhouse.

This is the neighborhood captured in the 1940 census files that my wife and I pored over in 2012. We found Marie Kavanagh (widowed by the 1936 death of John, Jr.) living in what is now our house with her sons, William and John, then in their twenties. The Kavanaghs were surrounded by people of mostly similar incomes, backgrounds, and race.

We found another description of the area in the same period prepared by the federally backed Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in 1937: “occasionally there are several blocks which are practically free of coloreds or Orientals, but…certain blocks…are nearly 100% Negro and constantly spreading.” Based on that assessment, the section of Oakland including my neighborhood had been assigned the HOLC’s worst loan risk grade, and on the corporation’s maps, the area was colored red.

“Redlining,” as it became known, meant that people in the area couldn’t qualify for federally guaranteed loans, or pretty much any loans, to buy, build, or renovate a house. Redlining operated in concert with racially restrictive covenants that prohibited property owners from selling or leasing to certain groups, especially African Americans. As the Huchiun Ohlone and then the Peralta family had learned, the law does not serve everyone equally. It’s usually not designed to.

By 1940, these mechanisms were already prompting those who could afford mobility—mostly whites—to move out of the area, but it was war that led most directly to my neighborhood’s next major shift. World War II shoveled great heaps of federal money into defense industrial centers, including the Bay Area. Like the Gold Rush nearly a century before, the bonanza of jobs in shipyards and factories drew people here from all over the country, especially African Americans from the South. Redlining and other systems set up before the war meant that these black immigrants and those who came after them, through the 1950s and 1960s, were largely restricted to living in certain neighborhoods, such as the band sweeping north from West Oakland into South Berkeley, which includes my Golden Gate neighborhood.

In 1940, the census tract containing my neighborhood was 96 percent White. The HOLC area captured in that 1937 description was larger than the census tract, and included more African American residents south of where I now live. By 1950, the tract was 70 percent White and 28 percent “Negro.” Over the next ten years, those numbers flipped: the 1960 census showed the tract as 69 percent Black and 28 percent White. By 1970, it was 85 percent Black and 12 percent White.

“Historic residents” like the Kavanaghs, who helped give this neighborhood its shape, fled. Marie was one of the last. She left in 1970. A few years later, the family sold her house—now my house—to Willie and Maud Turner, an African American couple. Willie had migrated here from the South, probably for a wartime manufacturing job, and he was working as a janitor. He and Maud had been renting in the neighborhood for several years before they bought this house.

This was the era of the historic residents that our neighborhood antigentrification activists refer to when they use that phrase. From there, it’s a short hop to the present—and to the period of their displacement, which we are now in.

Maud Turner eventually sold the house to Charlotte Rose, whom everyone around here called Lottie. Lottie owned more than two dozen properties in the area through the 1990s and into the 2000s, operating a quiet rental empire, and earning the respect of her neighbors for her support for local organizations, the library, and neighborhood beautification. After Lottie died, and in the wake of our modern Great Recession and the real estate speculation that followed, her son David took the house off the rental market, renovated it, and sold it to my wife and me in 2011.


And there my research came full circle. I had found most of what I was looking for when I started this project. I had found many of the documents and the maps, the names and dates, and some of the personal and family stories that comprise the history of human habitation—at least for the last few centuries—of the place where I now live.

I found in that history the pattern that I expected. One group pushes out another group, often aided by forces much larger than themselves: a royal army, a Gold Rush, an earthquake, racism, the law, or the gears of capitalism turning. Those gears grind some people to dust. Others manage to harness their power to make fortunes large and small. Whether a person ends up as the machine’s operator or its input is often not determined by anything resembling merit or even by individual decisions, however much we might like to pretend otherwise.

I could conclude that this is the way of all the earth. It’s tempting, really, to see myself as simply a mote swept along in a wave of change. Displacement isn’t my fault. I’m just a particle man, “doing the things a particle can.” When I started this project, part of me was looking for that kind of absolution.

I didn’t find it, and I realized eventually that I was foolish to have ever gone looking. Instead, I found a growing discomfort with the pattern of our history. I found a deeper connection with this place and with the people who had been here before. I found more empathy for those who had wound up on the losing side of the changes that have swept through this place time and again, including the changes happening now, of which I am a part, not just a particle.

