WEST OAKLAND

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I STARTED PHOTOGRAPHING WEST OAKLAND on its outermost edges because I love exploring and Oakland is my hometown. 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, in 2010, 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 greeting me with  a smile or nod. Today that southern charm is going away. Thousands of condo developments are going up, most of the old Victorians and warehouses are being renovated, and vacant lots are filling up with cafes and community gardens. The mostly white and Asian students and BART commuters moving in say they love the diversity of the neighborhood and the urban hipster vibe, but where are the grocery stores? And why is trash dumped everywhere?  And what can a good Bay Area liberal do about all the homeless camps, the drugs and the crime? There was a devastating crack epidemic in West Oakland in the late '80s and '90s and its children are still around.

 


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, which was completed at "Oakland Point.” In just two years the Victorian houses were thrown up, making West Oakland a railroad boom-town. The first occupants were European immigrants though the high-school yearbooks do show a few black kids.

In the 1930s, 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.

The neighborhood changed again during WWII as African-Americans flooded in to take the new railroad, shipyard, and military jobs. Many old-timers reminisce fondly about the 1940s, '50s 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 pretty 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 lined the street on weekends, looking for music, laughter,  liquor, and food. There was also, alas, the "Ten and Two:" Ten for the girl and Two for the room.

The decline of West Oakland started in the late '50s when a freeway cut the neighborhood in half and hundreds of Victorians were bulldozed to build a huge, regional post office. In the '60s hundreds more Victorians were destroyed to make way for low-income housing arranged in low-rise "villages." Harlem West on seventh street completely died in 1972 when noise from BART made it uninhabitable. And then, in the late '80s and early '90s, a crack epidemic, combined with poverty, racism and lack of opportunities, created the drug dealers who made, for awhile, much of the neighborhood unsafe.  (You can see their children in the "Filbert Street" gallery on my Homepage.)

The final blow to the black community is happening now, with gentrification on hyper-speed. The price for a 2 bedroom condo in one of the new huge developments going up by the old railroad tracks is around $800,000.