Cultural Sustainability in the New (Oakland)

by Randolph Belle

The (Oakland) in the title of this submission can probably be swapped out for many cities across the country, but the concept of cultural sustainability has been an increasingly pressing issue for me of late. I look at my role in the arts community, my existence as an African American and what distinction should be made for me as an African American cultural worker.  The conversation for me then turns to what other’s roles are and what effort should be made in recognizing and maintaining the contributions of individual cultural groups in what some would call a post-racial society.

With so much talk of environmental sustainability, I find it ironic, and myself left a bit empty, with the thought that we could save the planet and lose a people. Recent reports confirmed by the latest census data shows that Oakland has lost 25% of its African American population in less than a decade. It could be said that as the people go, so does the culture.  Oakland is right where San Francisco was a few decades ago when I was growing up there, (and we know how that one turned out), but having been one of the more active arts participants in Oakland for the past twenty years, I feel uniquely qualified and personally compelled to fully engage this conversation.

The indicators, individually or collectively, are pretty apparent.  Every African American cultural invention has been subsumed into the larger culture to a point where the source is no longer recognizable, and Oakland, as a traditional center of Black culture and one of a number of “Chocolate Cities” around the country is a petri dish for cultural change.  Consider this- Yoshi’s produced a jazz compilation with no Black artists, later apologizing and calling it an oversight.   The First Amendment and the Serenader, where the best live blues, jazz and R&B could be heard, are distant memories. Rap can be heard in every corner of the planet, but as a thoroughly co-opted artform, I find nothing redeeming in what’s been deemed commercially viable.  No consideration was given to the importance and historical significance of the Lorraine Hansberry Theater when the Academy of Art, (ironically), evicted them from their long time home.  Are these just coincidences, or evidence of something requiring more of our attention.

For anyone asking themselves “What’s the big deal?” or “It’s not like that”, or even “You’re too sensitive”- my hope is that you fall in to one of a couple of categories- indifferent or oblivious, because the other option is much more alarming.  You may not feel any responsibility to individual cultural sustainability, or realize that you should, but there are ramifications, intended or not, to that state of being.

The result of that in Oakland has been a persistent tension that can only impede the ultimate potential of the cultural renaissance we’re currently experiencing. This dynamic started becoming evident in the Yerba Buena Center’s two shows about Oakland in the mid-90’s, which, in my opinion, devolved into an issue of race.  It’s also seen in how the Oakland renaissance is commonly represented, devoid of any historical perspective and reminiscent of how Columbus “discovered” America.  The “new” Oakland has no acknowledgement that Oakland has always been one of the most culturally rich and diverse cities in America, waiting for and opportunity to shine.

I totally understand that these issues are far more complex than can be summarized in a single blog post, but it does call for an in-depth, ongoing and honest conversation, which I intend to pursue until we come to an acceptable conclusion.  In the end, I still feel that the cultural contributions of everyone should be enjoyed by everyone, but we should also be mindful that a spirit of reverence to existing and historical cultures; and some attention to the sociological implications of the drastic shifts in populations need to be considered if Oakland is to become one of the great global centers of the cultural arts.


Randolph Belle has enjoyed 20 years in the arts, business and nonprofit management in Oakland. He’s started several commercial art and design companies and served in a wide variety of civic and service capacities. Randolph is the founder and Executive Director of Support Oakland Artists, a nonprofit art and community development corporation that works to enhance local artists’ ability to thrive and fuel economic development throughout the region.  Randolph has served as the President of the Board of Directors at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland and Vice Chair for the City of Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Commission.  Randolph is currently on the board of the Museum of Children’s Art, the Oakland Film Society, the Advisory Board of the Crucible and is the Education and Workforce Development Director for the Oakland Media Center.

Don’t miss Reframing the Arts : Advocating for the Public Culture at Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) on Saturday, April 16! Register here.

1 reply
  1. Sarah Lockhart
    Sarah Lockhart says:

    "This dynamic started becoming evident in the Yerba Buena Center’s two shows about Oakland in the mid-90’s, which, in my opinion, devolved into an issue of race. "

    Is Mr. Belle referring to the exhibitions in 2006, which indeed raised racial issues, as well as devolved into "hipster bashing?" I moved to Oakland in 1997 and have been active in the arts upon my arrival. When I and my partner (we're both white), started the arts space, 21 Grand, in what would later be christened, The Uptown neighborhood, we were outliers, geographically, and metaphorically — in that most of the arts spaces in Oakland at the time were led by African-Americans and other people of color. This was 2000. When we were forced to move in 2002, several people suggested that we relocate to West Oakland, where rents were cheaper and where "the best parties were."

    We were mindful of our pallor and the history of West Oakland as an African-American cultural center dating back to the jazz age. We didn't want to be the evil gentrifiers. We just wanted to have an arts space in Oakland, that, yes, presented art by mostly white people to audiences of mostly white people. So we found a fairly affordable warehouse space on 23rd St. between Broadway and Telegraph. The Oakland Art Murmur eventually sprung up around us, after that warehouse was demolished to make way for condos, two upscale restaurants and a Starbucks. The parking lot where we held an emergency fundraiser featuring a performance by machine art group Survival Research Laboratories is now a luxury apartment tower.

    Cultural history and memory is distracted and forgotten at an alarming rate here in Oakland. Articles on the Oakland Art Scene routinely make factual errors about events that happened only 4 years ago. It is astonishing how easy "we" forget.

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