Thursday, March 29, 2012

In the old neighborhood

I was up in Oakland for a rally last night and on my way home I decided to take the streets and drive by my old neighborhood; a predominantly black working class area of East Oakland.   It’s what some people call a “bad” neighborhood.  I lived there for almost 20 years and my son grew up there.  It was “bad” in the sense that there was high youth unemployment, some urban blight but not much different than many inner city neighborhoods.  I remember at one point hearing that the infant mortality rate was equal to that of some third world country.  By most standards, it was a third world country.

I turned left off of Camden on to 60th Ave.  My old house was at the other end, two houses from MacArthur Blvd and two doors down from the Quick Stop on the corner.  I drove slowly to see if I recognized any familiar faces as I have been gone almost 14 years. I slowed to go over one of those road bumps that I managed to get put in when I ran the block association.  As I came closer to my old house I noticed it is for sale.  I’d never owned a home before and never thought about owning one until I came to the US in 1973. It was something that was really stressed here.

I looked at the old place through sentimental eyes.  My son who is 33 grew up here, played in these streets.  His best friend lived down the street and they are still best friends today. It was a great block for young children although the residents of suburbia would disagree, but they are taught to think there is no community there.  Even in the most depraved areas there is community.

I noticed that the Quick Stop was shut down and for sale.  The dope dealers used to congregate there; some of them were kids at one time who played dungeons and dragons in the house. Right across the street on the left side there was another shuttered liquor store. During the nineties boom some of young men who hung around on these corners got jobs and no doubt extended their lives; some of them are dead.  Life on that street corner was dangerous and life expectancy low. People who lived in the suburbs or more affluent middle class neighborhoods rarely came here.  I remember one woman who dropped me off from work and I could see she was quite terrified seeing the young black men on the corner. I assured here that she was in no danger. It’s rare to hear of a white person getting killed here and the young men kill each other over turf wars.

Plus, they all knew me and I didn’t call the police; I never pandered to them and made it clear that I believed their activity was not productive and harmed the community, but I also sympathized with their situation. I felt more comfortable when my wife needed to go to the store that they were there in way and she was safe.  That was their turf.  The chance of danger was if things went awry and some stray bullets found a home. If we had problems on the block with the young men on the corner I dealt with them directly; but knowing some of them as toddlers certainly helped.

I made the right turn on to MacArthur.  I saw no one I knew hanging around. Turning the corner slowly I noticed two black men standing talking.  I didn’t recognize them nor they me.  I shifted my gaze as it was clear they were a little uncomfortable, a white guy they didn’t know driving conspicuously slow.  MacArthur to Seminary is a short block from 60th and the four or five stores on the left were all new to me.  One of them used to be a video rental place, a guy owned it and was always there with his dog.  I went to a service for him at St. Cyril Catholic Church after someone tried to Rob him and shot him and the dog. Some said he was selling dope but who knows.  Two doors down there was a place that used to be a private club when I lived there.  I never saw anyone go in. Before that it was a bar run by this racist white guy.  I know he was a racist because when I first moved there I stopped in for a beer. I didn’t like his conversation and left, it was the last time I saw him as someone shot him too. I heard two young guys came in to rob him and he called them racial names so they dished out some street justice. Two doors from him was another liquor store, Mills Market. I used to call the neighborhood liquorstoreville; you couldn’t go dry there.

There were a number of young people that were shot over the 18-year period I lived there and I don’t regret leaving.  I did my time I say to myself. A few blocks down it was a bit different as the cars and activity three or four liquor stores attracted were absent there. They were the main cause of all the congestion at the end of the block where I lived. 

Next to me was a house rented out by an absentee landlord.  I had all sorts in there including a white biker group. These people were not friendly to the black people, not friendly to anyone really. But racism is an attitude too; you don’t have to say anything necessarily. I did not hang out with them or want to be associated with them in any way, they’ weren’t part of the community. One of them took me inside one time and they had one room just full of weapons.

Like any inner city neighborhood, mine was a victim of high unemployment, absentee landlords, lack of development and capital, etc. But it was a wonderful block.  I could leave my son out in the street if I had to go over to the Laurel district for shopping and know he was safe. There were a number of homes he could go to if he needed.  I remember one time when I had gone to work and left my front door open.  A neighbor who lived down the street was walking to the liquor store and noticed the door open. He checked inside and locked up for me.  He wouldn’t have done that for the bikers.  In fact they got robbed a few times if my memory serves me right. I was never robbed.

I remember one time when I had a meeting at my home and this woman drove down the block looking for my house.  I happened to be looking out my window as she was late and noticed she’d stopped at the corner, passing my place.  One of the young guys walked over to the driver’s side window thinking she was looking to get high. She was a church going type and politely declined.  She said she was going to a meeting and was looking for the place. The youngster figured it was “English Rich” and showed her where I lived.  There are so many stories about this block that contradict the anti-worker and racist propaganda about people that live in poor communities not having a sense of pride and community.

I always used to point out that they don’t have three or four liquor stores within a two block area in the more affluent residential neighborhoods like Rockridge or in Piedmont where the local bourgeois live. The funny thing is that right there by the stores and streets where dope was sold and people shot, where youth unemployment was rampant and infant mortality rates on par with third world nations was one of the more famous private universities in the US, Mills College. Mills is an old college that was out in the countryside when it was founded; you had to take a stagecoach to get to it. It is where the daughters of the more affluent among us were educated.  I always took visitors there but you had to walk round to the other side as it is surrounded by fencing being on the edge of the “bad neigborhood.”. Once you got in the grounds of Mills it was like another planet, green lawns and trees and nice buildings.

When I moved to where I live now it was so much quieter.  I used to tell people that I had to play gunshot tapes at night so I could get to sleep.  I got used to it though. There are many nostalgic memories I have of my old neighborhood and the good people that lived there, working people, a teacher, cook, home help, a public utility worker.

The people living in “bad” neighborhoods aren’t too happy about the bad things either, the unemployment, lack of stores, services and other amenities and the abundance of stores that sell liquor, expensive food and necessities as well as junk that couldn’t pass for food. It’s not as if people say to themselves, “I think I’ll move in to a “bad’ area, I like it”.  We have little choice and without organization hardly any influence in the decisions that make our city what it is.

But we are human beings, given the opportunity we take care of each other and we make the best of it. That’s what our block was all about.

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