For those of you discovering and gentrifying Oakland, know that there are those of us who have lived here for decades and worked relentlessly to make the city what it has become. We realized it was a jewel in the crown and that’s why we chose to live here.
Oakland: Polishing a Jewel in the Crown
By Daphne Muse
As beautiful and magical as the scores of cities I’ve worked or traveled in are including Paramaribo (Suriname), Costa Carayes (Mexico) and Capetown (South Africa), I’ve found my way back to Oakland thrilled to be here, despite the ills plaguing her. On land once inhabited and controlled by the indigenous Ohlone peoples, Oakland became a city made up of late 19th and early 20th century immigrants from Germany, Italy, China and African Americans who arrived from the Deep South during WWII. In the last three decades, the population grew to include immigrants from South East Asia, Mexico and Central America. In the last fifteen years, a growing number of people from the Middle East, Eastern Europe and West Africa have taken up residency in the city, as the Native American population has been diminished mostly to a cultural legacy.
I’m one of the more than 390,000 people who call Oakland home and reside in one of its fifty neighborhoods. I just so love me some Oakland, especially the way the morning sky unfolds as its seasonal layers display new possibilities and the sun closes out over the Bay each evening so purposefully. The ascension of the Moon over the hills pierces the transitioning night sky, as satellites dance with the stars; casting a regal glow over the city, adding to its so underestimated charm.
I’m overjoyed to be on this ever evolving journey from Chocolate City (DC back in the day) where I was born to living on what I refer to as the East Oakland Riviera. I became an urban pioneer in 1977, when I bought a rehabbed house on an eighth of an acre in the flats of the Fruitvale (Da Hood). Some mornings, as I rise to a classic photographic and panoramic view of the Bay and beyond, Red Tail Hawks are perched on my deck taunting feral cats scratching up a handout, while others from the ornithological world bop and chirp Doo Wop. Deer, raccoon, fox, wild turkey and possum also claim their territory in neighborhoods across the city. The Meyer Lemons, limes, tangelos and blood oranges in my orchard are ripening into their calling, as my rescued orchids scream their way into bloom, in January no less.
On my block the sounds of a Tongan mother gathering her children up for church, El Salvadorian matriarch using her machete to prune trees or a second generation Norwegian American cranking up his truck to go off to work are part of the daily doings. This is framed by the music of an Irish fiddler practicing for her next gig; and a Puerto Rican union organizer chillin’ on a Sunday afternoon listening to Cuban Descarga music, eclipsed by the treble beats of rap from “caboomalatin’” car stereos. There are still far too many times when the night sky is rife with bullets piercing a kind of sobering stillness, brought on by the economic downturn. Across Oakland and in many other urban enclaves, people sleep behind fortresses armed with all manner of alarm systems and weaponry at their bedsides.
As you sweep up a mile or so from my neighborhood across 580, the tone and tenor change; the Mormon and Greek Orthodox Temples ascend, back lit and holding court hillside. Up above the Temples are sometimes over built mansions with surrounding acreage, horse stables and swimming pools. There are even homes on gated private roads requiring codes to enter. In some of these homes, big decisions and deals are often made about how and who will develop and run the City. And above all of that is Redwood Regional Park crowning the city with a regal forest of 150-foot tall Sequoias, serene streams and more than 1800 acres of other evergreens and wildlife. Along with the reassuring sounds of silence, I go to Redwood to inhale and infuse my heart and mind with the blood enriching oxygen (especially before I fly). From Mosques, cathedrals and temples to ashrams, churches and natural habitats, there are diverse sanctuaries for engaging in worship and spirituality.
Markets are filled with artisanal oils, vegetables whose names require a pronunciation guide for me to say and stuff I didn’t even know the ocean contained. The abundance of culinary venues from food trucks to upscale restaurants and pop up places makes it possible to savor the flavor from old school, taking it back to your momma’s table, to fusion and sometimes confusion on a plate. In neighborhoods throughout the city, I can read, eat and shop the world from independent vendors and small business owners. I buy flowers from an Iranian in the Glenview; an African American dentist in Eastmont keeps my teeth tight; my “ride” is kept smooth by a Vietnamese mechanic in the Laurel; and the therapist who kept my “dome” from cracking when my husband died was a Latina.
Local iconic poets, novelists and social commentators including Avotcja Jiltonilro, Ishmael Reed and Helen Zia, capture the many dimensions of a city in which both the click of the Glock and camera capture lives. Images imagined and produced by Oakland artists including sculptor Mario Chiodo, painter Mary Lovelace O’Neal and ceramist Ron Nagel are in public spaces and major private collections around the world. Along with outstanding collections at the Oakland Museum, traditions and festivals abound including Art& Soul, the Oakland International Film Festival and the Greek Festival.
Just South of Lake Merritt, a wonderful reflection of Oakland’s Mediterranean topography, International Boulevard begins and so too does “Little South East Asia;” an assortment of grocery stores, fabric shops, real estate offices and restaurants serving family style meals that put you at tables in Saigon, Bangkok and Vientiane. The ritual drumbeats from the Intertribal Friendship House, one of the first urban Indian community centers in the US, juxtaposed right at the beginning of this business district, mixes with the fragrance of the boundless spices drifting out onto the streets from the myriad of Asian restaurants. This area runs for about ten blocks before a business district and neighborhood comprised primarily of Mexican, Salvadorian and fast food restaurants runs for almost 85 blocks to the boarder of San Leandro. World class chef Anthony Bourdain found himself deeply impressed by the offerings served at Tamales Mi Lupitas, one of the scores of food trucks along the Foothill corridor. While wine bars and breweries continue to emerge around Jack London Square, West Oakland and Rockridge, the ubiquitous liquor store remains mostly in the impoverished communities of the city. The evidence of the thriving burglar bar industry seemingly prevails on the windows and doors of homes where owners and renters are struggling to sustain life on “incomes” that require unprecedented economic voodoo.
