This weekend, I was lucky enough to be guided on a tour of West Oakland. Beforehand I, like many others, asked myself “what is there to see in West Oakland?” How can there be sites to visit when the neighborhood does not even have its own grocery store? My initial thoughts could not have been farther from the truth.
Luke guided us through the streets of the lower bottoms neighborhood and explained the rich history that was intertwined into these seemingly ordinary blocks. Railroad tracks can still be seen in the streets though West Oakland although its city is no longer dependent on trains. 7th street put Oakland on the map and made it the jazz city of the West coast. The Black Panther Party, an influential political group, began at Defremery Park. A memorial lies at the ruins of where the Cypress freeway collapsed during the 1989 earthquake. This tragedy was also what allowed West Oakland to be reconnected to the rest of its city.
People are quick to note the currently high rates crime and poverty in West Oakland but don’t often overlook the question of how it came to be this way. George Santayana once said,
“A country without a memory is a country of madmen”.
In his TED talk (in the videos section of the blog) Bryan Stevenson reflects on the death penalty and its presence in the American Justice System. When speaking about the same issue in Germany, a German listener comments on how it would be absolutely ludicrous for their country to use the death penalty in their justice system. The haunting memories of the Holocaust, a part of Germany’s history, has taught the governing officials there that the country must pursue a different way to serve its people and give them justice.
West Oakland’s past is one that is clouded with racism and conflict with authority. Unfortunately, this neighborhood still experiences many of the same problems today that it experienced 40 years ago. Citizens still share the same sentiments of the Black Panther Party and their belief that the police force is out to terrorize the community. In order for this too change, a new perspective needs to be analyzed – the perspective of the past. By looking at West Oakland’s history as a community, one can note what has and what hasn’t worked for its well-being. Choosing to ignore it will only continue the current cycle of violence. Like Germany and other nations, this city needs to be able to grow from its past hardship and oppression in order to succeed in the future.