Introduction: The Ark
He says calmly, “Look,” gesturing with his languid hand, “Look, I come from one of the oldest cities in the world. The oldest civilization. They build a parking lot and they think that it is a civilization.” Stunned, I burst out laughing. And he joins me. We laugh and laugh and I reply, “True, true.” “The oldest civilization,” he says again. “True,” I repeat.
— Dionne Brand, 2001
Imagine, if you will, The Ark, a degraded cruise ship propped on blocks and languishing in an empty parking lot in West Oakland, California, against the backdrop of the I-880 freeway. In the shadow of the ship, the weedy lot is populated by a “tent city” or homeless encampment, an agglomeration of Teslas, tents, and campers. (Yes, Teslas.) Charcoal grills, glass-encased seating pods, and charging stations huddle in the ship’s lee. Wires strung with cheerful pennants stretch down from reactors attached to the ship’s hull to vehicular generators primed for the electric cars scattered throughout the camp. Above, on the sundeck, you can see more generators and a further colorful assortment of tarp-covered tents and patio umbrellas, all framed by strands of pennants. The ship’s hull, like the façade of the adjoining Beaux-Arts train station — built in 1912 as one of three transportation hubs then serving the East Bay, and decommissioned in 1989 — is adorned with graffiti. One of the more prominent tags proclaims in red the anti-capitalist Rousseauian phrase EAT THE RICH, with an accompanying sickle-and-fork emblem.
Imagine, if you will, a degraded cruise ship propped on blocks in a parking lot alongside the I-880 freeway, an allegory of Oakland’s unhousing crisis.
The Ark (2020) is a photomontage by the artist Olalekan Jeyifous, part of the series “The Apocryphal Gospel of Oakland,” which visually constructs the improbable ongoing story of Oakland’s unhousing crisis through speculative digital collages. The scene depicted in The Ark seems improbable, an allegorical fantasy. Recall, however, that in December 2019, several months before COVID-19 took hold, Oakland’s then-city council president Rebecca Kaplan introduced a plan to dock a decommissioned cruise ship at the Port of Oakland, adjacent to the West Oakland neighborhood. The idea was to provide emergency shelter for nearly 1,000 unhoused individuals.
Oakland’s Port remains one of the busiest in the nation, engineered with a federally regulated infrastructure designed explicitly for cargo ships, making it structurally untenable for docking cruise liners. Even so, Kaplan and her colleagues argued that a “floating hotel” could temporarily address the 86 percent spike in homelessness that Oakland had witnessed between 2015 and 2019. Kaplan noted that cruise ships had been used as emergency housing in the aftermath of natural disasters, for instance following Hurricane Katrina. 1 Homelessness, of course, is an unnatural disaster. But Kaplan’s plan was just one in a long line of attempts to ameliorate the crisis; Oakland and other Bay Area cities have been experimenting since 2015 with other “emergency” proposals, including legalizing tent encampments in specific parking lots and on certain vacant lots. 2
The floating hotel for unhoused Oaklanders never became a reality. Still, Kaplan’s proposition had been prescient. On March 9, 2020, a ship named the Grand Princess, belonging to the Princess Cruises line, docked at the Port of Oakland with more than 2,400 passengers aboard, 21 of whom had tested positive for the coronavirus. 3 The Grand Princess had cut short a cruise to Hawai‘i, and had been stranded in California waters for ten days, with no place to go.
Oakland’s homeless population consistently makes up half the total in Alameda County; between 2015 and 2019, the number of those unhoused in the city jumped from 2,191 to 4,071. 4 The epidemic of homelessness across the Bay Area tends to be narrowly framed as the result of a housing crisis, as opposed to a crisis in affordability. Accordingly, rather than address income inequality and a massive low-income housing gap, local policymakers often propose simply to build, betting on additional development to solve the problem — despite the fact that most resulting projects produce luxury and/or high-end residences. 5 In other words, city administrators tend to see homelessness as a social problem rather than an issue that is political and economic. California Senate Bill 50, for example, supported in 2020 by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, advocated upzoning, with the idea that this would lead to large-scale housing production. 6 The failed measure pushed for increased development, especially around transit centers; this would have further compromised the fragile infrastructural balance between transportation options and extant housing stock — which, even before the near-doubling of the unhoused population, had threatened working-class communities throughout the region, as rampant speculation and financialization exacerbated longstanding transportation issues. Schaaf had promised in 2016 to build 17,000 new housing units by 2024, setting aside 28 percent for low-income residents. By July 2018, less than six percent of the newly constructed homes were reserved as affordable-housing units. 7 As of May 2021, Oakland had built over 22,000 new units, exceeding its goal by more than 5,000. Nevertheless, only a small number of these new units were priced below market rate, and the city is currently on track to build only half of the mayor’s promised affordable units. 8
Parking lots have been used since the 1940s as a spatial resource for mitigating homelessness, a ‘temporary’ solution that remains ever-present.