The author’s house in Oakland’s Golden Gate neighborhood.

And that, for me, is the rub—now.

I still think “historic residents” is the wrong way to talk about this very real problem. We can’t and shouldn’t pin a neighborhood or a city to a particular historical period. Even if the buildings stay in place, people don’t. The sense of who constitutes the historic residents of a neighborhood can change in a few decades; an individual’s name—George Parsons, Maud Turner, Brock Winstead—can disappear even faster.

I don’t want to dismiss the possibility of righting the wrongs of the past. But when my neighborhood has a shouting match or, perhaps more productively, when we talk about housing and development policy in the city, the region, or the state, we’re talking about addressing the problems of the present. Knowing that this cycle repeats through history doesn’t absolve us from building cities that are inclusive and accessible to as many people as possible, not because they’re “historic residents,” but because they’re people. Our responsibility is not just to the residents here now, who suffer when change displaces them, but also to those of the future, here and elsewhere.

It’s likely too late for my neighborhood’s historic residents. Barring a seismic or economic cataclysm, the gentrification of Golden Gate will continue until the neighborhood is remade. I walk out of my front door every day and push that process forward one more step. When the hammer comes down again—and we know it will—how do we protect those most likely to get squashed? Learning the history of this place did not lead me to an answer, but it taught me that we must find one, because the question will be posed again, here and all around us, as long as California continues to change.


Image at top: Hand-drawn map of the Peralta Rancho San Antonio land grant, 1840s. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.


The Atlas of California: Mapping the Challenge of a New Era

For decades a global leader, inspiring the hopes and dreams of millions, California has recently faced double-digit unemployment, multi-billion dollar budget deficits and the loss of trillions in home values. This atlas brings together the latest research and statistics in a graphic form that gives shape and meaning to these numbers. It shows a new California in the making, as it maps the economic, social, and political trends of a state struggling to maintain its leadership and to continue to offer its citizens the promise of prosperity.

Among the world’s largest economies, California is the nation’s agricultural powerhouse, high tech crucible and leader in renewable energy. The state is the most populous and most diverse state in the continental U.S. Yet its infrastructure is coming under increasing pressure. Water supply systems are strained, the legendary highways are over capacity, and the celebrated system of public schooling is unable to offer affordable quality education at all levels. Health and welfare services, particularly for the poor, needy, disabled, and seniors, are at great risk.

Richard Walker and Suresh Lodha’s The Atlas of California shows a new California in the making.


Stages of Learning

by Liane Brouillette and Ilona Virginia Missakian

From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

Theater and language in San Diego schools

Known for its sunny beaches and mild Mediterranean climate, its tourist attractions and international conventions, San Diego is a popular travel destination. Yet this cultured and cosmopolitan city has another face, which is little known to outsiders. East of downtown and south of the Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway lies the area locals call “the Southeast.” Through the last three decades, it has been plagued by gang violence, homicide, and poverty. In fact, its reputation was so bad back in 1992 that Councilman George Stevens campaigned against any official use of the designation “Southeast San Diego,” pointing to the term’s perceived negative connotations.

Yet something significant has been happening in the elementary schools in this part of the city. While schools in the coastal and northern areas of San Diego have usually scored well, now innovative programs have begun to energize schools in neighborhoods that were once left behind. This includes the Southeast, a diverse area with nearly 90 percent of the population distributed among Latino, Filipino/Southeast Asian, and African American groups. In state tests for the 2009–2010 school year, San Diego ranked first among California’s seven large urban districts in language arts and science, and third in mathematics. One factor leading to these advances was an intriguing, grant-funded program that draws on the arts to teach literacy in schools where budget constraints limit options and art programs have long been absent.1 The power of the arts, not only to help with language learning but to encourage children from diverse backgrounds to bond during creative activities, has been striking. But the mechanisms through which arts integration works are still not widely understood.

