The Root Cities: Oakland's Economic Power

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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.

And even before that major migration, the black community gained a foothold in the middle class when the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters organized and secured livable wages for the black men who rode the rails.


To be sure, there is still a significant middle- and upper-middle-class African-American population in the city. The East Oakland hills, with their pricey homes, have a largely African-American population. Several large African-American churches have well-heeled and politically connected congregations.

But Oakland has never been a city known for black industrialists or media moguls. There's no Bob Johnson here, no Bronner Bros. or SoftSheen cosmetics. Those who've made money here are contractors, doctors, lawyers and those who've successfully navigated each run of the corporate ladder.


In recent years, the city's black population has become more stratified, rich and poor, with the middle and working class disappearing. Oakland likely mirrors the nation in terms of African-American unemployment; in August the unemployment rate among African Americans was 16.3 percent (compared with 8.7 percent for whites and 9.6 percent overall), 18.8 percent for black males, 14 percent for black females and, among African Americans 16 to 19 years old, an incredible 38.1 percent for females and 51.7 percent for males. 

As one older African-American man noted, when he was raising his family, he could moonlight at the cannery if he needed some extra money. Young black men and women can't even find a job, let alone get moonlighting work to earn extra money.


Some are betting on green industry to fill the void. Alternative energy sources would require major manufacturing operations. According to a federal bill for clean energy conversion for small and midsize business, 70 percent of the clean-energy systems and components are made overseas. Making homes and commercial buildings energy efficient also promises jobs. Oakland has emerged as a leader in the field, with green job-training programs that are being emulated by other cities, an ordinance that set some of the country's highest targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and a coalition of business, labor unions and community organizations focused on green policy recommendations for the city.

Until federal funding for alternative energy is allocated, however, much of the potential for green jobs remains just that.


De La Fuente sees the loss of the middle class as a failure of government. "We should be giving people opportunities to be successful, to compete for the jobs of the future. Our job is to fix the schools and education. Unless we do that, with global competition, we're moving toward a society of rich and poor and a shrinking middle class."

A version of this article originally appeared in The OakBook.

Brenda Payton is a journalist who lives in the San Francisco Bay area. 

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