West Oakland, where the Grand Princess was docked, is the oldest neighborhood in the city, and was once home to the largest Black community in Northern California. But, as the city’s overall Black population continues to dwindle precipitously, so does West Oakland’s concentration of Black residents. 9 Across the 20th century and into the 21st, Black people throughout the United States have been targeted by spatial exclusions and dispossessions rooted in racial capitalism. Yet racial disparities in Oakland’s rates of homelessness remain particularly stark, with African Americans comprising an astonishing 70 percent of those experiencing homelessness, while making up just 20 percent of the overall population. 10 Black and Indigenous populations continue to be the only ones whose numbers are diminishing in Oakland, while the total number of Black residents who are homeless continues to grow. Most reports produced by the state acknowledge this disproportion, albeit typically only as a data point rather than as a focus for targeted response. 11
It is not an accident that, in The Ark, Jeyifous has located his dry-docked ship in a parking lot beside a defunct train station — an ad-hoc solution to the housing crisis fused into a landscape that is itself symptomatic of the decades-long ascendency of car culture and the defunding of mass transportation. Thus, rather than The Ark being docked at the Port of Oakland, it has landed unceremoniously in a massive West Oakland parking lot that (in reality as well as in Jeyifous’s image) harbors dozens of unsanctioned camp-dwellers. Nor was it coincidental that, when passengers disembarked from the Grand Princess in West Oakland, their medical status was triaged in an eleven-acre “containment area” in the Port’s gigantic parking lot.
The parking lot as a typology — one of the most spatially dominant landscape features of 20th-century urbanism — represents a planning failure. Parking lots were thought of in the mid-20th century as a temporary form of land use, or what John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle call a kind of “‘land banking’ against the future”; they were not thought of as inhabited. But they have taken on new and important meaning in contemporary struggles over the uses of and right to public space in America’s cities. 12 Cities don’t systematically catalogue their parking acreage; however, it is estimated that the U.S. has more than 500 million parking spaces in off-street surface lots alone. 13 Perhaps not surprisingly, parking lots have become central in fights waged by unhoused people against the state, as well as central to the state’s strategy for addressing the generalized problem. Parking lots have been used since the 1940s as a spatial resource for mitigating homelessness — deployed as “temporary” solutions that in practice remain ever-present.
I want to consider Black homelessness in West Oakland as occurring in a para-science-fictional time, in which past, present, and future happen all at once.
In this doubling of eras or recurrence of things past, provisional solutions harden into legacies that extend across generations, all the while retaining their official status as impermanent, improvised, based in reaction to emergency. We are living, in the second decade of the 21st century, with unprecedented levels of income inequality, food insecurity, ostentation, precarity, and austerity. The world is organized by private property and market exchange; fashioned by corporatization; burdened by social repression, environmental destruction, and racial reckonings. The Ark shows us this condition, laying out a space resembling what João Biehl calls a “zone of social abandonment” — a place neglected by the state and treated as a repository for the poor, unemployed, disabled, and/or homeless. 14
The Ark is a dystopian hybrid, a landlocked escape vessel poised between apocalypse-in-progress and a new post-apocalyptic normal, replete with signs of entropy, innovation, resurrection, and abjection. The scene is exaggerated. Yet like the best sci-fi, it is also familiar, in that the world that emerges post-disaster draws on memories of the pre-disastrous in order to visualize itself. To put this another way: Dystopian narratives look backward, serving to warn us about impending catastrophe. But, when it comes to considering Black homelessness — and what it tells us about the urban spatialities in which we are currently living, and about those in the making — this speculative timeline folds into a more complicated knot. Here we can presume a truth explained by the writer D. Scot Miller in his 2009 “Afrosurreal Manifesto: Black is the New Black — a 21st Century Manifesto.” The future is already here.
There is no need for tomorrow’s-tongue speculation about the future. Concentration camps, bombed-out cities, famines, and enforced sterilization have already happened. To the Afrosurrealist, the Tasers are here. The Four Horsemen rode through too long ago to recall. What is the future? The future has been around so long it is now the past. 15
Mindful of these histories, and these yet-to-come prospects, I want to consider Black homelessness in West Oakland as occurring in a collapsed or simultaneous, para-science-fictional or Afrosurreal time, in which complexes of events that seem mappable along a past-present-future axis are in fact all happening at once. In this folded and disjunctive temporality, events from the past are noticed or received only in the present, determining experiences of the here-and-now, as well as likelihoods for the future, in unfanciful but often denied ways. And further: This future-past of Black dispossession and homelessness does not take place just anywhere. Because Oakland has cleared so much land but provided no adequate means of housing people, informal settlements emerge, and are often contained, within vacant spaces where built structures used to be. Tent camps grow under bridges and overpasses, in parks and along deindustrializing margins. Yet more encampments are set up in parking lots than in any other kind of open urban space — because, unlike a public park or the no-man’s land under an overpass, parking lots are officially sanctioned spaces for temporary (i.e., emergency) habitability. Given Oakland’s long and destructive history of both clearance and containment of Black residents, the parking lot is a particularly useful urban typology for thinking about Black homelessness in this city. The parking lot, as The Ark shows us, is a node where the simultaneity of past, present, and yet-to-come can be seen and felt with particular clarity.
Two questions animate my exploration, then. Firstly, how might we consider the relationship between parking lots — as central, even redundant features of the built urban environment — and the politics of Black clearance and containment? Secondly, what does it mean for Black people, in Oakland and elsewhere, to continue to live the same experience again and again, decade after decade?
