Scenes from the aftermath in Oakland:
stories of victims, survivors and healers.

Monday, August 2, 2010

East is East

Try as I might, I can’t disassociate myself from the pernicious Oakland, the one that seems so different from the green, peaceful Oakland I’ve lived in for the past ten years.

I identify as an Oaklander, and I had long been trying to define Oakland by its hills, its restaurants, its proximity to wild spaces, its public integration and its aura of counter-cultural romance; that has been an act of avoidance. The passion and pain of everyday life on Oakland’s bloody streets define Oakland as much as anything else, no matter how much I might succeed in arranging my own life here to deny this. You can’t write about Oakland without writing about the open, flowing wound of daily violence it cultivates.

Call it a feeling of guilt I’m reacting to, if you want to. I prefer to characterize it as neighborly concern, or civic alertness. Whatever it is, I can’t help it.

Fortunately, what I find as I orbit the outskirts of that other Oakland, which is my Oakland, is a strange, intrepid, human beauty that thrives amid the grief and pain and violence, a network of people willing to go shieldless into the wrecked lives and neighborhoods to pick up the pieces.

It is endlessly interesting to follow people like Marilyn Harris of the Khadafy Foundation, who arrives within 24 hours to help the families of the slain, or to visit with the Crisis Response team at Catholic Charities, who provide longer term help to the survivors, or to listen to gang-interventionist Kevin Grant, who takes his team to the most violent corners of the city at the most violence-prone hours of the night to preach calm, or parolee re-entry specialist Dan Simmons, who understands the temptation to re-enter your old life when you get out of jail, or Ann Marks, whose team at YouthAlive approach the literally wounded, the gunshot victims at Highland Hospital, to finally address the damage done by bullets to minds and souls. Daily these people challenge my own hard-fired cynicism.

This work arose from defensiveness about Oakland’s image across the country, and from the fact that invariably at restaurants in Oakland I encounter a common, unselfconscious mix of white and African-American and Latino and Asian, and smugly think, “You will never find a more integrated city than Oakland.”*

And yet every night from my bed in my house on a little green hill in East Oakland I can hear the gunfire in the flatlands. (I mark the time, anticipate the news report.) This part of Oakland, the Oakland of the killers and the dead, their nurturers and survivors, is hardly integrated. The killers and the dead are African-American and Latino, and very occasionally Asian. Of the 52 (by some counts, I count 54) homicides in 2010, not one victim has been white. It is as if to be white in Oakland is to be immortal.

You can’t define the things you love or hate solely on your own terms.** I can’t define Oakland by the beauty and the food, or even by the mixing-bowl crowds at its eating establishments. They are aspects of a complex civic personality.

Still, it is possible in Oakland to live a great, peaceful, safe, delicious life while giving only infrequent, passing attention to the other side. This is not to say that my neighbors don’t love all of Oakland, or that they are unmoved by the killing here. But only that, in real life, we read about the killings, or hear about them on the TV news, and we feel bad a moment, maybe more, but then we move on. We have to move on. What else are we supposed to do? It’s just that it seems possible that in the moving we forgo, we surrender the energy to make change.

And so, moving forward, this work will be dedicated to the stories of the people who, unlike me most of my life, refuse to move on.

But first, something about the relationship between the Oakland I live in, and the one where most of the killed lived in, the one most people outside of Oakland seem most aware of. It’s frustrating.

I’m not alone in my frustration with Oakland’s image problem. Indeed, some who live in these East Oakland foothills don’t like to hear this part of the city referred to as “East Oakland,” with all its violent connotations. Of our 52 homicides so far this year, far more than half have occurred on the low-lying streets of the larger section of town referred to as East Oakland.

These East Oakland killings usually take place somewhere along MacArthur Boulevard, International Boulevard, or in the high numbered avenues: 89th Avenue, 79th Avenue, 78th Avenue, 77th and Ney, 92nd and Bancroft. These last two intersections are where two teenagers were killed within 9 hours of each other on March 28th.

I live about five miles from where they were killed in the blandly, if accurately, named neighborhood called Glenview. (A future posting will consider the great neighborhood names of Oakland and give a go at orienting readers to the lay of the land of Oak.) Last month in our neighborhood newspaper, which we share with an adjacent, more upscale neighborhood called Montclair, some local wrote an op-ed suggesting that for the benefit of their property values, Montclair should secede from the troubled city, in just the way wealthy, racist Piedmont did 103 years ago. Piedmont is adjacent to Glenview and Montclair. From my front porch, I can see the mansions of Piedmont lording it in the hills to our north. A city of 1.8 square miles, Piedmont is entirely surrounded by Oakland.

Like an unimaginably wealthy municipal monk, the city of Piedmont is inside of Oakland but not of it. It’s a gilded civic island and we are the brackish waters circling. If we were a calzone, it would be the meat and sauce and we the dry dough. End of metaphors.

