News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

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East Bay DSA

March 07, 2020

McClymonds High closed as toxins and gentrification intersect

By Katie Ferrari

On Thursday, Feb. 20, McClymonds High School in West Oakland was closed indefinitely by Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). The school, which opened in 1915 and has an 80% African American student body, is the heart of the black community in West Oakland. Its closure and uncertain future is a crisis caused by the intersection of environmental racism and gentrification, as desperately needed environmental cleanup increases the community’s risk of displacement.

OUSD had found trichloroethylene (TCE), a carcinogen, in the groundwater beneath the school and was concerned that it could be seeping into the building and contaminating the air. Short-term exposure to TCE can impact the central nervous system, causing dizziness, headaches, and confusion. Chronic exposure can lead to kidney and liver cancer and autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s and rheumatoid arthritis.

After TCE was discovered in the groundwater beneath the school on Feb. 14, the district hired a consultant to take additional samples of indoor and outdoor air, drinking water, groundwater, and soil vapor. The samples were submitted to a laboratory for analysis and will be available by March 9th, along with a recommendation from the California Department of Toxic Substance Control. On Tuesday, March 3, the district relocated all McClymonds students to the Ralph Bunche campus, and all Bunche students to the West Oakland Middle School campus. (For a complete timeline of all testing at the site, see this document).

Gentrification and environmental racism create a double bind

TCE isn’t just at McClymonds: it’s scattered throughout the neighborhood. Within blocks of the school, two former metal plating shops have TCE in their soil and groundwater: the former Lane Metal Finishers at 2942 San Pablo Ave., and three former Cal Tech Metals sites on 31st Ave. ACDEH thinks the TCE at McClymonds may have come from these sites, migrating through the groundwater. TCE is also present at the federal Superfund site next to the West Oakland BART station. 

Map created with data from
Blue pins indicate sites with TCE, the red pin is a Superfund site, orange pins indicate schools.

TCE is a metal degreaser, one of the many toxic legacies of the industrial activity that occurred in West Oakland in the past century. In 1912, the city of Oakland zoned West Oakland, which was right next to the Port of Oakland, for heavy industry. When African Americans came west in the 20th century’s Great Migration, racism, masquerading behind redlining, zoning, and the racial steering of real estate agents, sequestered them in West Oakland, a redlined neighborhood full of factories, shipyards, and temporary war housing.

By 1945, nearly 100,000 people, many of them African American, had moved to Oakland. West Oakland was getting crowded, and the city was concerned. Their concern, however, was not about people’s deteriorating living conditions. City planners were worried there weren’t enough large swaths of land to keep attracting manufacturers. Four years later, the city council declared West Oakland “blighted,” setting the stage for Urban Renewal, or, as James Baldwin called it, “Negro Removal.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, under the guise of Urban Renewal, over 5000 West Oakland homes were bulldozed. In their place, the city built three freeways that cut the neighborhood off from the rest of Oakland, a postal distribution center, and the West Oakland BART station. The freeways and postal center added air pollution to the neighborhood’s cocktail of toxins: over 7000 trucks pass through the community every day on their way to the Port of Oakland. The diesel pollution creates higher levels of asthma, heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer in West Oakland than in the rest of Alameda County.

Lead in the water  

At an Environmental Town Hall at the West Oakland Senior Center on Wednesday, Feb. 26, community members raised questions about the school’s closure and how much the district really cares about the health of McClymonds students. Ron Muhammad wanted to know why Vincent Academy, a charter school a block southwest of McClymonds, was still open.

Others pointed out that two young McClymonds alumni have died of cancer in the past few years. 18 year old football player Darryl Aikens lost a three-year battle against leukemia in 2017. In 2019, Ramone Sanders died of bone cancer a few weeks before his twentieth birthday. As a defensive lineman for the McClymonds’ Warriors, Sanders had helped the school win two state championships. Given the prevalance of toxins throughout the neighborhood, it’s impossible to know whether TCE at the school caused the boys’ cancer.

Many community members expressed distrust of both the school district and the state agencies overseeing the testing and cleanup. Ben “Coach” Tapscott, a neighborhood mainstay who taught and coached basketball at McClymonds for decades, said, “I wouldn’t trust anything OUSD is doing. I mean, nothing. Because they haven’t done anything about the lead in five years.”

In 2016, the district found dangerous levels of lead in McClymonds’ water: test results included 33.8 parts per billion (ppb) of lead in the boys locker room showers, 9.7 ppb in a water fountain behind the bleachers, and 7.4 ppb in the girls locker room water fountain. Even minute amounts of lead can have negative cognitive and behavioral impacts.