Black Presence (and Absence) in Historical West Oakland
The home — the American home — is a problematic object not because it will be lost in the future, through foreclosure or eviction, and not because it cannot be legally claimed through emplacement or occupation, but because it was always insecurely possessed by dispossessed subjects, those rendered outside the grid of white normativity.
— Ananya Roy, 2016
The transcontinental railroad arrived at its terminus in Oakland in 1869, leading to a fundamental shift in the city’s demographics, which up to that point had been largely White and working-class. Black and Asian laborers were instrumental in track construction, and the Pullman Car Company hired an exclusively Black male staff to service their sleeping cars. The influential Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters — a Black union — was organized in 1925, and a majority of Pullman porters opted to live permanently in West Oakland.16 After the start of the Second World War, another largely unskilled Black labor force was drawn to the city, and this new wave of residents settled predominantly in the same neighborhood, adjacent to the San Francisco Bay. West Oakland was becoming a center for shipping, shipbuilding, and toolmaking.
The Bay Area in this era was one of the fastest growing urban centers in the country, and more than 50,000 Black migrants arrived between 1942 and 1945, mostly from Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. This influx, coupled with the displacement and dispossession of Japanese-Americans and their internment in camps, established Black people as the city’s largest racial minority; anti-Black racism coalesced as the Bay Area’s go-to racist practice, proliferating and intensifying for years to come. 17 This restructuring of racism in California from the targeting of Japanese immigrant populations to the assailing of Black American migrants aligned with much of what had already occurred in other parts of the United States, particularly in the South.
More than half the city’s Black population lived in West Oakland, the ‘Harlem of the West.’ But there wasn’t enough housing.
Since the National Housing Act of 1934, discriminatory housing policies and practices such as redlining and restrictive covenants had cordoned off certain neighborhoods from Black residents across the U.S. At the same time, segregation facilitated the emergence of vibrant and growing urban Black communities. By 1940 in Oakland, nearly 60 percent of the Black population lived in West Oakland, and a robust commercial and cultural district grew up along 7th Street. West Oakland became known as the “Harlem of the West.”
Nevertheless, there wasn’t enough housing for migrants, Black or White. As historian Marilynn Johnson notes in The Second Gold Rush (1993), despite the decent wages earned by shipyard workers, they could not find adequate places to live. From April 1941 through September 1942, the vacancy rate in Oakland dropped from an already problematic two percent to a vanishingly small 0.06 percent. 18 Meanwhile, between 1920 and 1945, Oakland’s Black population had tripled. A local police captain observed in 1942 that “hundreds of men, women and children [were] sleeping nightly on outdoor benches in public parks, in chairs in all-night restaurants, in theatres, in halls of rooming houses, in automobiles, even in the City Hall corridors.” 19 Officials worried that the unsightly presence of such unhoused people, coupled with the trailer camps and shantytowns that were springing up inside city limits, would propagate crime and lower property values. 20 They fined and evicted residents from these temporary communities, but this only worsened the problem of families sleeping rough across the city.
To address the overcrowding and spur defense production, federal and state housing agencies began to demarcate residential zones in West Oakland specifically for migrants. Known as “shipyard ghettos,” these developments effectively transformed the cultural and racial geography of the city as a whole, not only by separating longtime residents from newcomers (through the federal designation of temporary wartime housing to support defense production versus permanent housing), but also because these zones were racially segregated by federal mandate. Racial animus and physical separation thus worked hand in hand. The federal establishment of war-workers’ zones helped local governments to enforce racial segregation quite easily; the migration of Black Southerners emerged as a means by which to classify all Black people as refugees. Other federal and local programs helped to perpetuate this segregation, as Black populations had no access to private-sector housing options like rental-unit registrations (facilitating federal price and rent controls), home-conversion programs, and building loans, which were spurring postwar residential development and homeownership opportunities for White migrants and longtime White Oaklanders alike.
A pattern of Black dispossession was calcifying in the city, laying the foundation on which the present crises of displacement would occur.
By the end of World War II, Oakland was overpopulated. Black inhabitants were overrepresented in public housing, and West Oakland was full of overcrowded, dilapidated housing stock. With the waning or closing of defense industries like shipbuilding, the unemployment rate climbed even as commercial infrastructure scaled back, and the population of homeless Black families expanded. A local journalist writing in 1943 described “the tragic spectacle of [Black] families going from door to door, begging for sleeping accommodations in sheds, garages, and anyplace else they [could] have shelter.” 21 Black Oaklanders were not yet camped in parking lots. But a pattern of Black dispossession was calcifying in the city, laying the foundation on which the present crises of displacement would occur.
Urban Renewal and Transportation Infrastructure
Oakland’s ugly down in the flatlands. The people that count want to get rid of the slums; they want to get rid of the slum dwellers too. They want to make the whole place spick and span so that business and industry will hurry up and move in. They say that’ll help the poor get jobs; but by then the poor won’t have the money to live there. By then maybe it won’t matter what the poor do.
