Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Saturday, June 24, 2006
HEADING EAST: JUNE 22, 2006
Our ride stated auspiciously at City Hall: only days after Dellums’ victory was announced, he was holding a press conference in Ogawa Plaza. We seized the opportunity and rode over to talk to him. Under a blazing sun (it must have been close to 90 degrees) Dellums appeared incredibly cool while wearing an elegant white suit. We had to wait to make our break into the crowd to talk to him. When we did, he gave us his full attention.
We explained the premise of our project and then asked him to give us three to five words that would describe West and East Oakland. He answered (almost majestically) that “Humanity can’t be reduced to three words.” Towering at well over 6’,Dellums then flowed into his political reverie, outlining West Oakland’s post-industrial woes and his vision for revitalization. After a few minutes, Dellums returned from his trance-like political oration; as he focused his gaze upon us, he discussed his plans for ‘greening’ Oakland and invited us to be members of his citizen-based environmental committee.
Dellums’ pr crew ushered him along; he couldn’t move very quickly. Every few feet he was stopped by optimistic passers-by, who all hoped that the change in Oakland’s ‘leadership’ will offer Oakland a chance at a new soul. Look here to read a very insightful interview with Ron Dellums as part of the UC Berkeley Institute of International Studies. He said this about his childhood in West Oakland:
“I was born in 1935. West Oakland, early on, was a definite community. There were many white ethnics who lived in West Oakland as a working-class community. When World War II began, West Oakland became the major point of entry for black people coming in from the South, who came in to take advantage of the economic expansion and opportunities of the war economy, as it were. As a result of that, suddenly West Oakland over night becomes a small Southern town.”
It is also important to note that his uncle was instrumental in forming the African American trade union in the history of America, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Quite a few people we surveyed listed the Parkway Movie Theater as an East Oakland landmark, so we decided that this would be an appropriately short and flat route on this blistering day. The City has made an temporary bike lane alongside of the lake. Measure DD renovation plans include the construction of a permanent bike route along the lake. For now it is a good effort; just be careful at the entrance/exit on Lakeshore; there is an abrupt merge between the bike lane and street due to the preservation of parking. Our trusty videographer, Erin Melina Stamos, followed us by car to film the journey.
On our way to the Parkway, we decided to visit the Merritt Bakery, another East Oakland icon. The restaurant had recently suffered from a fire; it was open for business while part of it was under reconstruction. We waved to and had brief conversations with the construction workers. The Merritt Bakery, an old time diner, is tucked away in a very suburban looking strip mall.
As we slowly rode around, we thought about where we could set up our rig. Strip malls, often with names like “town square”, “the commons” or “plaza” attempt to recall a time when cities and towns had public space where community gathering was an important part of daily life. Now one is hard pressed to find space in the so-called public domain that isn’t actually under some sort of private jurisdiction. At the risk of getting booted out (as we had been at Fruitvale Village a few weeks ago), we decided to talk to people on the sidewalk outside of the recently renovated Albertson’s. Before we could even turn our rig around, a young shopper stopped us to find out what we were all about. Turns out that his true interest was in hitching a ride from us with his load of groceries back into downtown (central?) Oakland. Since we had just come from that direction, we declined the adventure. He did offer that he thought we weren’t yet in East Oakland, and that he felt that he lived in West Oakland at around 7th and Washington.
After we set up on the sidewalk, people pretty much ignored us. Maybe it was because of the heat, or maybe because people busy with their shopping and driving had no time for an unusual experience. We didn’t go after people; we didn’t want to be mistaken for pollsters, solicitors or petitioners. Just as we were giving up all hope for an interesting encounter at Albertson’s, a woman with her cart stopped to talk to us. At first her expression was very closed; she seemed almost disturbed by what we were doing. Then, after a few minutes of back and forth Q & A, she understood what was going on. She was a long-time resident of this neighborhood, which she told us was not really considered East Oakland. At one time it was called the San Antonio. Then, more recently, it was changed to the Upper East Lake. When we asked her about the significance of the name change, she told us she thought it was all about image. If the name is different or changed, then this will change people’s perceptions too. Once considered dangerous, this neighborhood is now desirable. (According to the Walk Oakland Map, this particular neighborhood has no specific name.) Also, even though she felt that this area was not actually East Oakland, she believed that Lake Merritt was the dividing line between west and east.
She also commented on the name change of 14th Street to International: she’s in favor of both the name change and the changes to the neighborhoods themselves, especially Fruitvale. She attributes the positive trend to influx of Asians and Latinos, as well as Brown’s efforts.
It was interesting to see that the longer we spoke with her, the more she blossomed: it seemed like it had been a long time since someone asked her to express her opinion.
We rode on to the Parkway. Since it was in the early afternoon, the theater was shut. There was no one there we could talk to. Unsure of where to go next, we continued to ride on Park Boulevard. We passed some new funky looking cafes, a clothing store---
He helped to start the youth program at the park several years ago; there’s a computer lab with some twenty machines and all sorts of summer programs for kids. While we were there, we saw various camp counselors leading games for kids from five years on up. Some of the teenagers were helping to run the groups. He believes that it is vital for kids to have a safe place to learn and play together. He’s there every day to run the center.
This oasis is flanked with huge redwood trees. The park has a unique sculpture: near one edge of the park stands a group of four proud mules. We asked John the story behind the mules. He chuckled and said, “Do you know whose house this used to be?” The rec center is JM Smith’s granddaughters house. Smith, who discovered a vast reserve of borax in the desert, built his vast estate covered five blocks of Park Boulevard. The name of his company was Twenty Mule Borax. In 1912, he gave the city this plot of land with specific instructions that it be used as a park for kids.
