Rock Paper Scissors Is Priced Out: End of an Era for Oakland Art Scene

Rock Paper Scissors' doors will close before the end of August (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

This ragtag Oakland storefront at 23rd Street and Telegraph Avenue was at the geographic center of the original Art Murmur in 2006. It’s an all-in-one art gallery, classroom, clothing shop and activist meeting space. The volunteer-run collective operating Rock Paper Scissors exemplifies the city’s social justice-seeking, DIY art and activism scene.

But with Oakland rents soaring, they’ve been priced out of their space. August’s will be the last First Friday street fair and Art Murmur gallery stroll for the collective — the last remaining organization of those that helped start the monthly festival almost a decade ago.

On a recent East Bay summer evening, volunteers gathered inside the storefront to learn how to become pen pals with LGBTQ prisoners.

“It can get really complicated, because if someone’s legal name is John but they go by Jennifer, for instance, you have to put J or John on the outside of the envelope,” said Beja Alisheva, co-facilitator of Flying Over Walls, a queer/trans prisoner solidarity organization.

Flying Over Walls volunteers gather at Rock Paper Scissors to write letters to LGBTQ prisoners.
Flying Over Walls volunteers gather at Rock Paper Scissors to write letters to LGBTQ prisoners. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

There are lots of rules about how the envelopes sent into prisons can be decorated, so they won’t be confiscated.

“No glitter?” Louis Smith asked incredulously.

The letter-writing get-together was just one of dozens of gatherings held at Rock Paper Scissors every month, ranging from writing workshops to a sewing lab and jewelry-making for teens.

“When we first came to Rock Paper Scissors looking for a space, they said of course,” Alisheva said. “Obviously, we don’t have a lot of money. It’s not something that brings in a lot of revenue, but that didn’t matter to them.”

She added: “It was such a relief when we finally landed here, so now we’re not sure where we’re going to end up.”

That’s a sentiment shared with the quirky, creative space’s regulars.

“Gentrification is real,” said Alexandra Rigaud, an assistant with the collective’s youth program. “We are getting pushed out, and we did start First Friday … Now we are paying for it.”

It’s becoming a common story all over the Bay Area. The artists who, in recent times, made a neighborhood “hip” are being driven out, in part due to their own success.

“The neighborhood has changed a lot,” said Kristi Holohan, the collective’s youth, community and interim gallery director. “We are basically like sandwiched in between two bars, there are some really high-end galleries.”

The Rock Paper Scissors storefront on 23rd Street and Telegraph Avenue.
The Rock Paper Scissors storefront on 23rd Street and Telegraph Avenue. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said the plight of Rock Paper Scissors raises a much bigger question as the city continues to boom.

“It’s not just the housing affordability that is a potential crisis for us,” she said. “The threat of displacement of our small businesses, of our cultural institutions, of our nonprofits — those are also community stabilization issues that absolutely need to be solved.”

Schaaf said the city’s “solutions are more limited” because state law prevents rent stabilization for commercial space. The mayor said she’s creating a new Artist Affordable Housing and Workspace Task Force, but that’s yet to be staffed.

Anyka Barber, who founded Betti Ono gallery in downtown Oakland, said the city needs to do more.

“In order for it to continue to be a world-class city and build on the strengths that it has, especially around culture and arts, we really have to have the investment match the brand recognition,” she said.

Barber is a lead organizer of the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition — a newly formed group that’s calling for the re-establishment of Oakland’s Arts Commission, which had its funding and staff eliminated more than five years ago.

“There’s a lot of talk about the economic development side of arts experiences or cultural experiences, based on people visiting, what kinds of funds or revenues that brings back to the city,” Barber said. “Currently, it looks like maybe 1.3 percent of the total city budget is funding or investing in community development or cultural programs. That does not reflect equity.”

The Rock Paper Scissors Collective's mission statement.
The Rock Paper Scissors Collective’s mission statement. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

The coalition’s demands were left out of the recently adopted 2016-17 city budget.

Rock Paper Scissors, meanwhile, has until the end of the month to find a new space or close up shop and try to raise more money. The collective is seeking volunteers to help pack up and move to a yet-to-be-determined location.

Rock Paper Scissors Is Priced Out: End of an Era for Oakland Art Scene 8 August,2015Andrew Stelzer

  • Andrew Oakland

    If Mayor Schaaf is truly concerned about the displacement of small businesses, she could direct her staff to use already allocated funds to create a forgivable loan program for businesses on International Blvd who face hardship or direct displacement as a result of the Bus Rapid Transit system, as other jurisdictions such as Seattle, Twin Cities and LA have done.

    These largely immigrant owned businesses face the loss of of hundreds of parking spaces and disruption caused by reducing International to a two lane street. Many provides vital service and decent wages as wholesale, automotive, and light production facilities, and as purveyors of large household goods such as appliances and furniture. Others serve lower-income, non-English speaking communities, often as regional destinations for those communities.

    Stabilizing these businesses helps stop the displacement of the residents the serve as well. When we push out businesses that serve low income communities, they are often replaced by businesses seeking to capitalize on the current or anticipated wave of higher income residents. The new businesses in turn attract more higher income residents, in a cycle of gentrification.

    However, if the City follows the lead of other successful programs, they can implement a program to stabilize this commercial corridor of minority-owned businesses. A forgivable loan program is not a handout. Businesses would have to show they will be impacted and devise a plausible plan to address the impact, with the help of City-provided technical assistance. Then, the funds they receive to implement their plan would only be forgiven if they remain in business in Oakland for five years.

    If the Mayor is serious about “ensuring that Oakland’s small businesses are not priced out or pushed out by economic growth and development”, this seems like a pretty obvious place to start.

    • Wendy Dutton

      So sad! I have gone to the collective often to see the wonderful exhibits of young artists. My favorite piece of art hanging in my home is from one of those young artists.
      We need to stop this before Oakland becomes undistinguishable like San Francisco.
      Mayor Schaaf needs to start taking a stand right here! No more rhetoric, action.

  • First Monday

    How much rent were they paying? What was the rent increase? First Friday is mentioned several times, but nothing about the recent reports of theft, resignations and lawsuit affecting that organization. Are they being evicted or did they get a rent increase they can’t afford?

    A fluff piece.

    • andrew

      RPS said their rent was being tripled, but didn’t give exact numbers…and added that the landlord had kept their rent low over the past several years, but no longer wanted to do so.
      Although I think the First Friday scandals you mention are relevant to the larger situation, RPS is not officially associated with the First Friday organization. Oakland Art Murmur is a separate organization.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.


Andrew Stelzer

Andrew Stelzer has been reporting for KQED since 2010, and is a producer at Making Contact in Oakland..  His work has been featured on programs including NPR’s Weekend EditionPRI’s The World, Studio 360, Marketplace,Living on Earth, On the MediaLatino USA, Radio Netherlands, World Radio Switzerland, and Radio France International.  Andrew has written for publications including In These Times, The Progressive,  Interpress Service, The St. Petersburg Times, and The East Bay Express.

Andrew’s work has received numerous awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

He previously was a reporter at  WMNF radio in Tampa, FL, and reporter and youth advocate st KBOO  in Portland, Oregon. Andrew has conducted radio production trainings around the world, from Algeria, to New Orleans, to the desert of Southern Jordan.

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