— The Flatlands newspaper, 1966
By 1950, 80 percent of the Black population lived in West Oakland, and the City Council and Planning Commission officially considered the whole neighborhood to be blighted. This made way for demolition via urban-renewal policies, or what James Baldwin called “Negro removal.” 22 Urban renewal and its primary vehicle, “slum clearance,” accomplished the clearance and containment of Black people in two ways: through the widespread demolition and limited reconstruction of residential buildings, and the devastating construction of a transportation infrastructure — including major roadways and a robust public transit system — that privileged White movement over Black life, and left landscapes across the city lying fallow for years on end.
The Federal Housing Act of 1949 provided cities with the capital and apparatus for urban redevelopment and public housing, allocating 135,000 public housing units nationwide. 23 In Oakland, public housing was viewed as an issue primarily impacting Black and other people of color — since White working-class residents by this time largely aspired to flee the city and purchase homes in the tony suburbs. Oakland requested only 3,000 new public-housing units under the 1949 program, far fewer than were contained in existing but dilapidated war housing. 24 As the city leveled dozens of those war-housing units, only 500 public-housing units were constructed to take their place. Thousands of Black Oaklanders were left, once again, without shelter. 25
During the same period, federal commitments to the construction of affordable housing for all were shifting toward federal and municipal plans for the revitalization of downtowns, as a way to strengthen local tax bases. Cities began to use federal funds, and deploy the powers of eminent domain, to redevelop instead of to revitalize blighted neighborhoods, a.k.a. neighborhoods inhabited mostly by Black people. In 1954, Oakland mayor John Houlihan formed a redevelopment advisory committee primarily comprised of real-estate, banking, and commercial-retail elites — executives from Bank of America, Kaiser Industries, Sears and Roebuck, the Oakland Real Estate Board, and the East Bay Homebuilders Association. 26 The resulting Oakland Citizens Committee for Urban Renewal or OCCUR produced the General Neighborhood Renewal Plan, through which they asserted their prerogatives to strengthen the downtown business district. The GNRP was unanimously approved, and plans for the destruction of a 250-block area of West Oakland —including the 7th Street commercial corridor — moved ahead.
In 1956, the newly formed Oakland Redevelopment Agency, an outgrowth of OCCUR, announced plans for the Acorn Area Redevelopment Project, designating about 50 blocks in West Oakland for demolition, as the first of five major slum-clearance areas in the city. 27 The Acorn plan focused on industrial and middle-income residential development, and made no provision for public housing — despite the overwhelmingly poor population in the district. The Acorn project was celebrated by city officials and developers as an opportunity to attract White residents, in hopes of returning the area to its former status as an “elite residential neighborhood.” It was one of the nation’s first attempts at “reverse integration.” 28
Black homeowners were losing their properties without having anywhere else to go. They lacked the political power to fight the destruction.
Black people in Acorn attempted to stop the bulldozing of their homes by suing the city on the grounds that Black homeowners were losing their properties without having anywhere else to go. Ultimately, they lacked the political power to fight the destruction. Federal courts sided with the ORA, and between April 1962 and May 1965, crews destroyed the majority of the 610 structures comprising the neighborhood. The land laid bare had been home to 4,300 residents. The ORA designated nearly half this land (32 acres) for industrial development. The remaining 34 acres were earmarked for housing. 29 Priority was given to development of the industrial sites over the residential units, however, and by 1967, no homes had been built in Acorn. Vacant lots dominated the landscape. 30
The Acorn project never achieved the city’s aims to create an integrated place — that is, to make the neighborhood less Black. ORA commissioner Jack Summerfield lamented: “West Oakland used to be an area where rich, white Americans lived, before it became a mostly black area … Acorn was a chance to reintegrate West Oakland, but I’m afraid that hasn’t happened.” 31 Acorn was also a template for the city in addressing the lingering housing crisis, and (as such) an experiment in the management of Black and low-income populations. The project complemented several others orchestrated by the ORA in the later sixties, including the clearing of 70 more blocks in West Oakland to make room for the construction of a U.S. Postal Service distribution center, along with surface and underground lines for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, known as BART, and most notably, new interstate highways. 32 Further renewal projects were put forward as the ORA focused on development in the downtown core, immediately adjacent to West Oakland. These plans promoted transit, commercial construction, and — inevitably — parking.
Expansion of the federally-subsidized interstate highway system decimated Black communities nationally throughout this era; construction was often routed through Black and lower-income neighborhoods, where it contributed to blight, installed infrastructural impediments to social and practical circulation, and accelerated the deterioration of formerly robust communities. In California in particular, the development of freeways increased mobility for White Americans. But, on the whole, these new expressways further facilitated the clearance and containment of Black people, who continued to live in city cores bypassed and encircled by freeways.
New expressways further facilitated the clearance and containment of Black people, who continued to live in city cores bypassed and encircled by freeways.
Three interconnected freeways completed between 1952 and 1985 — the Nimitz (I-880), the Cypress (a two-tiered portion of the Nimitz), and the Grove-Shafter (I-980) — sliced West Oakland into smaller and smaller bits. The Cypress freeway, funded through the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 and completed in 1958, cut the neighborhood in half along a north-south axis, displacing hundreds of Black residents and placing a physical obstruction between the westernmost section of the neighborhood and the rest of the city, notably downtown. The symbolic barrier that already existed between West Oakland and Oakland-at-large was made literal. Dubbed the “Berlin Wall” by local residents, the Cypress collapsed in the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake; it was not rebuilt. 33 The Nimitz and the Grove-Shafter are still there.
