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A Unified Theory of a Tough Town

James O'Brien | May 24, 2014 | Story Politics

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.

Page two: "I don't care what else you do," she tells them, "but please put down the guns."

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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