I STARTED PHOTOGRAPHING WEST OAKLAND on its outer edges because I didn't know what was there. I got comfortable exploring the world as a journalist and I've continued doing it (here in my own home town) as a photographer. The people I found near the freeways and railroad tracks were mostly struggling and poor, and the businesses seemed afraid of crime with no signs and locked front doors. (See the Homeless Gallery on my Homepage.) The area that most interested me visually was an old black neighborhood known as the “Lower Bottoms. Here I found grandparents and great grandparents playing dominoes and chess in the parks; rappers making videos on the streets; families holding barbecues to raise money for funerals, and old-timers who feel disrespected when someone walks by without a smile or nod.
Today all that southern charm is gradually going away because West Oakland is changing fast. Large condo developments are going up, faux Victorian houses are being built, and vacant lots are becoming community gardens. The mostly young artists and BART commuters moving into the Lower Bottoms say they love the diversity 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 crime?
At first, most of the people I wanted to photograph viewed me with mistrust. Was I "The Police?" I was accepted only when I kept coming back, often with black and white prints. The people who look at my photographs also asked questions. Why do I want to hang out with these people?" My answer is that we humans are all basically the same, but black people can be especially entertaining.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF WEST OAKLAND: In the very beginning, West Oakland was a kind of paradise for native Americans with it's good weather and abundance of food. Then came the Spaniards, the land grants, and the gold rush. And in 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed at "Oakland Point,” turning West Oakland into a railroad boom-town. The Victorian houses that are now being restored were thrown up in just two years, and moved into by the European immigrants. The big Victorian mansions were built by successful businessmen and some of the heirs to the huge Peralta Spanish land grant.
In the l930s, West Oakland went through its second big change when it became zoned for manufacturing. Plants and warehouses were built right next to homes and schools and the neighborhood began suffering from noise and air quality.
Then, during WWII, West Oakland changed again as African-Americans flooded in to fill railroad, shipyard, and military jobs. Some old-timers reminisce fondly about the 1950s and '60s when West Oakland was a wonderful neighborhood to grow up in. One man told me he didn't know West Oakland was surrounded by white people until he went to a Cal Football game. There was racism and red-lining and neglect by politicians, but unions were strong and the money was good and churches, schools and nightclubs flourished. Women worked, often in white people's homes, but they had their own neighborhood clubs and associations. When the Pullman Porters brought the blues to Oakland, "Harlem West" grew up along 7th street. For two decades the street was a bustling strip of nightclubs, restaurants, liquor stores and bars. People of all colors came on weekends; for the music, the laughter, the liquor, and the "Ten and Two." Ten for the girl and two for the room.
The decline of West Oakland started in l957 when a freeway cut the neighborhood in half and hundreds of homes were bulldozed to build a huge, regional post
office. In the l960s hundreds more Victorians were destroyed to make way for urban renewal. The final blow came in l972 when the noise from BART made 7th street uninhabitable. After that, sometime in the l980s, a crack epidemic destroyed a lot of the old families. You can see their kids in my "NEW WORK" gallery.
This brings us to today and the story I want to tell. These photos are just the beginning.