Intimately connected to freeway infrastructure, the parking lot emerged as a key signifier of mid-century anomie West Coast-style; desolate but functional and even futuristic, the surface parking lot became a polyvalent sign of the modern city. Both urban and suburban municipalities began to require that new construction account for widespread dependency on cars — a stipulation that often remains in force in the present day. As Michael Manville and Donald Shoup put it, “new development is contingent on the creation of new parking, and so although all cities have a shortage of streets and freeway space … many have a surplus of parking.” 34 Moreover, as major transformations of the built environment, freeways and interstate highways established in the postwar years tended to generate both fanfare and protest. Surface parking lots, in comparison, were (and still are) built much more frequently, gaining at best minor recognition. “Parking lots were parking lots,” write Jakle and Sculle. “For the most part they existed not so much from building something new as by demolishing something old.” 35 Jane Jacobs called parking lots “border vacuums” — bleak spaces that nullify urban form. As the 1960s dawned, the parking lot was emerging as the ultimate manifestation of spatial clearance, cleansing, and removal — of permanent temporariness in cities. 36
An area that had been notorious for human overcrowding was soon overpopulated by parking lots.
West Oakland lost a total of nearly 14,000 residents between 1960 and 1966; 8,000 units were razed. 37 Three-quarters of the 8,000 demolished dwellings had been occupied by low-income, mostly Black people. 38 Contributing to this reduction in housing density, Oakland zoning after 1961 performed exactly as Manville and Shoup describe, requiring that all new apartments provide one off-street parking space per unit. As a result, “the land was suddenly burdened with a new requirement to provide parking that residents did not pay for.” 39 The number of units per acre fell by 30 percent; land values fell by 33 percent, and property-tax revenues and construction investment declined proportionally. As substandard housing was removed from West Oakland, still more vacant lots were left behind — and a portion of these remained unbuilt, converted into surface parking lots for a new population of commuters from the East Bay suburbs. An area that had been notorious for human overcrowding was soon overpopulated by parking lots.
Urban renewal, then, intensified the precarity of Black life in West Oakland. Black labor had been key to Oakland’s wartime emergence as an industrial powerhouse. But, as state and federal governments poured funds into the advancement of White suburbanization, the urban core was left to decay, a polluted pavement-scape littered with vacant parcels, surface parking lots, and unfinished projects — industrial carcasses, scars.
These dystopias of half a century ago were perpetuated, across the intervening decades, by the city’s continuing neglect of Black residents in regard to education, employment, healthcare, day-to-day mobility, and of course, housing. A powerfully destructive trajectory was established for Black Oaklanders towards the end of the 20th century, and its results are visible across the city today, as the long-looming threats of gentrification become a reality.
I don’t predict the future. All I do is look around at the problems we are neglecting now and give them about 30 years to grow into full-fledged disasters.
— Octavia Butler, 2000
When I moved home to the Bay Area in August 2019, prior to the onset of the pandemic, I was astonished by the explosive growth in homelessness, immediately recognizable in the dozens of encampments spread across Oakland and parts of neighboring Emeryville and Berkeley. Large and elaborate sites swelled along pedestrian pathways, in public parks, under freeway overpasses, in empty commercial lots, and in parking lots. Some of the most glaring examples spread around the periphery of the West Oakland BART station, in barren asphalt lots where dozens of tents had created makeshift communities of unhoused residents. Peering to my left while driving along the southbound overpass on I-880, it was impossible to miss the nearly five-acre expanse sprinkled with tents, charred and abandoned cars, stationary RVs, and cobbled-together plywood and metal structures, crammed behind a chain link fence around a lot on Wood Street. Even so, the East Bay’s economy had grown; it was not uncommon to see Teslas whizzing past the Wood Street site or other encampments beneath I-80, I-580, and along the edges of West Oakland. The incongruence between these visions reflected, for me, a frightening sense of our new shared reality under late-stage capitalism.
The scenes I witnessed could have been pulled directly from Octavia Butler’s dystopian novel Parable of the Sower (1993). The story is set in California in the year 2024, when the postmodern metropolis has corroded into a lurid and brutal intensification of the modern city as established in the urban-renewal era. Butler depicts a landscape of walled enclaves defended by force, while straggling groups of refugees wander freeways from which cars have disappeared, stalled by the impossibility of procuring fossil fuel; the United States of the novel is rife with racial inequality, with a corrupt and inefficient government unable to protect the environment, maintain social order, combat economic inequity, or defend human rights against repressive global corporations. Butler writes speculative fiction, much as Jeyifous makes speculative images. What makes these works so powerful are their deft interweavings of past and present, so as to examine the groundwork being laid for an apocalyptic future.
These speculative works deftly interweave past and present, to examine the groundwork being laid for an apocalyptic future.