Unlike its complicated oakey crust, Piedmont has famously good public schools whose permanent records are uncorrupted by the necessity of educating poor kids who failed to attend pre-school, or who might have behavioral problems, or who might have only one, harried parent unable to or uninterested in monitoring their schoolwork.

Piedmont has awe-inspiring mansions lining its seemingly deserted streets. It is home to the biggest house in all of the ostentatiously wealthy Bay Area. It is owned by the guy who invented wireless microphones. There are houses in Piedmont that sell for $4, $5, $6 million. Some of these estates are less than 2 miles from my little house in view of the glen.

Over in Montclair, the mostly mid-century architecture never rises to the gloating-grandeur level of Piedmont’s. But Montclair does have more old, pretty trees. Montclair has very high priced houses. Not Piedmont-high, but some pretty amazing, woodsy, multi-million dollar hideaways. Nevertheless, economically and in terms of reputation, Montclair is Piedmont’s poor sister, the one who married the patent attorney instead of the inventor. It is Oakland to Piedmont’s San Francisco.

Just like the time when I was a kid and ran away from home, if Montclair should succeed from Oakland, probably no one would notice for awhile. We would of course eventually feel the pain in our pocketbooks, as I’m sure comparatively wealthy Montclair bears a good deal of the city’s tax burden. But in our everyday lives, no one would notice it was gone, because it is the least interesting neighborhood of Oakland. Most Oaklanders have never been there because, besides its two independent book stores (I give it credit for that), there is nothing in Montclair you couldn’t find elsewhere.

There is edible food in Montclair, but in a city growing ever richer with lively culinary gems, there is nothing interesting to eat there. If you’re looking for a great meal you go to Temescal, Uptown, Jack London, even Glenview.

Montclair’s streets can bustle, but the bustlers are pretty homogenous. If it’s a lively, Oakland street scene you seek, you either head to the Fruitvale section of International Boulevard or hipster Piedmont Avenue (which by the way is not in Piedmont, but Oakland).

While not necessarily criminal, the public architecture in Montclair isn’t noteworthy. If you want cool old architecture, you go to Uptown, or Old Oakland, or you check out the Victorian and Italianate beauties around Chestnut and Linden Streets, over behind the giant post office in West Oakland.
A saltbox style cottage in Oakland

Montclair does have its uses. Actually, I go there all the time. It has a post office, two pharmacies, two supermarkets, two coffee houses, a bar, a park, some banks, and the kind of moribund department store you emerge from with a crushing depression. But no purchased items.

The secessionist op-ed writer couched her proposal as an antidote to living in a city -- Oakland -- with incompetent leadership. Fair enough. To secede would free Montclairians from submitting their tax dollars to be mismanaged by Oakland’s city government. It would also free it from being tainted by Oakland’s crime statistics, which keep its real estate values down in the single-digit millions. Actually the median house price in Montclair is closer to $600,000. Seceding from Oakland would keep Montclair from being positioned technically east of Downtown Oakland, and the shame of occasionally being characterized as being in “East Oakland.”

Although I do not live there, I would like to start a petition drive in favor of the secession of Montclair from Oakland, and I would like to suggest that the people of Montclair perhaps broach the idea of annexation with the leaders of Piedmont. You could be called East Piedmont.

* Not that I spend that much time in other cities. Some time, though. I travel, and I pay attention. But I can’t really say with complete authority that I wouldn’t encounter the same ethnic and racial mix at public places in L.A. or Atlanta, or Newark. I wouldn’t in San Francisco, of course. San Francisco isn’t even chronologically mixed. Sometimes when I’m at restaurants in S.F. I wonder what they have done with all the people over 40. I start to feel a bit paranoid. Everyone is noticeably young, the boys carefully unkempt -- this in Oakland, too -- while the girls, who have clearly put some effort into how they look, seem perfectly fine with this. Anyway, public San Francisco never comes across as integrated, while public Oakland does.

** You can’t define yourself by yourself. Something unwanted will always insist you are not entirely who you have been trying to think you are. Working for months on this serious project about violence in Oakland, I’ve so far been unable to convince a magazine to agree to publish any related piece. I've gotten thoughtful responses, but no interest in assigning a story, yet. However, recently I did get an email from an editor asking me to write a feature about cupcakes. I need the money and I like the magazine so I said Yes, but, despite the crushing, frightening things I’ve witnessed or learned in six months on the death beat, the cupcake assignment forced me to adjust my view of myself as a serious person working on stories of consequence. Also I’m worried about my weight...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

fyi, Piedmont did not secede from Oakland, and there was nothing racist about its origins. It incorporated in 1907 when it was surrounded by a bunch of unincorporated towns (all of which were booming as a result of migration from earthquake-destroyed SF, and all of which would eventually be annexed by Oakland). Back then, all of the east bay was generally mixed ethnically, and blacks were just 3% of the population. Oakland did not become a destination for blacks until World War II, so race had nothing to do with the origins of Piedmont.