Craft stalls in downtown Oakland. Photo: Leah Marthinsen.
Local artisans sell their wares near downtown Oakland. Photo: Leah Marthinsen.

DIY Global

 

Think local, buy local—we are currently experiencing a surge in assertions of independence from the global supply chain. From farmers’ markets to traditional artisanal crafts, small(er)-scaled businesses frequently position themselves in opposition to a global industry that is viewed as environmentally corrupt, exploitative and economically oppressive. This branding is as much ideology as advertisement, and it positions consumer choice as a political allegiance. This strategy has been hugely profitable—witness the success of the Ferry Building’s market hall—and it’s become a featured part of redevelopment efforts, including current plans for the revival of the Oakland Waterfront.

 

However, the reality is frequently more complicated, and the local increasingly less separated from the global as its branding might indicate. This ambiguity, while potentially problematic for brand clarity, nonetheless offers its own set of opportunities for both business and architecture. In particular, cities like Oakland, which boast an historic manufacturing identity, a contemporary “craft” culture, and an ongoing economic reliance on global trade (the port), can capitalize on such overlaps as they reinvent their urban landscapes.

 

Global production becomes more local

 

Mass production depends on streamlining efficiency to maximize profit. Historically, technological advances in production, distribution, and communication have increased efficiency either by enlarging the scale of production (ex. the Industrial Revolution) or by improving cost effectiveness (ex. out-sourcing to Asia). Today, this strategy has reached its limit—production cannot get either cheaper or bigger.

 

Contemporary businesses therefore attempt to increase profit by raising desirability and the potential asking price for goods and services. Consumers are demonstrably willing to pay more for what they perceive to be higher quality—whether defined by an exclusive brand, sustainable materials, or artisanal production. The latter two are no longer the exclusive province of local craftspeople; global and large-scale manufacturers are adopting similar practices, supplementing their mass-produced lines with small-scale, niche products that target specific regions and markets. Limited edition sneakers, artist collaborations, and Target’s boutique collections are all successful examples.

 

Local production goes global

 

Simultaneously, traditional craft practices find greater opportunity by connecting to national and global production networks. The array of hand-sewn clothing for sale at local farmers’ markets relies on inexpensive, mass-produced fabric from Asia. Communication technology allows access to an expanding consumer market, even when operations remain local. For example, Etsy sellers rely on a global network of rapid delivery services as well as sophisticated e-commerce applications.

 

Industrial remnants along Oakland’s waterfront. Photo: Leah Marthinsen

 

These new forms of production don’t necessarily fit into the industrial spaces of the past. However, they are also not easily contained within conventional retail, or even residential, neighborhoods. “Declining” urban manufacturing districts such as Oakland’s waterfront offer opportunities to reinvent productive spaces.

 

Oakland as unique hybrid

 

The idealized model of waterfront redevelopment today is arguably San Francisco’s Ferry Building, or the city’s South Park district. In both cases, disused industrial areas were transformed into cultural destinations, and in the case of South Park, a new hub of high-tech business. The ongoing debate in Oakland about the A’s new ballpark in Jack London Square suggests a clear effort to copy the urban success surrounding AT&T Park. However, proposals that attempt to replicate San Francisco’s redevelopment efforts ignore Oakland’s specificity, and have met only isolated and scattered success. Jack London Square is full of new(ish) condominium buildings: high-rise, high-end, high-density units of the sort that are currently appearing (and selling) rapidly along SF’s waterfront [1]. However, in Oakland, many of these units—some initiated under Jerry Brown’s mayoral term—remain vacant, or are rented at below-market rates.

 

The water’s edge along Oakland’s publicly accessible waterfront. Photo: Leah Marthinsen.
 
One principal difference between the two cities is their physical infrastructures. It’s impossible to state the significance of the Embarcadero Freeway’s demolition in San Francisco to both waterfront and neighborhood development. Removing barriers to safe pedestrian access opened up new real estate and permitted intense urban renewal. However, in Oakland, three major freeways (the 980, 880 and 580) still pass through or near downtown, and Amtrak’s passenger and freight lines and the 880 create boundaries between the waterfront and the CBD. And while San Francisco’s port has not been a major industrial hub for years, Oakland’s port is still the third most active in California [2]. Not only is a majority of the waterfront still used for port functions and therefore inaccessible for recreation or development, the freeways will certainly remain as critical transportation links.
 

The answer for Oakland and similar cities then is not necessarily to mimic the urban strategies of their neighbors, but rather to build on the energy, character, and physical infrastructure that already exist. Every day, thousands of containers of material pass through Oakland’s port. Simultaneously, hundreds of craftspeople in the surrounding areas are making, buying and selling. The monthly First Friday in downtown draws crowds, for both spectacle and craft. The unplanned but powerful convergence of global and local manufacturing activity is an opportunity for Oakland to create a new type of urban waterfront redevelopment.

 

Oakland's port and public spaces remain adjacent but disconnected. Photo: Leah Marthinsen.

 

Currently however, this overlap is not supported by either infrastructure or existing spatial types. Colored t-shirts,  used as the base for the Oaklandish clothing line, among others, are shipped into the United States, then trucked to various wholesalers (usually in garment industry hubs such as NY or LA) from whom the crafters order. The shirts are then shipped back to Oakland via truck or freight. Simultaneously, large scale manufacturing companies regularly receive excess or incorrect goods, which are then stored in a warehouse, eventually discarded, or shipped back to the factory overseas. There exists no clear mechanism to bypass these inefficiencies. A more interconnected supply chain would not only reduce material waste and transportation redundancies, it would also provide new creative opportunities for crafters.

 

In the new world of manufacturing, the discrete separation between global industrialism and local craftsmanship is breaking down. This economic disintegration suggests a similar blurring of the urban boundaries that we take for granted, partly because production at the global scale has remained largely invisible, separated from a city’s other areas for living and working. However, in today’s multi-branched distribution chain, with its linkages and loops, the separation between “making” and other aspects of urban life becomes increasingly arbitrary. Just as “Open Studio” events offer windows into artistic production, we can and should explore ways to offer windows into other sorts of production. The urban form of this environment will necessarily look very different than either the traditionally self-contained manufacturing district or the contemporary consumer paradise.

 

The new production line: proposal for multi-scaled, publicly accessible industrial complex. Image: Leah Marthinsen

 

Although the mass production factory is unlikely to return en masse to American cities, this does not mean the end of manufacturing, as both Etsy and local craft fairs demonstrate. Paradoxically, the removal of the large-scale factory opens up space and opportunity for different enterprises and new public spaces that address both local and global scales, and that accommodate both cultural consumption and material fabrication. It’s time, in Oakland and elsewhere, to test a new economic and urban model.

 

 

This article draws on the author’s research for her thesis project while studying for her Masters in Architecture at the California College of the Arts.

 

Sources:

[1] The most visible examples, such as One Rincon Hill, are downtown. However, construction around Mission Bay continues to accelerate.

[2] By container traffic. US Census Bureau, statistical abstract 2012.

 

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