People living without housing tend to be pathologized in ways that personalize and medicalize their predicament, as if private failings and health problems were responsible for conditions that are in fact driven by racial capitalism. This is what Peter Marcuse calls “neutralizing homelessness.” Impoverished neighborhoods and homeless people’s camps in California have in recent years been compared with slums in Pakistan, Brazilian favelas, and shantytowns in Mexico — conditions that, in an earlier era, would have been characterized as “blighted.” Indeed, not long after I returned to the Bay (I had been living in Washington D.C.), the New York Times featured a web-based exposé of the local crisis. Their focus was the High Street encampment in East Oakland, adjacent to a Home Depot parking lot, where more than 100 people were then living in rat-infested shacks and campers, without running water or electricity. Despite the disproportionate number of Black people who are unhoused in Oakland, of the dozen or so encampment residents depicted in the visual essay, most are White women. Of the three Black residents shown, one is a girl on her way to school with her mother. As Times reporter Thomas Fuller puts it in a recorded voiceover, “You could easily call it a refugee camp.” 40
Official responses to such extremity tend come in three forms. One of the more popular arguments about the cause of homelessness, generally, is that cities lack enough affordable housing. 41 This position has been readily adopted by the city of Oakland, and indeed there is some truth to it; a similar argument emerged after the Second World War with the designation of the shipyard ghettos. Since 2008, the restructuring of the East Bay’s racial geography has been profoundly intertwined with the foreclosure crisis, even as skyrocketing housing costs across the Bay Area have been national news. 42 Black people, overall, pay more of their income for housing, and are more susceptible to being evicted from their homes, and data show that the subprime mortgage fiasco disproportionately impacted Black homeowners throughout West Oakland. 43 Yet a push for more housing, even affordable housing, activates new real-estate development, and this is not necessarily good for low-income Black people. Here again, the past is prologue. In the postwar period, the federal government sought to expand housing stock by offering financing options to White Americans, propelling the growth of suburban communities while disenfranchising the Black urbanites left behind. Fast-forward to the first decades of this century, and racialized disinvestment, technology booms, and financialization were creating conditions that made poor and working-class city neighborhoods exceptionally vulnerable to gentrification, as well-to-do White people moved in.
Secondly, homelessness and the spread of encampments are explicitly managed through policies of clearance and containment. As of April 2021, an estimated 140 encampments could be found all across Oakland, and the High Street camp visited by the Times was in the eastern part of the city. (It has since been cleared.) Yet a disproportionate number of camps continue to be located in West Oakland. 44 In October 2020, the city passed its Encampment Management Policy or EMP, to establish criteria for encampment interventions; this policy created the Encampment Management Team or EMT. Both the EMP and EMT emphasize management as opposed to eradication of conditions that drive the proliferation of encamped communities. The revised EMP, which went into effect in January 2021, focuses on the designation and protection of “high-sensitivity areas,” meaning that the city will enforce the removal of encampments from parks, along waterways, and on other public lands. Similar to explanations for “slum clearance,” a justifiable focus on health and societal well-being is unjustifiably leveraged to further disenfranchise the unhoused. Excluded from public civic spaces, homeless people are de facto restricted to industrial wastelands.
Of all the interventions advocated by the city, few are more dystopian than its contract with the organization Operation Dignity, founded in 1993. Operation Dignity is a third-party contractor that works with the city throughout the encampment-removal process. According to the City Auditor, “closures and cleaning interventions” must be preceded by certain steps:
EMT policy requires the City to notify encampment residents no less than 72 hours ahead of interventions. For closures, the City is also required to post signage in multiple languages. Human Services manages the notification and outreach process through a third-party contractor, Operation Dignity, that notifies encampment residents no less than 72 hours in advance of closures and cleanings. 45
Despite the euphemistic language of “closures and cleaning interventions,” the city and its Operation Dignity team are doing something insidious. The city frames the removal of encampments as necessary for safety and hygiene. Again, this framing is reminiscent of rhetoric in the urban-renewal period, when the city allowed portions of West Oakland to fall into disrepair in order to qualify for federal aid that would then facilitate clearance of the entire area. In 1961, the Assistant City Manager of Oakland, John A. Morin, admitted that the city had purposely disinvested the areas comprising Acorn for several years, because they knew their development plan would be approved. 46 To designate an area as unsafe and unsanitary might reflect true conditions — but it doesn’t address the process by which the area got this way.
The third means by which contemporary American cities typically attempt to manage homelessness is through design. Oakland has initiated several programs and policies to “address” homelessness, most of which place responsibility on homeless individuals. The city has offered various temporary “solutions,” which operate alongside community-generated projects produced by artists, activists, organizers, and unsheltered individuals themselves; these include the provision of transitional housing, shelter beds, RV parking sites, and the controversial “Community Cabins,” also known as the “Tuff Shed program” — these last are essentially toolshed communities erected on surface parking lots and in other vacant spaces, such as beneath the I-980 freeway. The “Tuff Shed” experimental program came about in December 2017, but was expanded after the city received a combined $11.7 million from the state of California and Alameda County as part of the Homeless Emergency Aid Program, or HEAP. 47 Following the Oakland City Council’s declaration of a shelter emergency crisis in 2017, the city started buying Tuff Sheds (produced by the Denver-based Tuff Shed, Inc.) and establishing RV parking sites in surface lots all over Oakland, as part of its emergency homelessness response. 48 Oakland spent nearly $9 million of those funds on Tuff Sheds and RV parking sites.