Rising above this area are neighborhoods (also not immune to foreclosures) where primarily long established African American professionals, third generation Asian-American and European American families (also descendants of immigrants) live. Despite a school district rife with the problems of all too many urban centers, students from Oakland Tech, Oakland High, McClymonds and charter schools still get accepted into Harvard, Yale, Spelman, Stanford and Mills, a more than 150 year old college for women (which accepts men at the graduate level). Alumnae include Congresswoman Barbara Lee, legendary jazz musician Dave Brubeck and sports announcer Renel Brooks Moon. The current faculty includes Google Geek Ellen Spertus; Margaret Hunter, a sociologist doing ground breaking work on race gender and popular culture; and world renowned artist Hung Lui. Mills also serves as the landscape for three structures built by 19th and 20th century, Oakland architect Julia Morgan.
Along with three sports franchises—the A’s, Warriors and Raiders, a stellar blues history and as an incubator for Hip Hop and Rap, Oakland also has a strong tradition of political activism that spans the 19thth century to the Occupy Movement. I’m counting on Michael Morgan, Director of the Oakland Symphony, to write the “Occupy Opera or Concerto.” By the way, the nosebleed seats in the Paramount are acoustically superb and provide a commanding view inside our Art Deco cultural palace. With a steadily growing vibrant night life, the city’s center includes banks, hotels, federal and state buildings, and slowly re-merging retail scene. I am grateful that we have no empire tall skyscrapers. But the city center lacks even one major grocery store, despite numerous development projects that have brought thousands of new residents to Oakland.
The downtown corridor is populated by medical marijuana dispensaries and students attending Oaksterdam, a degree granting university where weed (21st century gold) is the focus for the curriculum. But it seriously grinds my guts that “Pookie” is in the joint for a couple of ounces, while medical marijuana CEO’s make a Wall Street-type killing. Any night of the week, I can engage in the intersections of music by bopping over to Yoshi’s to take in Jazz, Hip Hop or World Music. On weekends, the 57th Street Gallery riffs with up close and personal sounds from local and international jazz giants including vocalists Robin Gregory and guitarist Calvin Keyes.
Oakland is also a city where people sweep their sidewalks, tend their yards and though there are still miscreants who throw fast food containers out their car windows or dump along freeway ramps, our streets for the most part are relatively clean. There are areas mainly in East and West Oakland still riddled debris. And behind the gates and doors of some of the more elegant enclaves, at the most prestigious addresses, are things we’d never imagined would exist therein.
Sailboats, yachts and house boats, some of which have traveled the world, are moored at our estuary. You also can take a ferry from Jack London Square, cruise pass Alcatraz and take in views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bel Marin Keys. While you well may have left your heart in San Francisco, you could find your soul in Oakland. From janitors to jurists and teachers to high tech pioneers, thousands of residents contribute to growing Oakland beyond the Sisyphean lockdown in which it’s been mired for far too many decades. All too often our efforts and contributions are blocked by “greedlock” politicians whose visions are stuck in reverse gear and who remain unsophisticated in the ways of Urban Détente. While some are hell bent on destroying it, others are occupying Oakland to leave the most vital legacy possible for our children, grandchildren and generations to come. I love me some DC, Paramaribo and Capetown, but Oakland is home. In collaboration with residents, small business owners, developers and politicians, the Oakland Renaissance has been decades in the making. Long before the New York Times declared Oakland number five, just after London and before Tokyo as places to visit in 2012, we knew it was a jewel in the crown polished by the hands of thousands who love her.
Things I love about Oakland
Sweeping vistas that pan out into the Pacific Ocean, even from the flats
Bibliomania Rare Bookstore
Yoshi’s Jazz Club
The Golden Gate Ferry ride around the Bay
Culinary venues that range from nouveau sassy soul food to soul warming Southeast Asian spreads and full on fusion
Elegant evergreen, deciduous and fruit bearing trees all over the city, including Redwood Park
The all too rare sound of children playing outdoors
Quirky, Cutting edge, world class artists, musicians, writers and designers creating Cultural Crawls
Lake Merritt, our homage to the Mediterranean
Superb vintage and second hand stores
Barbara Lee, who still stands with me
Some things our city needs
Leadership that translates the potential of the city into sustainable economic, cultural and political results
A Peace Force instead of a Police Force deeply involved in working with citizens and citizens likewise involved in keeping the peace and promoting viable community relations
A Jobs Plan that takes into account the size, scale and economic as well as class and ethnic diversity of the city and what it really takes for the City and supportive services to run
Affordable and transitional housing for young people, the disabled and elderly
Reduction of the Dropout Rate in the school district by 33% in three years through mentoring and partnerships
Mounting a Home Foreclosure Restitution Program, where the City partners with community banks and credit unions to help people recover their foreclosed homes
Creating multipurpose plans for the use of schools, libraries and recreation centers
A collaboration, with the City and community partners, to sponsor an annual contest to celebrate and honor people from a range of neighborhoods and sectors who help make Oakland work
Become one of the top twenty ADA Compliant Cities in the Country
Supporting the work of a City engineer to invent a pothole free road pavement
Digitization and voice activation of our “Welcome to Oakland” signs to provide reflections of the beauty of our city
©Daphne Muse January 2012