Transcending language barriers in the classroom

A moment during a theater arts lesson captures the role of imagination in helping children connect to new vocabulary. As a kindergarten teacher in southeastern San Diego gazes around the circle of sixteen children who stand facing her, they keep their feet together and arms at their sides. “Actors,” she says quietly, “touch your nose if you’re ready.” Giggling, each child does so. “Let’s act like we’re so cold that we are shaking. Brrrrrrr.” Children shiver dramatically. “If we were hot, what would it look like?” They mime wiping sweat from their foreheads. “What if you were reading a book?” Each child turns the pages of an unseen book.

With an arts teacher, students work on vocabulary through movement. Photograph by Liane Brouillette.

Glancing around the circle, the teacher can immediately see when a child needs assistance. When the school year began, few of these children knew more than a few words in English. Three months into the school year, some still glance quickly at their peers before responding. Yet, the light-hearted mood is unmistakable. The motions that accompany the teacher’s words enable the children to follow along easily. “Now, I want you to use your first grade voice, even though you’re still in kindergarten . . .”

Although these theater arts activities may seem like play, they have a serious curricular intent. Theater activities, along with music, dance, and visual arts, provide a powerful medium for experiencing and communicating. A dozen teachers interviewed about their experiences affirmed some of the gains they witnessed students acquire. In September, most of the children barely spoke above a whisper during theater lessons. Now, as winter break approaches, they step forward and introduce themselves with confidence. In describing the impact of the theater arts lessons, their teacher emphasizes the enhanced sense of camaraderie, teamwork, and motivation she sees in her class this year.

Another teacher describes how two very shy students blossomed during theater lessons, “broadening their vocabulary and . . . just showing a lot more confidence. [They] . . . participat[ed] more throughout the day, not just during theater but through our shared reading or during math.” Discussing how a fairy tale character’s feelings piqued interest and also boosted language acquisition, a third teacher observed, “I’ve compared my kids this year, right now in November and early December, to where they usually are in April or May. The quality of talk that I’m getting from the students right now is just amazing. The kids are just opening up. I didn’t see that until the spring [in previous years], and I’m seeing it now.”

Second grade students plan a dramatic scene together. Photograph by Denise Lynne.

A dance lesson builds upon prior learning experiences through music and movement, echoing the processes that children go through when first learning to communicate. Mirroring their teacher’s motions, children experiment with new vocabulary words: they “ascend” as they mime, growing like a flower or flying like a bird; they “descend” by pretending to sink under water or melt like ice. Physical and sound cues (syllables and rhythms) allow children to use their bodies to grasp meaning and understand verbal instructions. In visual art lessons, children draw and organize representations of their evolving mental models of the world, coming to terms with fears and desires in a safe space, before describing the content of their pictures to peers.

Research shows that if ELLs (English Language Learners) are to learn English fast enough to succeed in school, practice with oral language is critical. Regrettably, in many urban classrooms, the opportunities for one-on-one verbal interaction between teacher and pupil are limited by rising class sizes and a highly structured curriculum. Performing arts activities allow a teacher to interact with many children at once. Arts integration is especially effective at the onset of students’ learning a new language—when children understand more words than they can produce. Given the chance, children will exhibit gestures, behaviors, and nonverbal responses that indicate understanding of what they’ve heard. Performing arts activities allow children to build vocabulary in a manner that grows naturally out of their nonverbal responses.

Students demonstrate a character enactment for each other. Photograph by Jasmine Yep.

Bringing the arts back to school

The collapse of arts education funding in California has, unfortunately, made scenes like the ones just described exceedingly rare. A 2007 study by SRI International found that 90 percent of California elementary schools fail to provide a standards-aligned course of study across all four arts disciplines—visual art, music, theater, and dance—with theater and dance most often skipped.2 Although the recent fiscal crisis has resulted in still more cuts to arts education, collaboration between teaching artists and school districts may help to bring the arts back.

The K-2 Teaching Artist Project (TAP), a collaboration between the San Diego Unified School District and the University of California, Irvine, uses arts integration to boost the literacy skills and social-emotional development of children in fifteen high-poverty area schools with large numbers of ELLs.3 During their first year in the program, teachers co-teach twenty-seven weekly arts-and-literacy lessons (divided equally among theater, dance, and visual art) with teaching artists employed by the San Diego Visual and Performing Arts Department (VAPA). In their second year in the program, classroom teachers implement the same lessons on their own with support from VAPA resource teachers.

