‘Oakland Used to Be More Funky’: Where Have All the Artists Gone?

There’s Adley Penner, a West Oakland musician who lives in a shed with Styrofoam walls. There’s also Theo Williams, of the musical group Sambafunk!, who was drumming at Lake Merritt one day when a man approached and asked if they had a permit, pulled the drumsticks from his hands, and called the police. And then there’s writer Tara Marsden, who ditched a full-time job at a tech company in San Francisco and moved across the bay to focus on her art — but now struggles financially and has had to move five times in recent years.

As the lack of affordable housing and influx of new, affluent residents make it increasingly hard for artists to live in Oakland, the future of the city’s vibrant creative community is uncertain. At Laney Tower, Sarah Carpenter, Brian Howey, and KR Nava trace the history of the city’s arts through years of development, industry, and racial discrimination and tell the stories of some of Oakland’s artists who are experiencing, firsthand, a changing local scene.

It’s early evening on the first Friday of May 2017, and Broadway between Grand Ave. and 27th St. is already packed. By midnight, thousands of people from around the Bay will cover the streets of Oakland.

By tomorrow, they’ll be gone, leaving the city to clean up after them.

Before the night ends, Krystal Nzoiwu and Sydney Khan are trying to sell as much of their art as they can to another bustling First Fridays crowd.

Nzoiwu’s hyper-colored paintings lean against the table, depicting playful lighting and fantastic characters. Khan’s eclectic jewelry is on another table, propped up with wooden displays. Over the years, the pair has seen First Fridays change from a grassroots gathering of creators to a heavily organized and competitive marketplace.

The people First Fridays attract have changed, too.

“It used to be really close,” Nzoiwu says. “People would be bumping into each other and it’d be more interactive, and now it just seems like — ”

“ — more distant,” Khan says.

Both makers lament the loss of a more involved community intent on mutual support. Nzoiwu says First Fridays draws more spectators than participants. Khan says she’s frustrated with the number of vendors who don’t have handmade goods.

Nzoiwu agrees. She recalls her favorite vendors from the early years of First Fridays: two old ladies who sold stuffed animals that they had ripped apart and sewn back together in new funky ways.

“Oakland used to be more funky,” Khan says.

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