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A Unified Theory of a Tough Town

Violence and art, burglaries and beer halls: How many Oaklands can there be?

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A series of images from Oakland, by Peter Earl McCollough. 
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My father-in-law is up from L.A. for a visit. After the funerals and before walk number three, I have just enough time to meet him and my wife at Bocanova in Jack London Square. We sit on the patio, drink sangria, eat a little. I don’t talk much, but it is nice to be here. Until recently, Jack London Square had the look and feel of a dying suburban mall, but now, despite the still mostly empty monstrosity of a structure that was to be Oakland’s answer to the Ferry Building, the neighborhood feels alive, populated, “in an exciting state of growth,” as Melissa Davis puts it in her new book, This Is Oakland.

Ten years ago, Davis could not have written her guide to Oakland’s restaurants and idiosyncratic shops. It’s a glossy, upbeat book, but, given its title, it has proved a bit controversial, or at least incomplete. The book goes neighborhood by neighborhood through the city, extolling perfect lattes and vintage treasures, but it excludes many of the city’s vibrant districts. This Is Some of Oakland might have been a more accurate title. There’s no Fruitvale in Davis’s book, certainly no Dimond or Brookdale Village. Few who read it will have walked the busy commercial district at Coolidge and Foothill, or eaten at the taqueria at 45th and International, where the tacos are delicious but the woman who takes your order knows no English.

“It’s my perception about the places I think are really interesting to go in Oakland,” Davis tells me one day over lunch at a restaurant in Old Oakland. “Everybody would have a different list of what they would include.” It truly is a gorgeous, tasteful, delicious, and inviting Oakland that Davis presents, in photos full of energy and human beauty. Hers is a new vision of a hip, glamorous, upwardly mobile Oakland, one that the city’s leaders understandably love to promote. Her project was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign ($22,555 from 260 backers), and she says that many of her funders were motivated by a desire to transform the narrative of the city. “A lot of them wrote us little messages,” she says, “saying how excited they were about the book and that they wanted to help change perceptions of the city.”

I understand that desire, and yet, as I head back to International Boulevard in East Oakland, to a fluorescent-lit room in an unmarked church off a parking lot, I also worry about what will be overlooked, or purposely ignored. Entering through glass doors, I see that the Reverend Damita Davis-Howard is already here, surrounded by folding chairs, a drum kit, lecterns, and an organ. She’s getting ready for the weekly walk that’s become a crucial component of Ceasefire Oakland, the newly revitalized violence reduction campaign that seeks to reach the city’s most dangerous citizens before they turn to the gun again. Every Friday night at one of four churches on upper International, Reverend Damita and several other pastors gather alongside other compassionate Oaklanders, and together they walk the neighborhood, engaging anyone they encounter. Since these walks began back in October 2012, many ranking Oakland police officers and local politicians have joined them. The mayor is a regular walker. Larry Reid, who represents East Oakland on the city council, is not. Tonight there are 20 of us here. Some walks draw as few as 10 people; once, in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, the total was nearly 120.

The neighborhood where we’ll walk is the residential heart of Oakland’s most violent area, where more than half of the city’s homicides occur. This is near where 13-year-old Lee-Edward Weathersby III became the city’s first homicide of 2014. Three weeks later, just a few blocks off International, his brother Lamar Broussard became a victim as well. In February, Derrick “Big Moose” Simmons was killed nearby. In April, Louis Montgomery was shot and killed on International, just a few blocks east of where we are meeting tonight. This Oakland suffers not just from violence, but also from poverty and neglect. It was the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis in Oakland, a city where 20,000 notices of default were received and more than 10,500 completed foreclosures occurred between 2007 and 2012.

Before we set out, Reverend Damita advises us to be careful on the walk, not to take pictures or give anyone money, and not to proselytize. “Tonight,” she says, “is not the night we are going out there to save souls in the traditional way.” The most important rule is this: Greet everyone you see—we are not here to be shy or ashamed. Reverend Damita calls this work a “ministry of presence,” meant to demonstrate neighborhood solidarity and to show the troubled young men on the streets that their lives matter and their crimes will be witnessed. From a big cardboard box, everyone grabs a yellow jacket with “Ceasefire Oakland” written on the back. In disheveled lines, we snake our way through the blocks that straddle the boulevard between 85th and 90th. Some of the busier avenues are strewn with garbage, plastic bags, crumbling drywall, whatever. But back in the neighborhood, lit by street lamps and porch lights, the aging houses seem warm and peaceful—except for all the dogs barking. These are working-class folks, says Reverend Damita: The big fences and the dogs are a first line of defense. Don’t be offended. Don’t make judgments.

This is harder than it sounds. Although I like to preach the need for all of Oakland to see itself as one community, as we walk these streets where I sometimes work but don’t live, I feel like an uninvited guest. I feel as if my presence alone constitutes an affront to this neighborhood: an assumption that it needs me, of all people, to change it; that it can’t change itself. Reverend Damita is the antidote to my timidity. She greets everyone we encounter with boldness and joy and the message—delivered especially to the young ones—that we can’t abide any more dead, any more wounded, any more young men sent off to jail. Right now I don’t care what else you do, she tells them, but please put down the guns. She asks the young people to unite with us, to walk: Hey, we do this every Friday night. Why don’t you join us next week? We’ll be at so-and-so church around 6:30.

Passing cars honk in support. Folks sitting on porches or working on cars smile and wave. Some of the younger men on the street seem bemused by our presence. A few shy away, but most at least say hello. One very drunk or possibly very high young man asks us to pray for him. We join hands, and one of our group, a chaplain from Highland General Hospital, elegantly composes an impromptu prayer that combines a plea for help and a thanks to God. Then we make our unhurried way back to the church.


After walking for an hour or so in the dark, I take my leave and drive over to West Grand, where I park and submit to the tail end of another First Fridays event. I’m not a huge fan of First Fridays (and definitely not of the crushing crowds), but I love the Oakland that the monthly festival seeks to promote, especially the rich side streets of Uptown.

This is my last walk of the day, walk number four, up and down a carless Telegraph Avenue. The official part of the event is nearly over, and the vendors are breaking down displays. But the street is still full of revelers, wanderers, and a diverse group of young people, many smoking weed and yelling to each other about where to go next. Bars and restaurants brim with patrons. Life everywhere.

I slip into Warehouse 416, a gallery on 26th Street. I like the space, decline to judge the art, and very much appreciate the makeshift bar at the back, where I order a cold Linden Street beer. I am back in Melissa Davis’s Oakland, an Oakland that I admit I find appealing, although after two funerals and a sometimes-tense, emotionally charged walk with Reverend Damita on International Boulevard, I have to squint to recognize it. For me, for a moment, the two Oaklands exist simultaneously. I see the crowd’s joy as coming not from ignorance of the city’s problems but in spite of them. It’s a sign of strength. I know that if the city is to change how it sees itself—and how others see it—it will need Melissa Davis to spread the word, almost as much as it needs Reverend Damita to spread the peace.

I think about the reactions to the very word Oakland described by Schaaf, Johnson, and Cummings. Schaaf is running for mayor—she actually wants to lead this difficult city. For years, Johnson has hired Oaklanders newly out of prison to work at his restaurant, just to give them a chance at a new life. Cummings has been a key figure in the rebirth of Ceasefire Oakland. They are the resilient and unified face of Oakland, and as I recall their own assessments of the place where they live, I think they’ve gotten it just right.

It is a beautiful city, a tough town.


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco.

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