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On Loving The Town

On Loving The Town

I really love Oakland. I love Oakland in the way that I didn’t love San Francisco, in the way that I appreciate-but-don’t-still-love where I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley. There are all kinds of reasons to love Oakland, and if you stop an Oaklander on the street to ask for a list of them, they’ll...well, they’ll probably tell you to kindly leave them alone because they usually have better things they need to be doing. But they probably do have a list, and if you catch them in a moment, they’ll tell you all of the things there are to love about Oakland, as well as about how it’s not like it used to be. They might even plead with you to not move here, because this place has changed too much already. 

And it has. 

Folks who grew up here can talk about the different waves of  change, and if you have lived here for any period of time you can spot the changes coming and lament them even before they arrive. When I first moved here, downtown had just begun to recover from an economic and real estate bust, and there was at least one boarded up business for every business still hanging on. There were fewer people spare-changing than in SF where I had spent the previous ten years, but that was only because there were fewer people you could spare-change from, too. Oakland was struggling. I went to my first city council meeting here during that time, and one thing they were talking about is how they had fired most of the parking enforcement and parking meter people, so that the revenues from enforcing parking were down; down so much that they’d have to fire more parking enforcement people. That didn’t seem sustainable, no matter how you looked at it. 

Taking a walk around my (relatively) nice neighborhood at night didn’t quite feel safe back then--most of that apprehension was based in my stupid, yet common, ideas about Oakland. But some of it was also warranted: Back then there just weren’t a lot of people walking around at night, so that discouraged people from walking around at night. Neighbors in my building talked about not running around the lake toward dusk (or at all) because they’d been harassed in various ways. One neighbor bragged(!) about carrying a handgun with him if he walked the lake. Lucky for me that guy moved out fairly soon.

And yet.

People here said hello to you on the street. This was the first culture shock I felt in moving from North Beach in San Francisco, where I’d been for a while. Yes, Oaklanders were busy surviving, but they were also enjoying Oakland, enjoying their communities. People were friendlier here to strangers than people had been in my “small town” youth. At first I was taken aback by the hellos I got walking down the street, but it was easy to get used to something so sincere and basic, one of those I-didn’t-know-I-needed-this-until-I-had-it things, like pistachio ice cream, or hanging out in the California Redwoods. I’m trying to foster this habit of Oakland now as we all go through yet another wave of change--the waves come fast enough now that perhaps a “current” or a “flow” is a better metaphor--as people from SF and other areas flock to Oakland for (slightly) cheaper rents. I can see the shocked look on folks’ faces when I say hello in passing, mirroring my shocked face from when I first came here, I’m sure.
A list of things to love about Oakland would be a lot like anybody’s list about the place they love: I love its history, its communities, its culture. But other things about Oakland make it clear to me that Oakland is shaping me more than I ever could hope to shape it: The diversity (yes, that’s changing too), the particular history (I mean, The Black Panthers!), the fight the Ohlone still fight here, all of these things and more shape me and mold me, even as I choose to stay in Oakland despite various reasons I could have to go elsewhere. I guess I decided to put down roots here, but also: Oakland’s roots surround me, hold me, push me in directions I wouldn’t have chosen for myself. They move slowly, digging into my world view, pulling out parts of it that no longer have a place there and replacing them with connections to Oakland. And I’m better for it. I hope I get to stay here for a long, long time. 


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