We enjoyed talking to John and some of the kids at the park, who described East Oakland as “hyphy”; the cool shade was a welcome break from the day’s brutal heat. We asked John for some tips on local sites. He suggested that we cruise around some of the old mansions near 10th Avenue. We climbed up 21st Street, a tough chore under the blazing afternoon sun, but well worth the effort. On our way to 10th Ave., we passed through some welcoming neighborhoods with 1920s homes and a healthy sprinkle of local businesses and shops.
We rode around to tour these fantastic victorian homes. We highly recommend the visit. Other than a few languid waves, we didn’t talk to anyone. The heat had made everyone move in thick, slow motion. Luckily our ride back was all downhill. The lake seemed very enticing as we rode by, heading towards home.
Thursday, June 22, 2006
Sunday, June 18, 2006
JUNE 17 RECONNAISSANCE RIDE
People have been asking us, SO what about North Oakland? Even though we live have lived in North Oakland for about 20 years, we, along with others, have questions about its boundaries and ever-changing characteristics. But for this project, because we are interested in exploring the idea of being a local tourist, we wanted to focus on areas of the city that are unfamiliar to us.
June 17th was the third annual Temescal Street Fair. We thought this event would provide an interesting opportunity for conversation. The day was glorious: the sun was brilliant, the air was hot and crisp. A good day for a festival. The atmosphere was almost electric with excitement. It is amazing how the closing off of a major street changes the community dynamic. People really enjoyed being able to freely walk about Telegraph Avenue.
In the two hours that we were at the Fair, we spoke with well over a hundred people. Since people were leisurely experiencing the fair, they had plenty of time to talk to us and fill out survey forms. We spoke with local folks, people who were new to the neighborhood, people from West Oakland and people who live in East Oakland. We spoke with people of all ages and colors.
It was interesting to note that most of the survey responses were very positive about Oakland in general and West and East Oakland in specific. In some of our previous conversations with people, responses about West and East Oakland have been predominantly negative, such as “ghetto, dangerous, dirty”. At the street fair, we had included with some negative responses, we also had some inspirational responses such as “Victorian homes, up and coming, progressive, funky, cheap”.
What impresses us consistently is how sincere, serious and honest people are when they participate in the project. It is exciting for us to see how this adventure has become a platform for sharing people’s opinions and engaging in an important city dialog.
Among all of the interesting conversations with had with folks at the fair, probably among the most memorable were the stories shared by two older African American men.
One lamented, “West Oakland is not what it used to be. When I lived there, in the 1940s and ‘50s, there was a sense of community and camaraderie: people knew each other. There were black owned businesses. When the freeways were built, many homes were destroyed and people were forced to move to East Oakland. Now it’s like a ghost town.” He told me some important landmarks are: Esther’s Orbit Room, Ramondy Park and the 16th Street Train Station. He describes Grand Avenue as the dividing line for the West, but in general believes that “…all maps are political. How the city is divided up and what is called West and what is called East all depends on the politicians and how they want to see the city.”
Pursey, the other older man that I talked to for awhile, first told me that he admired our tandem bike because he thought it was a great way to pick up the ladies! In wondering where is South Oakland, he thought that West Oakland is actually south and that anything east of Lake Merritt is East Oakland. He grew up in West Oakland in the 1940s, but he remembers that his mother got them out of there as soon as she could because “it was a negative place.” Blacks moved from West to East Oakland when construction forced them out: the freeways, the post office. But people also wanted to move to East Oakland because a lot of the houses were newer. Now West Oakland is being gentrified and people want those old houses: “I remember in the 70s I had the opportunity to buy a house, a beautiful Victorian, for eleven thousand dollars. Now lots of people from San Francisco, not blacks, are buying houses and moving to West Oakland.” Wikipedia has a good overview of West Oakland history.
After talking to Pursey, we enjoyed some delicious food from Tanjia, a local Moroccan restaurant, an early member of Temescal’s so-called gourmet ghetto. Then we wrapped up our conversations for the day.
Thursday, June 15, 2006
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
TEMESCAL STREET FAIR: JUNE 17, 2006
Saturday, June 10, 2006
TO THE MIDDDLE: JUNE 10, 2006
At least a good third of the people we have talked to so far have told us that Lake Merritt is the dividing line for the city: the east is on one side, the west is on the other. So we thought that we would travel to the zone of the great divide to find out people’s opinions there. What better place to meet folks than the Saturday Grand Lake Farmer’s Market?
The marketers are generally an inquisitive and pleasant lot: people are out for a leisurely Saturday shopping experience. A good number of people stopped to talk to us. Interestingly enough, people spent a long and thoughtful amount of time filling out survey forms. Even though we spoke to well over 20 people, we have only ten forms completed. Pairs and small groups of folks often collaborated on the forms. You can click on Flikr (the right orange bar) to see all of the completed surveys.
One woman questioned our survey format: she took our sociological endeavor to heart and believed that we should “…restate your questions in order to get a much broader perspective of what people really think.” She was bothered, as we have been too, by the generally negative descriptions of West and East Oakland. According to her, West Oakland is “The place where the city began” and East Oakland is full of “culturally diverse neighborhoods.” We appreciate her concern and sincerity. Because of her comments, we have since changed the questions on our survey forms.
Just by chance, we had set up our rig near the Oaklandish booth. Up until a few months ago, Oaklandish, a group of creative renegades and urban activists had an eccentric warehouse art gallery/community center/alternative Oakland museum in the produce district in near Jack London Square. The City ousted them from this space. Now that the group is nomadic, they have a stall at this and other farmers markets. Check out their website for a full listing of exciting events this summer, including movies projected on the sides of downtown buildings, weekly games at Ogawa Plaza and short-wave Radio Regatta at Lake Merritt on July 16th. It is also worth reading the recent Express article about Oaklandish, which describes their recent history.