The goal of the program is for teachers to become comfortable using arts-based strategies to provide multimodal learning opportunities in all content areas. The Teaching Artist Project was a product of serendipity. San Diego city schools have a proud history of excellence in the arts; dedicated professionals continue to show how much can be accomplished through targeted assistance, with minimal investment in supplies. Visual and Performing Arts Director Karen Childress-Evans and resource teacher Denise Lynne believed strongly—based on their own experiences—that the arts could be a powerful resource for preparing K-2 teachers to expand the oral language skills of ELLs. In 2007, they shared their ideas with one of the authors, a researcher with the UC Irvine Center for Learning through the Arts, Sciences and Sustainability (CLASS).

Originally called “The daVinci Center,” CLASS was first set up to serve the UC ArtsBridge network, which sends advanced arts students to co-teach with classroom teachers in arts-poor public schools. The Center’s mission was broadened after the demand for ArtsBridge residencies waned following passage of the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2001, with its single-minded focus on literacy and math. Urban schools, under pressure to raise standardized test scores, became hesitant to “waste” time on the arts. This hesitancy, along with budgetary constraints, gradually eliminated standards-based arts instruction from most urban schools in low-income neighborhoods. Ironically, recent research indicates that well-designed arts integration actually boosts student achievement in language arts.

Implications for the future

For the San Diego and UC Irvine partners, the opportunity to reinvigorate arts in the curriculum and to show that arts-based strategies can boost the achievement of ELLs was exciting. Soon a grant proposal was in the works. From a policy perspective, however, the salient characteristic of the K-2 Teaching Artist Project partnership was the active involvement of both school and university personnel. The University of California has a tradition of public scholarship; but, in recent years, the definition of “research” has narrowed. Faculty have, therefore, channeled their efforts toward writing for academic journals, leaving limited time for meaningful engagement in public problem-solving that broadened the scope of their efforts.

Yet, in times of diminished resources, the university is one of the few institutions that still has assets to invest in addressing state-wide problems. Numerous faculty would undoubtedly lend their talents to public initiatives if university policy enabled them to do so without sacrificing other important career goals. Perhaps the time has come to make productive public engagement a more prominent component of the mission of California’s public universities.

First graders start a giant banner together. Photograph by Lynne Jennings.

In San Diego, a border city where 30.2 percent of students are English Learners and 59 percent receive free or reduced price meals, finding effective ways of educating ELLs is an urgent priority. And San Diego is not alone. In recent decades, the United States has experienced a dramatic increase in children entering school whose home language is not English. Presently, this population comprises 10 percent of all students, or five million, of whom nearly one-third are in California.4 This is a young population: According to the California Department of Education, ELLs comprise 25 percent of the state’s kindergartners. In a time of budgetary austerity, there is a tendency to react to such statistics with a sense of numbness. However, children now in kindergarten cannot wait until the economy rebounds.

The need to educate California’s future workforce compels more than reflection. The Teaching Artist Project powerfully demonstrates that hope and resilience can be stimulated by the arts, some institutional collaboration, and a modest injection of outside funding.


1. Made possible by an Improving Teacher Quality (ITQ) grant administered by the California Department of Education.

2.The report can be found at the Stanford Research Institute link at http://policyweb.sri.com/cep/projects/displayProject.jsp?Nick=artsed.

3. Streaming videos, lesson plans, and other materials created for the K-2 Teaching Artist Project theater and curriculum are available, free-of-charge, on the website of the UC Irvine Center for Learning in the Arts, Sciences, and Sustainability, at: http://www.class.uci.edu/theatre-grades and http://www.class.uci.edu/dance-grades. To view the videos and lesson plans, click on a grade level, and then on a specific lesson.

4. Thomas B. Parrish, Maria Pérez, Amy Merickel, and Robert Linquanti, Effects of the Implementation of Proposition 227 on the Education of English Learners, K-12: Findings from a Five-Year Evaluation (Sacramento, CA: American Institutes for Research and WestEd, 2006).


