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Gentrification is awkward, painful and funny in this new web series on North Oakland

In the opening scene of the new web series comedy “The North Pole,” three best friends, Nina, Marcus and Benny, go on a safari-like expedition through North Oakland, California, which has become increasingly unrecognizable to them thanks to a new species rapidly taking over: the “gentrifier.”

One of them asks, “The question with all of these newcomers is, are they a welcomed addition to the local environment, or an invasive species?” Another points out a type that she calls the “golden state gopher,” observing, “A master farmer and strict vegan, the golden state gopher also has a slight superiority complex. Like he was the first motherf****r around here to grow an heirloom tomato.”

The seven-part comedy, which premiered online in September, tells the story of the three friends who struggle to stay rooted in their historically black and Latino community as it faces increasing housing costs brought by gentrification and changing racial and class dynamics. With cameos by celebrities like comedian W. Kamau Bell and hip-hop artist Boots Riley, among others, the series pokes fun at some of what you might find in many of the nation’s gentrifying neighborhoods: new coffee shops and condo complexes, incoming residents ill-informed about the history of their new home, and, of course, gluten-free donuts.

Yet the series also examines some of the more contentious aspects of gentrification, such as racial tensions and the emotional toll of displacement on longtime residents and business owners due to rent hikes and increased property taxes.

The show’s title, “The North Pole,” is a colloquial term for the area created by young people of color. It also serves as a play on words, as the show also explores the intersections between gentrification and the effects of climate change in northern California, drawing parallels between the effects of both on displacing communities of color and destroying local environments.

The series is produced by Movement Generation, an Oakland-based nonprofit that advocates for racial and climate justice. PBS NewsHour Weekend spoke with Josh Healey, the show’s writer and co-producer, and Reyna Amaya, who plays one of the series’ lead characters, Nina.

Photo by Danny Telles

How would you describe the relationship between gentrification and climate change?

Josh Healy: Gentrification and climate change are often seen as different but they both have roots in a similar system that is about inequality, that is rooted in institutional racism, and that is rooted in disrespect and degradation of the local environment. … When you’re talking about displacement, when you’re talking about climate change and these disasters that are happening, [developers] use these crises as an opportunity to come in and reshape and privatize and take over. Just like what they did in New Orleans after Katrina when they tore down public housing and built up condos. So the connection there is real.

The polar bear itself plays a really important role in the series and serves as a metaphor for adapting to a changing environment. How did that idea come about?

Reyna Amaya: When your iceberg is melting around you, how do you adapt to survive? And what do you need to do in order to survive and keep going? … It leaves you with this question of, you know what are you going to do? I think that’s really what, you know, the polar bear or the character is representing. These survival choices that we have to make.

Reyna, why did you decide to sign on to the project and how did these themes speak to your own experiences?

Amaya: I loved this project when I read the script. I felt like being an artist you know you hardly get to work on a project that’s actually about your hometown. That’s like amazing. And so being able to rep where you’re from and do it justice, not just in the language but also in what is actually happening in that environment.

For me there’s plenty of people in the Bay, homies, friends I grew up with who can’t afford to live there anymore. Real stories of people getting pushed out. There was also that like social responsibility, like, we have to do this right and give our hometowns justice and really give people around the country justice. As we’ve been doing this East Coast tour, so many people in D.C. New York, we’re on our way to Boston, have just been like, “Thank you for telling our story.”

I was also in love with the character Nina. She’s like a girl that I grew up with who I was in middle school with. She’s totally just like such a quintessential Bay chick. And she’s smart and she’s unapologetic and you know she says what she feels and a lot of us don’t really get to do that in real life.

Photo by Danny Telles

There are some really funny moments where you make fun of the sillier sides of gentrification, like the scene with the “trap yoga” session that the roommates come upon. Can you talk about the decision to talk about these really serious issues through the lens of comedy?

Healy: Doom and gloom ain’t going to get the job done and it’s not going to reach the people we want to talk to. Laughter is the way to bring people in. We want to acknowledge the reality of what’s going on and the pain and the anger and the sadness. Laughter is the way to deal with it and also to remind us of the joy and the humanity that we’re fighting for in the first place. And that these are human people. This is a story about three friends about Nina, Marcus and Benny. And they also make fun of themselves. I think that’s important because when it comes to a lot of these issues, self-righteousness doesn’t get the job done. Having some humility and humor go hand in hand.

Amaya: There is this piece that really is an appropriation of culture. And that to me is being represented in the “trap yoga” scene, which, “trap yoga” is a real thing.

Healy: The ridiculous things that we imagined in the show doesn’t compare to the reality or the ridiculousness of the real world. … The appropriation is disrespectful to the culture. But they also hurt real people. And so you know it’s like, people think this is just about your feelings here. Like, check the effect it has on real people. And like I say this as a white dude who is originally from Washington, D.C., a gentrifying city, who now lives in Oakland, a gentrifying city. If you move to a new city, you need to know about the place you call home. You need to learn. You need to be humble … There are many things I’m still learning and will continue to learn and will continue to be checked on by my friends.

The fictional green start-up company “Green-go’s” also played a very important role in the series. What inspired that in real life and how would you say some businesses advance gentrification in these communities?

Healy: We came up with the idea of something that combines two dominant features of Bay Area life, which is the tech world and the kind of green eco-capitalist world that often purports how they’re going to save the world. But if you look at the bottom line, it’s about their bottom line, about making money. “Green-Go’s” represents the false solution and the shortsightedness of a lot of the kind of so-called “green tech” industry. These kind of on- size-fix-fits-all technological solutions to climate change and environmental issues that end up like they try to solve one problem but cause three other problems in the process and it’s often this kind of savior mentality.

Real solutions have to come from the communities that are being affected and know the best about their environment, about their neighborhoods, about their cultures and if they’re being done in this top-down way they’re going to recreate a lot the same problem that they started with.

Photo by Danny Telles

At the end of the season you give a really passionate speech in defense of a neighbor who is being evicted from her home, and you talk about how the people who are being pushed out of these communities are the same ones who worked to make the neighborhoods desirable in the first place. Can you expand on that?

Amaya: I think that it was what we were talking about with the appropriation of culture, trying to replicate these things that were already in existence. I’m from Oakland, but having family that’s out here in New York, you know Harlem, what happened to the Mission in San Francisco, all these places where you are going to have this certain kind of environment and people and language and culture. And when those people aren’t there anymore, then the culture and the place automatically shifts and changes it’s not the same. That’s not why people came to Harlem. That’s not [why] people came to Oakland. When the people aren’t there, you’ve shifted the entire culture.

Anything else?

Amaya: One of the things that is really rare about this project is, you hardly get to hear the perspectives of young people of color when it comes to topics of global warming, climate change, social justice, environmental issues, gentrification and how it relates to their neighborhood and their experience. And with that rarity. I just I want people who loved this series to share it. I think that this is a story that takes place in Oakland but is not just an Oakland story.

Healy: We talk about all these issues, but this show is not that complicated. The show is about home. That’s kind of the unifying theme throughout the show. What do you do when your home is under attack and when you feel like you’re being displaced? Whether we’re talking about your neighborhood or we’re talking about global climate. People have a right and a responsibility to defend the place they call home and that’s all of us that all of us. So there’s a place for everyone in this show. There’s a place for everyone in this movement.