Miss Margaret Gordon, environmental justice activist

Miss Margaret Gordon, environmental justice activist


A book about how the Bay came to be

Oakland was destined to be a crossroads. Railroad, highway, ocean. Tectonic plates. Social movements. Racial groups. Ideologies. Great floods of money and power.

As I started to research how to tell this story, I met Miss Margaret Gordon, an environmental justice activist in West Oakland, which has born the brunt of the Port’s activity. She stands at the center of the transformations of the city, a keen analyst and powerful actor of power in all its forms. Through her work, the neighborhood has become cleaner and safer. There’s less air pollution, lead, trucks idling, and toxic emissions from factories. But/and these improvements in quality of life attracted newcomers who have helped push out her friends and neighbors, the black community that has long made a home of this place.

This book, then, is a book about a neighborhood in the midst of urban change, what a lot of people would label gentrification. But to understand what’s happening, you have to dive deep into the racial history of the Bay, not the cultural markers of coffee and cocktails.

Gordon’s life forms the spine of this work. Born to parents who came to the shipyards in World War II, raised in the growing black middle class of San Francisco, she found herself with two kids in the housing projects of Hunters Point as the radical politics of the 1960s took the region by storm. She was in the first post-strike class at San Francisco State, commuting with two kids from Oakland. But domestic violence tore apart her family, as continued racial oppression combined with crack to fracture black communities across the country. The years went by, and the point was survival. When the Loma Prieta quake struck in 1989, collapsing the Cypress structure that segregated the neighborhood from the rest of the city, it felt like her life was falling down, too.

She was cleaning houses then, and one of her clients was Michael Herz, who founded the environmental organization, Baykeeper. She began to borrow his magazines and books, and by the late 1990s, she had become a self-taught environmental justice activist, eventually becoming the executive director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, which had initially been funded by the Hewlett Foundation, before they unceremoniously pulled out of their initiative in the neighborhood. They fought battle after battle to improve the environment. They won sometimes, and they lost, too. She made allies. She made enemies.

As the foreclosure crisis began to sweep across West Oakland, Gordon was appointed to the commission which oversees the Port of Oakland by legendary politician, Ron Dellums, who was then mayor of Oakland. A few years later, she’d been commended by the Obama Administration for her work in the community, and was also pushed off the board. Meanwhile, the technology industry exploded as the housing industry imploded.

Those forces combined to make Oakland one of the nation’s hottest housing markets, and West Oakland became the frontier of change. And into that cauldron dropped the plan to put a coal export terminal in West Oakland.

The book is both a sweeping history of one black woman’s Bay Area, and an examination of urban America in the early 21st century. Because the questions that power this book are not only at play in Oakland. Racialized capitalism drives the development of cities, and cities drive the creation of wealth for most Americans through the property they own in them. At the same time, globalization and automation have run a cargo ship through the former raison d'etre for cities: manufacturing things and housing the people who worked in the factories. What are cities becoming when the big money is made inside a screen or manufactured somewhere in Asia? What is a city, and this city, for? And what does Oakland owe to its residents, whether or not they own property?