Homelessness and the spread of encampments are explicitly managed through policies of clearance and containment.
Such settlements are never located on private property, and various legislative measures have prohibited the establishment of encampments within 25 feet of homeless shelters, 50 feet of private residences or parks, 100 feet from high schools, and 150 feet from preschools, middle schools, or childcare centers. So the unhoused have been pushed to vacant lots and parking lots, whether commercial or city owned. The irony is that some of today’s encampments map onto the very parking lots that were produced through urban renewal and the removal of Black homes half a century ago. Consider a “co-governed” homeless camp at Peralta and 3rd Streets in West Oakland, which is maintained in a partnership between its unhoused residents and a housing-outreach and support-service provider. 49 The camp is sited on a vacant lot owned by the California Department of Transportation, or CALTRANS — emphasizing the links between transportation, containment, state agencies, and homelessness. Another encampment sits directly behind the 7th Street Post Office distribution center. This is the location where, in 1960, more than 400 homes and businesses were demolished to make room for this very distribution center.
Imagine again, the dystopian near future. Foreshadowing an ever-expanded use of parking lots in the reinvention of housing options in Oakland, Jeyifous’ Tuff® Towers (2021) folds the future back into the present day to depict a utopianism after the end of utopias.
In the prophetic scene we are examining, an elaborate vertical settlement strains against the edges of an asphalt-covered parking lot on Harrison Street in Downtown Oakland. This is Tuff® Towers, a modular, provisional encampment for the unhoused, administered (as logos inside the image tell us) by the City of Oakland and sponsored by The Home Depot and Tuff Shed, Inc., in partnership with Douglas Parking and Laz Parking, two local companies that operate parking lots. In Tuff® Towers, Jeyifous visually exacerbates Oakland’s multi-million-dollar expansion of the “Community Cabins” program, to riff on the likely perpetuity of the “temporary” housing solutions that use Tuff Sheds as viable residences. Each unit of Tuff® Towers is a single Tuff Shed; stacked ten stories high, these building blocks are intricately configured for structural stability, their colorful frames connected by open stairways. Billboards cantilevered off the higher units advertise informal businesses (eyebrow threading; vegan tacos). Tuff® Towers is equipped with a cell tower, granting its inhabitants access to next-generation wireless and broadband networks. Other kinds of technology are present too: A squad of golden drones hovers, screening and surveilling residents and their guests; it’s easy to imagine that they are transmitting evolving demographic data to the Oakland Police Department.
This logo-studded Oakland of the near future looks peppy and inventive, design-forward.
Tuff® Towers is contained within its lot, stretching the borders but not breaching them. The Towers serve as temporary housing, like most of the emergency housing solutions proposed in Oakland over the decades. Yet the image shows a structure that appears permanent, if precariously so. The “toughness” ascribed to Tuff® Towers invokes the rhetoric of self-determination, resilience, and “dignity” — policy jargon that, more often than not, functions to circumvent civic accountability and to shift the burden of resolving the city’s housing crisis onto individuals and grassroots organizations who receive little more than performative assistance from above. This logo-studded Oakland of the near future looks peppy and inventive, design-forward; it seems to represent a victory for the city, which has apparently partnered with multinational businesses to offer terrific optics. It looks like a win for everyone, except the people who live there. On one hand, Tuff® Towers operates as a top-down system imposed on its residents — who, we understand, have no other options. On the other hand, Jeyifous proposes that the marginalized residents of the dystopian towers continue to live with the urban, adapting opportunistically to the political excesses that surround and manipulate them. All of which means that the unhoused will further adapt the structure of their settlement, to discover ways to make these uninhabitable spaces habitable. 50
No official explanation has been given for the staggering 86 percent jump in homelessness in Oakland between 2015 and 2019. 51 The policy prescriptions introduced by the city of Oakland and the county of Alameda are quick fixes at best; none address the longstanding political and economic issues facing marginalized groups, especially Black Oaklanders. We can imagine that, in the yet-to-come in which we are already living — which is also a long-ago out of which we have never emerged — the most intensely marginalized “residents” of dystopian cities will continue to improvise, to generate opportunities to render unlivable places livable. In so doing, they will be continuing to cope with conditions generated by decisions many decades old and circumstances that are no longer clearly visible. Black migration for wartime jobs and the city’s inability to house shipyard workers; the urban-renewal era of demolition; the rapid construction of interstates and freeways that decimated the neighborhood of West Oakland; and the pre-pandemic jump in the unsheltered population: These histories collectively extend their temporal tendrils into the encampments across Oakland today. Through those encampments, the past of the 1940s and 1960s and 1990s and 2000s continue to plot what is likely to happen in two or five or 20 or 50 years.
How, then, are we to think about this future that is already here, this past that has never gone away?
Apocalyptic Past Urban Futures
Value and valuation haunt Blackness, not purely as a set of geoscopic problems of the past — such as the auction blocks and slave forts that mark the landscape — but as a set of present conditions that create a dialectic relationship between haunting, value, and the production of Black space.
