This weekend, Danny, Mehari, Treasha and I met up with Luke, a long-time West Oakland resident, for a tour of the neighborhood that we are calling home for the next two months. Often when people learn that I live in West Oakland, they think of many negative stereotypes of the Lower Bottoms (even some of the Saint Anthony’s guests have cringed or said something about the “violence” here when I tell them where I live). While Luke talked about how there is some crime in West Oakland, the high unemployment rates, and an extreme lack of access to healthy food (this marks it as a food desert), it seems as if the positives of this place far outweigh the negatives: the art culture is amazing, there is an impressive sense of comradery, people bring out each others’ strengths, the convenient access to San Francisco, and the list goes on. We heard about how West Oakland was a powerful area historically, particularly for African Americans:
- The Black Panther Party was created here with the arrest of Huey P. Newton for killing a police officer.
- The first union open to African Americans, the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, began in West Oakland, which was one of the largest destination and shipping cities in the country.
- The R&B and Jazz scenes on 7th St. was one of the top places to play and to make music in the nation.
- After the beginning of World War II, thousands of African Americans gained employment in the Port of Oakland or constructing ships, planes and other objects for the military.
I started to feel empowered and excited to be in this community and was reminded of my family’s potential role in this city. Prior to World War II, the neighborhood was dominated by Irish Americans and Portuguese Americans, I immediately began to think of my family. The families of two of my four grandparents came to America from Ireland. All four sets of my grandparent’s families found their way to the East Bay Area between around 1900 and 1930. I wanted to know more about my family, to see what my two living grandmothers thought of this era, what brought them to the Bay, what made them stay and what they think is beautiful about this area.
While strolling through these now-familiar neighborhoods, I kept thinking about history, the current realities of these areas, and returning to the same thoughts and questions over and over:
- Currently, what is my role in the lives of these people?
- What could my role be?
- My family has been in the Bay Area for nearly one hundred years—what role did they have in the development of this region and is their presence still felt?
- What originally drew us (myself, my family, my neighbors, the guests at St. Anthony’s, etc.) all to Oakland, San Francisco and the greater Bay Area? What is it that keeps us here?
With that, I challenge you to learn the history of your neighborhood and city, to critically think about your role in its identity, to think about how you can better get to know your neighbors and make a positive, meaningful and lasting impact on your community. Just think about all that you can do…