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A Unified Theory of a Tough Town
James O'Brien | Photo: Peter Earl McCollough | May 23, 2014
Violence and art, burglaries and beer halls: How many Oaklands can there be?
Editor's Note: This is the first of many dispatches from Oakland that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of our June "Oakland Issue." To see the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.
Oakland’s reputation precedes its residents wherever we go. It’s the extra baggage we carry, the initiator of awkward, chin-scratching, even demoralizing encounters. The first time it happened to Oakland city councilmember Libby Schaaf, she was in middle school, at a Girl Scout convention in Washington, D.C. When she said that she was from Oakland, someone asked her if she felt scared to live there. “The only thing I could think of that was negative about where I lived,” says Schaaf, who grew up in leafy Montclair, “was that deer sometimes ate my mother’s flowers.” Derreck Johnson grew up in Campbell Village, a troubled housing project in West Oakland, and is today the owner of late-night mainstay Home of Chicken and Waffles. And yet, people tell him that he doesn’t seem like he’s from Oakland. “Where do I seem like I’m from?” he responds with frustration. Dr. George Cummings, an eminent theologian and senior pastor at Imani Community Church in East Oakland, runs into the same perceptions. “‘Oakland is a bad place, Oakland is a violent place, who wants to live in Oakland?’” The aspersions pain him because he knows a different truth: “Oakland is a beautiful place.” That it is.
More than any other city I’ve lived in, Oakland serves up reminders of how slippery perceptions are, how they can simultaneously adhere to reality and break from it. Indeed, even for longtime locals, Oakland’s disparate identities—the sunny idyll of Lake Merritt, the relative peace of the hills, the violence and deprivation of the flatlands—can seem to engage in frequent, direct combat right in our daily lives.
One rainy night last winter, I went with a friend to Hog’s Apothecary, a gleaming, newish beer hall on 40th Street. The place was alive with happy-seeming people. We ate rabbit and pork sausage, drank a few beers, and had a great time. While my friend went to the restroom, I actually spent a few minutes thinking about how much I love this rising aspect of Oakland life, about how maybe I could forget the stuff I write about as a journalist and worry about as a resident—the shootings and the killings and the burglaries and the political ineptitude—and for a while pretend that I lived in nonthreatening Portland or Boise. Finally, my friend got back from the john. We paid our bill and made our way to his car, parked right on busy 40th, to find the windows smashed in and everything inside stolen. It triggered an empty feeling, and I thought, Oakland, why do you do this? But later, I reconsidered. I wondered how many car windows in how many cities across America had been smashed that night. Many, no doubt. So why did the break-in seem to resonate so much more because it had happened here? It didn’t seem fair. Surely Oakland is more than its crime, just as I presume that San Francisco is more than that urine smell and all the shattered Google Glass everywhere.
I wondered, as I have many times while entering a buzzing new restaurant or attending a young man’s funeral or reading an out-of-town journalist’s account of my city, what is Oakland? How many can there be? And so, on a sun-splashed, springlike morning in late winter, I cast out in search of a unified theory of the Town. During my one–day pilgrimage, I traverse over 50 miles, five of them on foot. I take four very different walks, touching down in the green Oakland, the trashy, blighted Oakland, the suffocating, painful Oakland, and the thriving, boozy, fun-loving Oakland. Everywhere, I encounter the resilient Oakland. And when I get home late that night, I think I know where the city’s hope lies.
The day starts peacefully. Shortly after sunrise, my neighbor and I take Bella the dog for a walk through the narrow streets of Glenview, down to a creek. It has rained this week, and the creek has a good flow on. The dog finds the water while the humans tramp along the slippery path, talking about work and neighbors and kids. The banks are a profusion of green. There’s manroot and blackberry, alders, oaks, bays, redwoods, and, as always, invasive eucalyptus. Eventually the trail crosses the creek and winds upward to Old Canyon Road. This is one Oakland: green, diverse, lush, and growing.
The city is hilly but not mountainous. It is a physically beautiful place, but unlike in San Francisco, the beauty doesn’t confront you at every hill crested or corner turned. You have to seek it out. Try standing at Van Buren and Euclid and looking north to the hills or south to the gleaming lake. Stroll the beautiful unpainted remnants of the town once known as Brooklyn at the strange elbow bend in International between 12th and 14th Avenues. Or feel the moody haze as you sit on the little knoll just east of Lake Merritt at dusk in autumn. Some early spring day at sunset, find your way to the obscure meeting place of Wellington Street and Everett Avenue in the foothills, watch the sun blast its way onto the city’s broken-comb skyline, and try not to be moved. Walk certain historic blocks in West Oakland, rich in architecture, any time of the day or year: Eighth Street between Henry and Pine, or Chester between Fifth Street and South Prescott Park.
Like any great beauty, Oakland is an entity that both seduces and frustrates. Part of its modern image problem originated in the fraught, acrimonious way that it was reintroduced to the nation in the late ’60s, after decades out of the national consciousness, decades during which the wartime economic boom went bust, downtown sank into depression, and West and East Oakland suffered social and political neglect.
