It’s OK to Laugh About Gentrification (While Watching an Episode of The North Pole)

New series shows “the reality of the problem but also the joy, humor, and humanity that we’re trying to fight for in the first place.”
The North Pole.jpg

Marcus and Nina watch “trap yoga” for the first time.

Photos by Danny Telles.

If I said, “Hey, there’s a new web series about gentrification and climate change called The North Pole,” you’d probably say it doesn’t exactly sound like a good time.

But what if I said it was a comedy that included trap yoga (look it up), jokes about Drake, and a guest appearance from former leading member of the Black Panther Party Ericka Huggins? And what if I said it was relatable, effective—and funny?

It’s social justice realness with a sense of humor.

Here’s the premise: When three friends learn their rent has been raised, they set out to find another roommate. But in rapidly gentrifying North Oakland—which locals call The North Pole—finding someone who also cares about the future of their neighborhood is difficult. (So of course the roommate interviews involve a quiz on Oakland trivia.)

To figure out how to survive new developments, higher rents, and greedy oil executives, they embark on a series of comedic adventures. Like when the roommates drive out to the suburbs to visit family members who have been pushed out by gentrification. Marcus (Donte Clark) and Benny (Santiago Rosas) are really only looking forward to the swimming pool. But the California water crisis means they can’t even do that.

Nina and Marcus meet their new roommate candidate.

It’s social justice realness with a sense of humor. And at about nine minutes per episode, you can watch the whole season in one night without feeling like a giant waste of human space.

I sat down with writer/producer Josh Healey and director Yvan Iturriaga to hear how the show came to be, which scenes were based on their own experiences of gentrification, and what they hope people do after they watch the series.

This interview has been lightly edited.

Liz Pleasant: How did The North Pole get its start? Whose brain child was it?

Josh Healey: We wanted to explore the connections between urban inequality and the global environmental crisis. A lot of the times we silo these issues on the left. You work on housing or you work on climate. But it’s the same forces that are driving these problems.

“Art needs to be part of any social movement.”

We wanted to be able to have this conversation all in one place, and do it in a fun and creative way. On the left, we’re really good at doom and gloom. We’re really good and naming all the problems. But doom and gloom doesn’t really help people get out of bed in the morning, let alone want to join a movement. It’s important to show the reality of the problem but also the joy, humor, and humanity that we’re trying to fight for in the first place.

Art needs to be part of any social movement. Too many times we leave the art and the creativity out. We need that side. But art by itself isn’t enough. It needs to join with real organizing efforts. So this project is our humble attempt to try to bring together an artistic project with organizing.

Yvan Iturriaga: It grew from me and Josh working together on several projects that dealt with the environment. We wanted to do something that could dive into the issues more. And I had been developing a lot of ideas around Oakland with Darren Colston, our co-producer. So, it’s a combination of a lot of different ideas that had been percolating for a while.

Pleasant: What role did Movement Generation play in the production of the show?

Healey: I work with MG. It’s a collective of eight people, and I’m the arts and culture program person. MG talks a lot about how, if we’re going to change the politics and policies, we need to change the story. We need to change who the main characters are in the fight around climate change, gentrification, and institutional racism. Who are the heroes? Who are the villains? What are the central conflicts?

“It’s really easy to make fun of the gluten-free donuts.”

MG grounded us in the politics and the climate science. Me and Yvan, we come more from the social justice side and not the environmental side. So we learned a lot. We learned about things like geo-engineering and crazy false solutions around climate change. Our job was to tell that story in an interesting way.

Pleasant: Was it important to you guys to hire people from Oakland for the show?

Iturriaga: We were very intentional about the process. We wanted have a group who represented not only Oakland but also diversity.

In terms of casting, it was super important for us to find actors who could understand the characters and the nuances of what it is to be from North Oakland. We were very lucky to find Reyna Amaya, our main character, who is from Oakland. She understands who Nina is completely.

Healey: I think the crew behind the camera is almost all from the area or deeply rooted and committed to the community. You felt that on set. This wasn’t just a web series. It was a collective effort for the community. No one got paid what they should. We don’t have that Hollywood money. We have that Oakland grassroots hustle. But people are committed to the cause and committed to each other.

Reyna Amaya as Nina. 

Pleasant: Were any of the scenes—I’m thinking specifically about trap yoga—based on real life experiences?

Iturriaga: Apparently trap yoga is a thing now. It wasn’t when we came up with it. We were trying to come up with something ridiculous. And apparently, it wasn’t that ridiculous because now it’s real.

Healey: We make fun of the small, cultural side of gentrification. But at the end of the day, it’s the big players. It’s the developers. It’s the politicians. In the year since we’ve shot the show, the garden that’s in the very first scene—the urban farm—is no longer an urban farm. It’s being developed into condos.

It’s really easy to make fun of the gluten-free donuts. We do that all the time. And also, we eat the gluten-free donuts—let’s be honest. But that’s the easy stuff to make fun of. So we start there. But a lot of conversations about gentrification end there. Those things are signifiers to something deeper beneath the surface.

“We want to challenge people and inspire people to think of solutions in their own communities.”

So as the show goes on, we try to get to the real powers behind the throne. Who is making real money off of people getting evicted, people getting pushed out, communities getting polluted? Who is really making profit of off violence?

Pleasant: In the last episode, when Nina is in the Uber car with her grandmother [played by Ericka Huggins], they talk about how she’s been pointing out a lot of problems without necessarily offering solutions. And the last episode ends with a pretty big cliff-hanger. Is there a season two in the works?

Iturriaga: Absolutely. We wanted to put the question out there—what are you going to do? And so in season two, I want to dive into some of the solutions.

Our hope is to have a second season that is a little bit more fleshed out. Maybe longer episodes so we can dive deeper into the issues and the characters.

Healy: We want to challenge people and inspire people to think of solutions in their own communities. But we also don’t want to leave people hanging. So on our site, there is a “Get Involved” page with links to some of MGs national partners. These groups are working on these issues, and it’s a way to get involved in your own backyard.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are things to build off and places to join.

Liz: The show has a strong message. What does success for the series look like?

Iturriaga: I think getting stories like this to be more prevalent, where folks of color are seen not as the victims but as active leaders and protagonists around these issues is crucial for us. So, artistically, I would love for it to be picked up and get distributed in a larger way.

We’d also love for it to be used as a tool. For organizers to show it in their communities. For people who aren’t necessarily thinking about these things to see the show and start to understand how gentrification and climate aren’t separate issues.

That’s my goal as an artist. To create stories that address real issues, spark conversation and invite viewers to see how they can be part of change. I hope this series does that.

Check out the first episode below and watch the whole first season on their website.