— Tia-Simone Gardner, 2020
Imagine a multi-scalar mobile-home community for houseless individuals and families. It’s located, once again, in a West Oakland parking lot, between a concrete plant and a private warehouse — a tidy collection of campers powered by bicycles and electric scooters, assembled to reflect the reconfiguring of public space in an afterlife of social distancing. According to the logo stenciled on each camper, this “village” is sponsored by “Bay Wheels,” a bike-sharing venture of Lyft™, as the prototype for a new shelter-sharing system. Each human-powered unit can house up to three people, with the possibility of a tiny-shed attachment for a fourth inhabitant. Personal lots are divided from one another by social-distancing screens, and feature inspirational boot-strap messaging painted in the bright “Mexican Pink” of the brand’s familiar logo, exhorting each resident “UpLyft Yourself!”
In this speculative scenario, transitional housing for those “temporarily” (read: recursively) disenfranchised by a volatile real-estate market is imagined for the parking lot, which has also been taken as what the New York Times once called a “space for architectural invention.” 52 This is The UpLyftment Village (2020) by Olalekan Jeyifous.
Operating at its best, the gig economy can benefit workers, businesses, and consumers alike by making work more adaptable. On the downside, of course, companies like Lyft, Uber, GrubHub, and Amazon tend to emphasize hard work and perseverance while refusing to classify their workers as employees, thereby avoiding responsibility for health coverage, collective-bargaining negotiations, contributions to retirement funds, and so on. Precarious employment via digital-platform capitalism can leave gig workers saddled with debt; accumulate too much debt in a real-estate market where prices have been inflated by the tech economy, and you may be forced to live on the street. Wouldn’t a pink-and-white camper-box be better? In this scenario, Lyft is “giving back,” expanding its social (justice) branding by developing the Shelter-Share system in collaboration with the City of Oakland.
UpLyftment Village, like Tuff® Towers and The Ark, is a fantasy that renders visible what present-time platform capitalism actually entails; Jeyifous’s images clarify what is going on already, right now, exposing that which gets hidden under narratives of personal responsibility and short-term solutionism. This is what we see when we acknowledge the long durée of our ever-present past.
Clearance and containment — moving populations into particular locations and containing them there — are central to urban policy-making. In the economy at large, time may have moved linearly from the postwar era to the present. But urban dynamics keep us, as Black people, in a cyclical routine. Clear and contain: This is what happens when the two temporalities of way-back-then and pretty-soon, and the two spatialities of get-going and stay-here, collide and fuse.
How do you map no place? There’s an intimacy between Blackness and placelessness that shows up today as homelessness. Traditional spaces and places, as Katherine McKittrick argues, “require black displacement, black placelessness, black labor, and a black population that submissively stays ‘in place.’” 53 This logic holds sway in urban planning, in the policies that have destroyed working- and middle-class Black neighborhoods across the U.S. At the root of these decisions lies a presumption that there is no place for Black people in the city; simultaneously, there is a presumption that Blackness, and therefore any Black person, belongs only in or to the city.
Temporalities and spatialities collide and fuse: way-back-then and pretty-soon, get-going and stay-here.
We are always-already living out a future that was set in motion by past choices. Yet this fact is constantly denied in political discourse and repressed in policy decisions. Solutions are fetishized, yet posited as separable from still-active legacies. What could seem like dry details of urban planning and economic history — or like sci-fi scenarios, dependent on time-travel and seer-like predictions — or like satirical takedowns of exaggerated “corporate good citizenship” — are also mundane facts of what we see when we drive through parts of Oakland now, today. These pasts persist in the present as traces, ghosts, spores; half denied or invisibilized, and half accepted as normal conditions of the 21st-century East Bay housing economy.
Once it was beat-up old Victorian homes in West Oakland that were being destroyed to make room for freeways, industrial districts, and surface parking lots. Now the unhoused are being corralled into the same locations where those Victorians once stood. Those who were dispossessed then couldn’t afford those houses now; if those buildings were still there, they would likely have been renovated into million-dollar assets. Parking lots themselves are a contentious aspect of this feedback loop. They don’t cause or resolve the housing crisis, but are a tool constantly deployed as a (short-term) fix for a (constantly) presumed dearth of housing. The parking lot, as an “interim” solution, has operated in the past, is operating in the present, and in the future will continue to operate as a battleground, where cities oscillate between clearing the unhoused away and containing them within the makeshift but impermeable borders of the lot.
It is hard to conceive of the current cataclysmic conditions facing the growing unsheltered population, in the wealthiest nation in the world, as anything but surreal. The surreal is usually understood as a departure from reality as we know it, a concerted move away from the observable world; the surreal shows up as an alternate or nonreality. There’s a narrow space between the aggressive abjection of the contemporary encampment — which might seem surreal if it were not so normalized — and the bright and unnerving Afrosurrealist exaggerations of The Ark or Tuff® Towers or The UpLyftment Village. One could also say that the contemporary encampment, with its battered vacation campers and blue tarps and repurposed wooden shipping pallets, represents a grubby hypertrophy of the streamlined urban-renewal vision of the 1960s and 1970s, or the can-do effort of the 1940s and 1950s. Perhaps it is time to imagine not a future divorced from the past, but a layered present in which our awareness and acknowledgement can help to make room for a truly radical (re)imagination of interior and exterior life alike. As geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes, “What the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces, experiments and possibilities.” 54