Talking with Tenants Together

by Sasha Abramsky
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

The journalist Sasha Abramsky talks to Gabe Treves, one of the organizers of Tenants Together, the San Francisco-based advocacy group, about the impact of the foreclosure crisis on rental tenants.

California has always been defined by its bubbles—and almost as much by its busts.

The state was birthed in the Gold Rush as tens of thousands of Americans stampeded west in search of a quick fortune. In the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, dreamers seeking to reinvent themselves and carve out new destinies have flocked into the state by the millions and California has floated on Hollywood money, defense contracts, technology booms, and real-estate speculation.

The corollary of the outlandish boom is the crippling bust. In the 1870s, following a devastating financial crisis, unemployment soared, political discontent escalated, and eventually a constitutional convention was called to rewrite the state’s fundamental operating procedures. California’s “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War was a mixture of unemployment, social-service cutbacks, and rage, resulting in a populace increasingly hostile to government and unwilling to part with tax dollars to fund social infrastructure. When tech stocks crashed a few years later, the effects ricocheted through Silicon Valley—some of the wealthiest counties in all America. Today, in the wake of the housing collapse that began in 2006 and the financial meltdown that followed in 2008, one in eight Californian workers is unemployed; a similar number are underemployed (working part-time, despite wanting and needing full employment); and property owners by the thousands have gone into foreclosure or simply walked away from underwater mortgages, sometimes devastating whole communities.

Long defined by an anything-is-possible mindset, Californians are having to adjust to the realities of hard times. For generations, real estate in California has offered a route to prosperity; now, for millions of Californians it is an albatross. Five of the ten cities with the highest foreclosure rates in the country are in California: Modesto, Merced, Stockton, Riverside/San Bernardino, and Bakersfield.

And the damage is not limited to homeowners. Increasingly, California’s renters are being hammered. Landlords default on their mortgages and disappear with their tenants’ security deposits; banks reclaim delinquent homes and become absentee landlords; investors buy these properties at auction; and all illegally evict the old tenants. Tenants who have spent years carefully building up good credit find that they have an eviction on their credit report and their ability to borrow money—for example, to buy a home for themselves—disappears.

Gabe Treves at work (photograph © Sasha Abramsky)

At Tenants Together in San Francisco, fielding calls from desperate renters being evicted as a consequence of a landlord going into foreclosure has become a full-time occupation for the staff.

Sasha Abramsky: Can you tell readers who you are?

Gabe Treves: I’m the program coordinator at Tenants Together. Among the many things I do is manage the foreclosure hotline, which we launched early in 2009. While a lot of attention is given to the plight of homeowners facing foreclosure, for the most part tenants are forgotten victims. However, it turns out that one out of every three foreclosed properties in California is a rental. In 2008, over 200,000 tenants were in foreclosed properties and were facing displacement. We haven’t yet run the numbers for 2009. But we assume it’s right around the same level.

Unfortunately, the reality for most tenants is that once the house they’re living in is foreclosed and the property is acquired by a bank or private investors, they want the tenants out as soon as possible—really by any means necessary. They contact real-estate agents whose job is to get rid of these tenants. They knock on their doors, misinform them, harass them, and bully them into leaving as soon as possible. They succeed in many cases. But the tenants are actually entitled to certain protections under federal law, state law, or in some cases city-level ordinances. Our counselors explain to them what their rights are and how to go about asserting them. The idea is that if tenants know their rights they will be able to stay in their homes for as long as possible and can use that time to find another suitable living situation—or in some cases actually stay in their houses.

SA: How many tenants do you work with?

GT: Since we launched in March 2009 we have counseled over 3,000 tenants.

SA: Where are most of them from?

GT: Well, you know, we get a lot of our calls from San Diego, a lot from Los Angeles—just because it’s such a big county—from parts of the Central Valley being very hard hit by the foreclosure crisis, from the San Jose area. Really from all over the state.

SA: Didn’t Tenants Together work with many people in the desert town of Ridgecrest? What happened in that community?