That reintroduction began on May 2, 1967, not in Oakland, but in Sacramento, and in newspapers nationwide. Thirty young Oaklanders, many of them carrying rifles or handguns (legally), marched onto the grounds of the state capitol. To a gathering of local and national press, one of the marchers, Bobby Seale, read aloud Executive Mandate No. 1 of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Panthers had been born out of a combination of despair over the city’s decaying minority neighborhoods and a simultaneous intellectual flowering at Oakland’s Merritt College. Their impolitely put, if practical, idea—if the city isn’t going to help us, well, then fuck you, we’ll just help ourselves—shocked America. A city once known for being the left-most stop on the transcontinental railroad and the hometown of suicidal socialist mega-author and failed mayoral candidate Jack London was building a reputation for anger, arms, and radicalism.
A still bigger, more enduring problem was already beginning to grind out corpses in Oakland, although it would be a long time before anyone understood its meaning and impact. Oakland had 20 homicides in 1960. In 1970, it had 69. In 1973, the number hit 100 for the first time. Forty years later, despite murders falling to a nine-year low of 92 last year, some neighborhoods witness such regular gun violence that they suffer from a kind of civic post-traumatic stress disorder. Even Oakland’s nonviolent neighborhoods have acquired what you might call pre-PTSD: Fearful that a rash of home burglaries could morph into physical assaults and violence, they have begun funding private security firms to patrol their streets (a phenomenon with its own deadly repercussions).
The assumption that the Town is dysfunctional and dangerous has long been the starting point for visiting writers. It’s funny, if occasionally disheartening, to see how Oakland has been dismissed with the back of a journalist’s hand over the years. About a year after the Black Panthers announced Oakland’s reappearance on the national scene, Sports Illustrated sent Frank Deford here to figure out how such a troubled, middling village could suddenly have five professional sports teams: the Raiders, the Clippers (soccer), the Seals (NHL), the Oaks (basketball), and, newest of all, the Athletics. The simple answer was Oakland’s state-of-the-art coliseum complex, but Deford found that some teams’ owners—Al Davis in particular—were already threatening to move. “The way they chose taking all these teams at once is not my approach to life,” Davis told the writer. Then as now, San Jose (“a new lion...a sprawling, urban adolescent”) was angling to draw teams away. The article’s title, “City of Complexes,” referred not just to the coliseum but also to the chip on Oakland’s shoulder, to its “angry Negroes” and its resentment of glorious San Francisco.
In the San Francisco Chronicle, Herb Caen made fun of Oakland for worrying so much about its reputation: “Caenfucius say: Cities that worry about ‘image problems’ have incurable image problem.” But it’s hard not to bristle when you find the place where you live referred to, in various publications over many decades, as “one of America’s must-miss cities” or “San Francisco’s homely little sibling” or “San Francisco’s service entrance” or, at best, “quirky, lived-in,” as if Oakland were a friend’s run-down house that you were trying to describe gently. These quips are the things of which a chip on the shoulder is made.
Back home after my first walk of the day, I shower, change, and drive to a church at 75th Avenue and International Boulevard in East Oakland. In the late-morning light, people mill outside or slowly make their ways into the pews. It’s a big church, a little shabby—the carpet is old and stained but still a very bright red. Before I sit down, I’m introduced to the mother of the deceased. A lovely woman, not young—her son was 43 when he was shot to death outside his East Oakland home. She is crying but composed. Before the service begins, I approach the open coffin to pay my respects to Derrick Simmons, aka Big Moose, a wide, burly man with a longish, thin beard, rough hands folded across his chest, and twelve kids, two of whom are named Derrick after him.
As the service starts, I sit near the back of the church with Marilyn Washington Harris, who, since losing her only son to the gun in 2000, has devoted herself to helping devastated families of homicide victims. Some time into the service, Harris has to leave. She heads down the street to a mortuary at 68th and International to check on the family of Marcellus Perry, 18, whose funeral is scheduled for noon. I follow her a bit later, walking the seven blocks down to the mortuary. This is walk number two for the day.
I’ve been to a lot of funerals of homicide victims in Oakland, and I’ve noticed that when the deceased is as young as Marcellus, the chapel seems restive, the emotions more flammable. Today, white-jacketed gang intervention specialists have stationed themselves outside the mortuary—unarmed volunteer peacekeepers on guard to prevent anything from flaring up. Two weeks ago, Marcellus got into a gunfight. He lost, and now he is laid out at the front of a chapel too small for this crowd of mourners, many of whom—perhaps the majority of whom—are as young as he.
I approach the open coffin to pay my respects, wondering why this murder happened and whether it could have been prevented. Marcellus had just entered that deadly Oakland demographic, 18 to 34, the age range of most of our victims and most of our killers. He has on a white shirt and a baby-blue bow tie, and many of the mourners also wear white and baby blue—they are not gang colors, probably just Marcellus’s favorites. It is extremely warm in the packed chapel, so hot that someone faints. Even the vestibule is overcrowded. While we wait for the service to begin, a TV screen at the front of the chapel flashes a slide show of images of nature: wildflowers, waterfalls, snowcapped mountains. During the expressions, very young friends and relatives revisit fond memories. One eloquent young man laments the number of funerals he has had to attend in his young life. This is another Oakland we know: the damaged Oakland, the city in despair, the one with which all other Oaklands must contend.