Yes, it’s a little bit of a surprise that Emeryville, a town that many Bay Area residents probably associate with the massive yellow-and-blue Swedish furniture store adjacent to the MacArthur Maze, has a poet laureate.
But in the interest of enriching the local cultural landscape, the city created such a position. And a couple years ago, Sarah Kobrinsky, a Winnipeg native who came to Emeryville by way of Fargo, North Dakota, was appointed to the position.
“Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve loved to connect somehow to the artistic community and to play a part in that,” Kobrinsky says. “I like to bring people together and organize events and make things happen.”
Kobrinsky’s day job is helping run her family’s small ceramics business. She applied for the poet laureate’s post after she saw a posting on a local bakery bulletin board. In addition to writing poetry for community events, she conducts workshops for residents and has started a project to distribute poems on the Emery-Go-Round, the city’s shuttle bus service.
But now, Emeryville’s poet laureate, whose verse touches on subjects like the town’s long-vanished Native American shellmounds and the presence of that big Swedish furniture store, can no longer afford to live there.
Kobrinsky recently joined the growing ranks of Bay Area artists who have been priced out of their homes — in this case, a 1-bedroom flat she shared with her husband, a potter, and their young son. At the end of last year, their landlords, who live in an adjacent home, notified them via letter of a 38 percent rent increase. They had 60 days to move from their home of five years.
“It was actually very scary,” Kobrinsky says. “I remember getting the letter and breaking down in tears because its something so primal — your sense of shelter, your home.”
She and her family landed just up the Eastshore Freeway in Richmond. She recognizes there are plenty of people in the same boat.
“A lot of the young creative folks I’ve met recently — the ones who are able to stay are the ones who are lucky enough to secure a situation,” Kobrinsky says. “Either they end up living in a warehouse or they find a room in a house that people have been able to hang onto for years so the rent has stayed low. I know people who are at the top of their fields who are struggling every month to make their ends meet.”
And she wonders aloud about the health of a region that’s seeing so many people, artists and non-artists alike, pushed out.
“It’s a real sickness in the Bay Area,” she says. “Seeing human beings as dollar signs and not as human beings — that’s a sickness.”
Kairee Tann, one of Kobrinsky’s landlords, said Tuesday she didn’t want to discuss the situation. A Bay Area News Group story on Kobrinsky earlier this week quoted Tann as saying the rent hike was “standard operating procedure” and that she was not “aware of any issue regarding the rent increase.”
Kobrinsky’s response might also be regarded as standard operating procedure, for her. Reflecting on her experience and what’s happening across the Bay Area, she wrote about it. In the audio clip below, she reads her poem “Aftershock”:
In another time and place,
we are better people.
No one lies. The Earth
we are stronger still —
When we say we are sorry,
we honestly mean it.