January 19, 2005

Oaktown

I live in a city that's probably most famous (in the US, at least) for being infamous, a blighted Newark to San Francisco's shiny Manhattan. It's a place with a reputation for the sort of urban decay, racial strife, and economic hardship that comes with being a regional centre of heavy industry and labour. Just across the Bay San Francisco has the Golden Gate and its precious self-absorption; neighbouring Berkeley has the University and a fabled history of self-righteous gesture politics; Oakland has ... well, what?

Oakland's sometimes politely referred to as being a very urban city -- "urban" or "inner city" being code words for Black or African-American. Some 36% of the city is African-American, 30% white, 15% Asian; 22% of its population identifies themselves as "Latino", regardless of their "race" (see Confusion...). Oakland always did -- and still mostly does -- the heavy lifting that San Francisco won't touch. It -- not San Francisco -- was the main West Coast trans-continental rail freight terminus for most of the past 150 years; virtually everything supposedly imported or exported through San Francisco actually goes through Oakland (the Port of San Francisco is vestigial -- it's the Port of Oakland across the Bay that does all the real work); its airport is San Francisco's main freight and business jet airport (and one of Southwest Airline's main left coast hubs -- Southwest doesn't bother flying to SFO); local hero Henry J. Kaiser and his Kaiser Aluminum and shipbuilding empire were post-war giants, with Henry J's aerie on the top floor of the Kaiser Building in uptown Oakland topping what was for a while the tallest building west of the Mississippi.

Ask a representative sample of reasonably aware Americans what (if anything) comes to mind when you say "Oakland", and they'll probably focus on the Black Panthers (an Oakland original, still fondly-remembered in large stretches of West Oakland for their charity and social work); Jerry Brown (aka "Governor Moonbeam", a notably-liberal and ahead-of-his-time state Governor who's been our city's aging Dear Leader for some time now, a man possibly most famous for having once allegedly been one of Linda Ronstadt's lovers); East 14th Street (until very recently a particularly deadly stretch of East Oakland, once one of the murder capitals of America, and still not the sort of place you'd stroll through late at night, despite East 14th having been renamed "International Boulevard" to try to lose the notoriety); Gertrude Stein's "There's no There there" (she was referring to her childhood home in Oakland, not the city itself, but it's such an ingrained thing that the unofficial city flag is a black "There" in front of an oak with a green and white background, a flag you see flying over downtown Oakland); the ebonics kerfuffle of the mid-1990's (which saw a typically vicious collision of linguistic and racial ideologies and identity politics that quickly gained national infamy and obscured the fairly reasonable logic at the heart of the original proposal); the once-militant local branches of the Nation Of Islam and the associated local phenom, the "Your Black Muslim Bakery" (which despite the exclusionary-sounding name even has a popular stand at Oakland Airport); Oakland native David "Moses" Berg (the man who founded the Children Of God); those perennial losers, the Oakland Raiders (an American Football team that inspires in its followers the sort of insecure strutting swagger that comes from identifying fanatically with a team that combines an uncanny ability to pull defeat from the jaws of victory game after game, year after year, with the tendency to treat Oakland itself with utter contempt); MC Hammer (another local crash-and-burn anti-hero totally beyond satire, who also helped popularise the use of "Oaktown" beyond the ghetto); the writer Jack London, who lived in the waterfront area now called Jack London Square (but whose strong Socialist leanings have been ruthlessly expunged from official histories); the Cypress Freeway collapse in the 1989 quake which killed more than 40 people (and which wouldn't have been reported much if the national media hadn't been in the area covering the national baseball championships (Oakland vs. San Francisco -- Oakland won)); and (maybe) the Oakland Hills firestorm which killed 25 people and destroyed more than 2,500 homes in a few hours in 1991 (typically, though, non-locals will probably remember this as having happened in Berkeley, or even San Francisco).

And all of that -- good and bad -- is true. I've lived through some of it, at least peripherally: the fire, the quake, E14th (it's just across the railway tracks -- but another world away -- from where I live), the guns (where I lived in the early 1990's you could clearly hear automatic gunfire late at night every few days -- and I lived in a good part of town...), the decay. I've even had the Oakland Police Department break into my home with guns drawn (they got the wrong guy, and, to their credit, they stopped when a neighbour pointed this out before they did too much damage (what's a smashed door or two between friends? And hey, bookshelves, books, and CDs are replaceable...)). But for me it's where I live -- it's where I chose to live. I'm not going to romanticise it (there's nothing fun or exciting about living in a neighbourhood ruled at night by gun-toting teenagers, and there's no romance in persistent poverty, no matter what the young couples slumming it temporarily in search of "authenticity" in their new lifestyle lofts might tell you...), but there's inevitably more to it than meets the casual eye. It's a diverse place, in every way....

Home
On 14th
Backyard
Textures Of Light
Embodying Islam
Ab Fab (A Tale Of Two Cities)
Life In Industrial East Oakland
Death In Oakland
Jingletown
Death Goes On…
Hog Heaven
Chauncey Bailey

2 Comments:

At 4/22/2007 11:47 am, Blogger devin said...

thank you for this insight, i live in maine tucked between the ocean and woods, the only gun shots i hear come from animal hunters. blah blah blah......so anyways thank you!
d

 
At 11/30/2007 12:34 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting article but Oakland wasn't ever no murder capital though. Oakland's toughness is overrated.Now D.C. on the other hand was literally a war zone! Oaklands worst day is D.C.'s best day.

 

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