I STARTED PHOTOGRAPHING WEST OAKLAND IN 2012, ON ITS OUTER EDGES, because I love exploring and didn't know what was there. The area that first interested me visually was an old black neighborhood at the southwest edge of the city known as the “Lower Bottoms." Here I found a bit of the Old South: grandparents playing dominoes and chess in the parks, families holding barbecues to raise money for schools and funerals, and old-timers getting grumpy when someone walks by without a smile or nod.Today that southern charm is going away because West Oakland is changing fast. Hundreds of condo developments are going up, most of the old Victorians are being renovated, and vacant lots are becoming community gardens. The mostly young white and Asian students and BART commuters moving in 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 homeless camps and the drugs and the crime?
At first, most of the struggling people I wanted to photograph viewed me with mistrust, thinking I was probably "The Police." I was accepted only when I kept coming back to give them beautifully printed portraits of themselves. My friends and fellow artists also had questions: why am I hanging out with people they try to avoid? My answer is that when I was a writer I always spoke up for people who are dismissed and despised and now I'm doing it as a photographer. My philosophy is that most people are good, and the exceptions are probably crazy or damaged, so if we don't want to remove them like vermin we should find a way to help.
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, the gold rush across the bay, and, in 1869, the transcontinental railroad that was completed at "Oakland Point.” In just two years the Victorian houses that are now being restored were built, making West Oakland a railroad boom-town. They were occupied, at first, by European immigrants: Greeks, Italians and Portuguese. 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 pollution.
Then, during WWII, West Oakland changed again as African-Americans flooded in, drawn by the railroad, shipyard, and military jobs. Some old-timers reminisce fondly about the 1940s and '50s 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 people of all colors came to West Oakland 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 low-income housing arranged in "villages." Seventh street completely died in l972 when noise from BART made it uninhabitable. The worst blow to the old black community came in the late l980s when a crack epidemic created addicts and gangsters and dealers. (You can see their children in my "NEW WORK" gallery.) The final blow is happening now, with gentrification on hyper-speed. Today a run-down 1 bedroom apartment goes for $2,000.
THIS BRINGS US TO TODAY and the story I want to tell. These photos are just the beginning.