The district did not tell the McClymonds community about the school’s unsafe drinking water (or act to mediate it) for over a year. This criminal negligence put students, educators, and the school community at risk. To date, despite $475 million in Measure J funding meant to improve OUSD facilities, the district has not replaced the school’s pipes. By contrast, Berkeley Unified School District has adopted the limit recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics: 1 ppb.

Charters and gentrification 

Other community members wondered if the TCE was being used to push another school closure or charter takeover. Booker T. Lett, who has taught ethnic studies and U.S. history at McClymonds for 5 years, said:

“The real concern is the school is being closed for no valid reason. If the TCE was that much of an issue, the school should have been closed eons ago. Why all of a sudden are you closing it now? My concern is they might close it and not open it back up. Enrollment is not where it was in its heyday, and the community is being gentrified.”

Jason Romero, a strength and conditioning coach for the McClymonds football team, talked about how an environmental spill had been used to justify the destruction and redevelopment of a nearby warehouse at 1919 Market St., that displaced many residents:

“If TCE is an issue, I don’t think [the district and state agencies are] going to handle it with the community’s best interests in mind. They’re not going to fix the school so that the kids who are at the school, or relatives of the kids, can come back. They’re going to fix the school so they can build something completely different and then call it better, and that’s the cycle of gentrification. And they’re using this as a way to streamline and also scare poor people into moving out, or not sending their kids to McClymonds, which already has a low attendance.” 

Romero’s concern was echoed by community members who brought up the fate of Lafayette Elementary School. The school, six blocks south of McClymonds, served a majority African American population. In 2016, OUSD closed the school and gave KIPP Bridge charter school a 40-year lease on the building. KIPP’s African American student population has steadily dropped each year, to 55.5% in the 2018-19 school year.

Cleanup, but for whom?  

Lett says the district has “always talked about closing [McClymonds] and bringing in a charter school.” In 2017, the district offered classrooms to a charter school. Alumni fought off the co-location. Even though McClymonds is under-enrolled, Lett said the district tells interested parents that there is no space for their child at the school. He has only seen 25 eighth graders tour the school this year.

McClymonds’ struggles have coincided with the early 2000s tech boom in San Francisco. As capital and money poured into San Francisco, rents rose, and many started moving to Oakland. Gentrification maps illustrate this migration pattern strikingly. 

Map courtesy of

Rental prices and property values have skyrocketed in the East Bay. New, unaffordable, housing is popping up everywhere, including, Lett says, “three projects around the school site.” The city recently published a West Oakland BART development plan that includes a high-rise building with 500 market-rate residential units. The current market rate for a 1-bedroom apartment in Oakland is $2,908.

In 2014, the city published a 490-page West Oakland Redevelopment plan. Page 130 shows plans for residential and retail development between 26th Street and West Grand. 

West Oakland Specific Plan map from City of Oakland Dept. of Planning and Building

Gentrification of West Oakland was slowed by the impact of environmental racism on the neighborhood. Lett says, “They’ll clean it up for the right people, and that’s what’s happening.” He added, “that’s what’s going on at Hunter’s Point now,” referring to the rapidly gentrifying San Francisco district where industrial pollution wasn’t seriously mitigated until luxury developments started appearing.

African Americans in West Oakland have been sequestered into a polluted neighborhood. Their homes and businesses were destroyed as part of Urban Renewal and their communities and schools have experienced serious disinvestment. And now, the neighborhood is beginning to gentrify. The sequence that is playing out in West Oakland is happening in Black communities across the country. Lett explains:

“Black folks are hit with two forms of racism all at the same time. First we’re abused by institutionalized racism, where we don’t get any chance to get a piece of the wealth pie when it comes to education and other opportunities. Then we get hit with the double whammy of environmental racism, because that’s the byproduct of all the wealth that was produced in our communities for corporations owned by white people. We get the byproduct of the waste of all that in our communities, and then we don’t even get to enjoy any of the wealth.”

While they wait for the March 9 results, the McClymonds community continues to organize. Edwina Spikes-Creggett graduated from McClymonds in 1981 and remains an active member of the school’s tightly knit alumni community. Her main concern right now is “the toxicity of lead and TCE and any other toxins that might have affected [students’] health.”

She, like many others in the community, is adamant that McClymonds needs to receive the same treatment and investment that the district’s wealthier, whiter schools benefit from:

“[The district] needs to get in there and do what they would do if it were up on Trestle Glenn or at Skyline or in Montclair, or at Thornhill. That’s what I want to see. What would they do, what would they want for their children? That’s what I want to see. They need to do the right thing, to do what they’re supposed to do if we were any other school. Because our kids matter too.”