Uber’s recent announcement that they’ll be setting up their headquarters in Oakland’s booming Uptown neighborhood has created much speculation. Oakland isn’t now just the “Brooklyn of the West,” a haven for hipsters, designers, Burners and those priced out of San Francisco. It’s about to become a tech mecca.
The Twitterverse exploded in protest. Tech and Uber employees in Oakland? No, no, no! The city is ours, not theirs!
I’m a newish transplant to Oakland. I moved here about four years ago, inspired by what friends told me, which is that Oakland is different; it isn’t SF; it has its own culture and flavor; and it is diverse. A few people in Mountain View / Silicon Valley told me I’d get shot as soon as I stepped into downtown Oakland, but that misinformed opinion was based on the media’s twisted portrayal of this amazing city. From the moment I parked in Oakland’s Chinatown, I couldn’t believe how vibrant the city actually was.
I’d turned up looking for a place that felt like home—the bland, suburban office parks of Silicon Valley just didn’t cut it for me. I’m a biotech guy (not tech). I love art, the maker movement, diversity and creatives. It also didn’t hurt that Tupac and Too Short (two of my favorite rappers) are from Oakland and that the weather is way better than it is in San Francisco. Oakland has edge, and its multicultural style is part of what appealed to me.
Over the last four years, I’ve seen Oakland evolve rapidly. I’ve seen entire neighborhoods, like Temescal, become hipster enclaves with corresponding price hikes (a 12% rental-price increase over the last two years as artists and others flooded into Oakland). But that paled in comparison to the price increases in my old neighborhood, Adams Point, where apartment prices roughly doubled in three years while old abandoned storefronts in Uptown quickly filled with tons of new restaurants. To me, it’s no wonder that the San Francisco Bay’s iconic Sunset Magazine moved from Menlo Park in Silicon Valley up to Oakland. Oakland is at the heart of some of the most exciting trends and innovations coming out of the West, and they wanted to be part of it. It now feels like the entire Bay Area has woken up to the gem that’s always been there.
Oakland is a city full of like-minded people driven by passion to create a better world. People here have a can-do attitude, and they know that we have to build and fight for the future we want; otherwise, it won’t happen. That is why tech will have a different impact here than it has had in San Francisco.
A little background on why I believe this to be the case: three years ago, I cofounded the nonprofit Sudo Room with a group of 25 like-minded people looking to build a hacker space with a mission of radical inclusion (originally, it was right next to Uber’s new headquarters). We were just a bunch of passionate people looking to build a supportive and empowering community, and we quickly noticed how this vision resonated with others nationwide.
Word started to spread, and Sudo Room started to attract other nonprofits. After a while, five of us cofounded Counter Culture Labs (a bio-hacker space in Oakland, and the first in the East Bay). Both organizations grew, eventually evolving into the Omni Commons, a collective of collectives that focused on community, positive creation and radical inclusion. This is the Oakland community I love and cherish, alongside other makers and groups like American Steel Studios, the Crucible, NIMBY and others.
So now we face a new challenge: capital-“T” tech has arrived, and Uber is leading the charge. My Oakland-based friends, including hackers, creatives, anarchists, LGBT folks and activists who are people of color, worry that tech will displace all those who have found a home and creative refuge in Oakland. But I don’t think that will happen. Oakland isn’t Silicon Valley or San Francisco. Oakland is the historic birthplace of the Black Panthers; it has the highest per capita concentration of artists in the US; it was ranked as the number-one most exciting city in the US in 2013; and it cares deeply about diversity and inclusion. Oakland’s emerging tech scene reflects all of that. Oakland is home to Black Girls Code, the Hidden Genius Project, the Unity Council (which provides community advocacy, social services and economic development to the historically Hispanic region of Fruitvale), the Kapor Foundation (which supports STEM education for under-represented minorities) and many more groups and companies that support social inclusion. Oakland still has plenty of issues, but tech can help lift all boats if the right on-ramps are in place.
A couple of months back, I met with Mayor Libby Schaaf and her team to discuss how we could continue to help accelerate the resources available to the local Oakland community for STEM education and economic opportunities. Her words still ring in my mind today: Uber is moving to Oakland, and that’s a good thing, but Oakland is also moving into Uber and might just give it the heart and soul we all hope to see.
Tech might change Oakland, but Oakland will change tech. That, you can count on.