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 2008, at the height of the recession, 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 everyone greeting each other on the street. Today that southern charm is going away because gentrification is happening at lightening speed. Thousands of condo developments are being built in abandoned lots; cafes and coffee houses are popping up next to homeless camps; warehouses are being converted to expensive lofts, and most of the old Victorian homes (built in the late 1800s) are being renovated. Half of the black population has left. The mostly young, mostly white and Asian BART commuters moving in say they love the diversity of the neighborhood and San Francisco being only one BART stop away. But where are the grocery stores? And why is trash still being dumped everywhere?  And what can a good Bay Area liberal do about all the homeless camps, the drugs, the potholes, and the crime?


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 across the bay. In 1869 the transcontinental railroad was completed at "Oakland Point” and in just two years most of West Oakland’s Victorian houses were thrown up, making it a railroad boom-town. The first occupants were European immigrants, although the high-school yearbook does 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.

West Oakland changed again during WWII and the great migration - as African-Americans flooded in to take jobs in the railroads, shipyards and military bases. Many old-timers reminisce fondly about the 1940s, '50s and '60s when they say West Oakland was a wonderful neighborhood to grow up in. One man told me he didn't know he 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 San Francisco and Oakland, "Harlem West" grew up along 7th street. For two decades people of all colors came there for music, the laughter, the liquor, and the 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 jobs disappeared, a freeway cut the neighborhood in half, and hundreds of Victorians were bulldozed to build a huge, regional post office. In the '60s redevelopment money destroyed hundreds more Victorian homes to make way for low-income housing arranged in “Villages.” The Black Panthers brought pride to to the neighborhood, but also guns and repression by the police. Harlem West on seventh street completely died in 1972 when noise from BART made it uninhabitable. The worst blow to the neighborhood came in the late '80s and early '90s, when a crack epidemic combined with poverty made West Oakland unsafe.  (You can see their children in the "Filbert Street" gallery on my Homepage.)

The final blow to the black community is happening now. The price for a 14,000 foot condo in one of the new huge developments going up is around $800,000.