After the Murmur

Artists and hipsters can bring dormant neighborhoods to life, but do they invite gentrification and displacement?

One could be forgiven for staring. Oakland's lower Telegraph Avenue on a wet, cold, windy Friday night is not a location renowned for its street parties, particularly those involving dozens of young, white hipsters happily mingling with an equal number of young African Americans, both watching an impromptu rap show.

But a street party is precisely what was happening outside the Rock Paper Scissors (RPS) Gallery, at Telegraph and 23rd Street, that night. Welcome to Art Murmur, Oakland's very own art walk on the first Friday of every month. What started in January as an eight-gallery venture has, in a mere four months, blossomed. A dozen Oakland galleries now participate, exhibiting everything from installations featuring massively oversized pill bottles and pillboxes to traditional oil portraitures and, in the case of the Boontling Gallery, unnerving little sculptures that co-owner Mike Simpson described as "whimsical takes on decapitation."

"We want to improve the art scene in the East Bay so that people will call Oakland an artistic force to be reckoned with," the lanky Simpson told the Guardian. "Oakland has a lot of potential, and I have a lot of pride in the city.... A lot of artists who show in San Francisco are from Oakland. Why not represent where they are from?"

But jump-starting an artist-driven revival of lower Telegraph also has its potential hazards, prime among them gentrification. As San Franciscans know all too well, such revitalization carries the danger that the community will be made safe for real estate agents, developers, and urban professionals who quickly eliminate less desirable residents, i.e., the folks who were there first and the new artists' community.

When asked about the issue, Sydney Silverstein of the RPS Collective knowingly said, "Oh, you mean artists laying the groundwork for gentrification?"

Setting the gentrification question aside for a moment, something new and very exciting is happening along Telegraph Avenue, come rain or shine.

"We want to get people to buy art that have never bought art before," nattily attired Art Murmur cofounder Theo Auer said as he sipped free wine. It is not just the young and trendy who show up more than one gray-haired art aficionado was spotted making purchases at Boontling.

How did it all start? According to Auer, the midwife was beer. "It was after a show, and we asked each other, 'Why doesn't Oakland have an art walk?' 'How hard can it be?'" The result was a meeting last year at which RPS, Mama Buzz Café, Ego Park, 21 Grand, 33 Grand, Auto Gallery, Boontling, and the Front Gallery all chipped in money for logistics, postcards, an Web site, and a newspaper ad.

"It's a tight community," said Tracy Timmins, the pale-blue-eyed and enthusiastic co-owner of Auto Gallery. "We are all very supportive of each other." And that support also comes from her landlord, who is only too happy to have a group of impoverished students who want to improve the neighborhood with art.