GT: It’s a great example of how our hotline can help tenants in foreclosure situations. In 2009 we started getting a lot of calls from tenants in Ridgecrest, most living in a handful of apartment complexes in the same couple of streets, all telling the same story. Suddenly, despite paying their rent on time, they learned their home was being foreclosed and they were facing eviction. Ridgecrest is a small city in Kern County, one of the most conservative counties in California. We decided to go down there, talk to the tenants, and find out what was going on. Onsite we were able to identify a few great tenant leaders and help them pressure their city government, the board of supervisors, to pass an ordinance protecting renters. With a lot of hard work and organizing they succeeded; the Ridgecrest City Council passed the Central Valley’s first Just Cause for Eviction ordinance in September 2009. It lists all of the reasons for which tenants can be evicted: if they don’t pay their rent, if they are disruptive, if they do anything illegal on or with the premises. Of course, it does not list foreclosure. This meant that when those properties were acquired by a new owner, the new owner could not evict the tenants. As a result, a huge number of tenants in Ridgecrest are now able to stay in their homes—the new owner has to serve as their landlord.

SA: But many cities in California don’t have these protections.

GT: Unfortunately, only sixteen cities in California have Just-Cause ordinances. That means in most of the state tenants have limited protections. Most are protected by the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, a federal law passed in May 2009. It was a major victory, but it’s still not as good as the city-level ordinances. It just extends the amount of time tenants can stay in their home after it is foreclosed. In some cases, if the tenants have a long-term lease, then it gives them the right to stay in their homes through the term of the lease.

SA: How has the foreclosure crisis changed California?

GT: What it changes is the way people perceive their sense of stability. A lot of tenants thought they had earned the right to claim that stability, that because they always paid their rent on time and did everything by the book they effectively had the right to their home. The foreclosure crisis has been a really harsh lesson about the illusory nature of that sense of stability. It’s been very demoralizing for a lot of people.

SA: How has it changed people’s behavior?

GT: People are more cautious, less trusting. It’s changed the relationship of many people with their landlords. The crisis, which has displaced so many people, makes a lot of people reflect on their communities. When they get suddenly displaced and are forced to move away, they have to reassess all the things they used to take for granted—the value of living near their jobs, near their schools, things like that. I’ve noticed that poor, working-class tenants have dealt with the situation differently from well-to-do tenants. A lot of poor tenants are resigned to this kind of thing; the foreclosure crisis just reinforces that they don’t have a lot of control and even when they pay their rent on time that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to secure the stability that their families need. A lot of them tell me, “Oh, that’s just the way it is.” They understand that security, stability, well-being are not in their domain, because they’re the working poor.

But a lot of well-to-do tenants, who felt they had earned that right and were entitled to some protections, are learning that they’re not. And that’s been very hard for a lot of people. It creates a lot of anxiety, a lot of mental stress. When that sense of security is violated and the sense of home is damaged or destroyed, it’s going to be very difficult for them to ever really reclaim it.

SA: Are you seeing towns where people are just leaving?

GT: There are whole towns, whole neighborhoods that have been blighted. They’re vacant. When people think about the foreclosure crisis they think about the individual occupant, but it can affect entire communities, businesses. If all the tenants in a community leave, it affects the businesses in that community, the schools, the social services. I’ve gotten calls from tenants: “The house to the left and the house to the right of me have been vacant for months.” They’re getting pushed out too, and they know their home will just join all the other vacant houses sitting on the block.

SA: If you compare what’s happening in California to what’s happening nationally, it looks like California’s bubble was bigger and now the bust is bigger. How is this changing the psyche of California?

GT: It comes back to Californian exceptionalism. I think Californians have always held a belief that if they work hard, do things by the book, they can claim that sense of stability, security, well-being. And now that sense is being deflated for a lot of people. They start feeling like the rest of the country—that they’re not exceptional, that they can just as easily fall victim to these massive national trends and institutions. I hope it helps people realize that their best chance to achieve real security is to pressure their city governments and the state and federal governments to pass more sensible legislation to protect tenants. And I hope that tenants will start holding the banks accountable for what they do and will pressure them to adopt more sensible policies and more humane policies. Because otherwise everyone loses. B