I STARTED PHOTOGRAPHING WEST OAKLAND on its outer edges where I found the homeless, the outcasts, and the recycling underworld — the people who need help most, and whom most people just want to go away. Some of those photos are in my Homeless gallery; the slightly more fortunate are here. You'll find photos of the only recycling place in West Oakland that accepts loaded shopping carts; a scrap-metal and auto recycler who takes fellow addicts under his wing;, plus a lot of shots of random street life including rappers, drug dealers and faith healers. The feel of the rural south is everywhere in West Oakland, especially the Prescott area where I've taken most of these photos. Grandparents and great grandparents play dominoes and chess in the parks; families hold barbecues to raise money for a funeral or a medical condition; old-timers are offended when the new people coming in walk by without a smile or a nod.
Today all that southern charm is going away; West Oakland is changing fast. It's gentrifying (some say being colonized) despite the large pockets of blight and trash. Large condo developments are going up, faux Victorian houses are being built, and some of the vacant lots are being converted into community gardens. A dilapidated Victorian fixer-upper can go for a half a million dollars. The mostly young, white, artists and BART commuters who are moving in say they love the diversity, the characters they meet on the streets, the cheap rents and the urban hipster vibe. But where are the grocery stores? And why is trash dumped everywhere? And what can a liberal white person do about all the petty crime?
There is also serious crime in West Oakland, most of it black-on-black, gang-related homicides. You'll find a series at the end of this gallery taken at a “Repast," this one for a 21-year-old unemployed man who wasn't in a gang and spent a lot of time helping his family including three young sons raised by two different "Baby Mammas." He was shot and killed while sitting in the back of a van. Most of these murders in West Oakland don't make the news, but the lives lost are deeply mourned.
A BRIEF HISTORY: West Oakland is where the transcontinental railroad ended and the ferry to San Francisco took off. It's the oldest neighborhood in the East Bay — most of it's old Victorians were built in the late 1800s by European immigrants. In the l930s, almost all of residential West Oakland was zoned for manufacturing so industry came in along with pollution and jobs. Then, during WWII, African-Americans flooded in from the south as the shipbuilding industry boomed along with good jobs at military bases and war-time manufacturing plants. Some say the best time in West Oakland was in the l940s and '50s when it was a crowded, bustling, almost all-black boom town. There was racism and red-lining and neglect by politicians, but unions were strong and the money wasn't bad and the local churches were flourishing.
Women worked, often in white people's homes, but they also had their own clubs and associations. The blues came to West Oakland in the '40s and '50s via the Pullman porters who traveled to Chicago and New York. Restaurants rose up along 7th Street and clubs like Slim Jenkins hosted some big names: Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner. Oakland, along with San Francisco, was called "Harlem West."
Now it's becoming the "New Brooklyn" with San Francisco just one BART stop away."
West Oakland started its decline in the l950's when manufacturing jobs dried up, a freeway cut through the middle of it, and urban renewal projects destroyed hundreds of the old Victorian homes. In the early 1960's a regional Post Office took out 30 more acres of houses. The Black Panther movement started in West Oakland in the mid-sixties with it's message of self-defense against police brutality. It evolved to sponsor local, self-help programs but finally petered outwhen Huey Newton was shot by a drug dealer. The blues clubs lasted until the l970's when noise from the new BART train wiped them out. In the late l980s a crack epidemic bottomed out the community. In 2015 it's the evictions and high rents.