The Root Cities: Oakland’s Economic Power

In the second of a series profiling O-town, The Root takes a look at who's holding the purse strings in the city once called the Detroit of the West.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Looking back, many Oaklanders say they started seeing signs of change, gentrification, about five years ago. Residents in neighborhoods that had been predominantly black or Latino started seeing new neighbors: young white singles and families.

In fact, the groundwork for gentrification started more than 20 years ago, back in the 1980s and ’90s, when Oakland, like many American cities, began losing its manufacturing sector.

The list of plants that closed in Oakland is lengthy. Granny Goose, the Del Monte Cannery, Caterpillar, Phoenix Iron Works, Sunshine Biscuits, Clorox, a Safeway spice plant, a Safeway soap plant, Coca-Cola, steel, automotive and truck plants in neighboring cities.

Between 1981 and 1986, Oakland lost 2,051 private-sector jobs. In Alameda County, where Oakland is located, more than 14,000 jobs were lost between 1980 and 1983. The trend was happening all over the country, fueled by mergers, leveraged buyouts and national tax policies that provided incentives for corporations to move overseas. Free-trade agreements sealed the deal. The manufacturing sector began to disappear from cities and the nation’s economy.

Recognizing the threat, a coalition of labor, community groups and religious organizations formed the Plant Closures Project in the ’80s. Initially organized to prevent plant closures, the coalition eventually shifted its focus to public policies to help displaced workers.

What was lost was more than work. Manufacturing jobs represented the ticket to a more secure financial future, paying two to three times the wages of retail jobs. Workers without a college education could purchase a house, pay for their children’s college education and move their families into the middle class.

“When I first ran for office in 1992, the Havenscourt area [in East Oakland] was mostly black, with beautiful homes, well-kept yards,” said Oakland City Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente. He also works as a negotiator for labor unions and represented many of the workers at the plants. “The workers at Imo DeLaval [a plant that made diesel engines] lived in East Oakland. They had good-paying jobs, making $20 to $30 an hour. When the foundry closed, where did they go? People were eventually forced to sell their homes. They started moving out of the city to the suburbs. We lost African Americans who could buy their homes. “

While the numbers represent the exodus of African Americans, the underlying cause is more directly related to economics and class than race. Oakland, once a blue-collar town, has lost that distinction.

It was the lure of manufacturing work that attracted large numbers of African Americans to the city. They came from Texas and Louisiana to work in the shipbuilding and war industries during World War II and they stayed.