The city of Oakland was recently awarded two very distinct honors within one week. The Movoto blog named Oakland “ The Most Exciting City in the Country,” based on our park acreage, diversity and museums. A few days later, the FBI released a report that named Oakland the “ Robbery Capital of America,” with one in every 91 residents robbed last year.
Such are the dichotomies that define Oakland. We toggle between “What the hell am I still doing here?” and “Why the hell would I want to live anywhere else?”
Mostly, I choose to stay.
But I do move around. Oakland is a city built upon movements: movements of people, movements of goods, and social and political movements.
The movements of people began with the arrival of the Ohlone Indians, followed by the Spanish from Mexico in the 18th century, Chinese fishermen in the 19th century, and migrants from the South and Mexico in the 20th century who came to work at shipyards and manufacturers. Our social and political movements have included the (in)famous Black Panthers, the long forgotten La Raza Unida Party, and a strong branch of Occupy.
But can we move on now?
Oakland’s population dropped by nearly 9,000 people, from 399,484 in 2000 to 390,724 in 2010. Many families have fled to the suburbs out of safety and education concerns. Is it possible to get them to come back, and to make Oakland a destination?
We do have some experience with that. We took the Raiders back from L.A., the A’s from Kansas City, and the basketball Warriors from San Francisco. But new arrivals would have to coexist with a lot of Oakland that isn’t going anywhere. We have some experience with that, too.
In the early 1980s, when I was in elementary school, my neighbors Ubaldo and Orlando returned from a trip to Ensenada with two cassette tapes: Run-DMC’s “King of Rock” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” They were two very different music styles, but as my soundtrack for Oakland, they flowed seamlessly together.
This same flow was the backdrop for my walk to school. The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club headquarters was two blocks away from my house. And one of the first things I learned to read was the graffiti on a building across the street: “FREE HUEY!” – meaning Huey P. Newton, the Black Panthers’ minister of defense, who was in jail for murder. Here I was at the corner of Foothill Boulevard and 40th Avenue, a Mexican American kid sharing space with the Black Panthers and a mostly white motorcycle gang.
But I still chose to leave Oakland.
I became disillusioned when Oaklanders voted Jerry Brown in as our mayor in 1998. In 1995, Brown bought a loft in Jack London Square and transformed it into a commune of sorts for artists, spiritual advisers, and other eccentric figures. He became the Original Hipster, a Pied Piper for Oakland who made the place cool again.
But I wanted the mayor to be someone who had been here when the going had been tough – 1989’s Loma Prieta earthquake, 1991’s Oakland Hills firestorm – and Oakland had been left to fend for itself. I supported Ignacio de la Fuente, a Mexican immigrant and my voting district’s councilman, but he finished well behind Brown.
I was always curious about how Los Angeles, a metropolitan city, functioned, so in 1999, I moved south. I spent a few years traveling L.A.’s never-ending freeways, but I could never capture Oakland’s sense of community. I knew I had to go home.
In 2006, I moved back to an Oakland I hardly recognized. Mayor Brown’s stomping ground, Jack London Square, has been revitalized, and through intense redevelopment of landmarks like the Fox Theater, the Uptown district is quickly becoming a destination for foodies and artists. Oakland is becoming the metropolitan city I went searching for elsewhere.
But Oakland still has the problems of an urban place, particularly crime. And it needs to do better integrating all its citizens into leadership: While Latinos make up 20 percent of Alameda County’s population, they account for less than 3 percent of the county’s elected and appointed officials.
Our city also faces some serious questions that aren’t unique to Oakland. Should a city with limited funds prepare its children to go off to college and risk losing its best and brightest for good? Or should the city work from the top-down, improve its infrastructure, beef up its police force, and try to keep residents and businesses that are already here?
I’d rather not choose. Thinking back on those days when I stood on that corner with Huey Newton and the Hells Angels, I think Oakland should say “Screw That” to anyone who would make us choose. We’ll hustle to do both.
Eduardo Jimenez is a proud Oaklander who works for a medical supply company by day and is a freelance writer by night. He is currently on the Board of the Latino Connection PAC and on the Peralta College’s Measure A Citizens’ Oversight Review Board. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.