I wake up and the fog is thick overhead, muffling the city noises, swallowing up the sounds of my neighborhood, allowing me to pretend I’m in a different, smaller world. I grew up near enough to here that it feels like home: the way the afternoon light falls on the old houses, the smell of the Pacific in the mornings, the trees in the hills (oak, eucalyptus, manzanita), the slang the neighbor kids use, the taco truck across the street – all of it what I grew up with. So how do I reconcile myself with the fact that this is not my place?
Oakland – Ohlone land, then Spanish, then Mexican, then American. Separated from San Francisco by a thin stretch of water, half the city built on landfill out into the Bay, built up by Chinese immigrants, Japanese immigrants, black laborers, Anglo migrants. Working class and poor in the flatlands, wealthy in the hills.
This city has been ravaged by industrialism and capitalism. Dozens of freeways slice through poor neighborhoods, the heyday of the Port of Oakland came and went (leaving thousands jobless and the area around the port environmentally devastated), and the recent economic upswing is drastically changing the face and character of neighborhoods overnight – the city is becoming whiter, wealthier.
Oakland – how can I write about this place without writing about identity? Where oppression and celebration lurk on every corner. Home to the Black Panthers, a vibrant queer community, Occupy, an arts scene to make New York jealous – but where seeing a police cruiser makes even my white, middle-class heart skip a beat; where my neighbors and I all speak English but don’t speak the same language. How can I address gentrification and my part in it without copping out?
I find myself returning again and again to the same question: How do I reconcile the sense of home that I’ve cultivated here, between the manzanitas and taco trucks, with the glaring realities of broke urban ecologies and gentrification? I trade my older black neighbor eggs from my chickens for the watermelons she sells from her front lawn, and we ask about each others’ families. I walk past boarded up houses in my neighborhood, dead dogs dumped next to freeway on-ramps: but at the end of that walk I find a neighborhood-run farmer’s market. Oakland – what do I do with your contradictions?