When I talk to people in the city about whether they come to Oakland, be it 2007 or 2019, the answer is a resounding “never,” followed by redundant stories of car break-ins and not wanting to take BART at night. No matter how many East Bay, Marin and Contra Costa County, or Central Valley residents head through the Transbay tunnel or across the Golden Gate or Bay Bridge every day to San Francisco, going to Oakland is a seemingly annual trip for city dwellers, who usually make the pilgrimage for city-sponsored art crawls or like-minded Fox Theater concerts or, at one time, a Warriors game. The lack of streetlights and noticeable foot traffic for years made people fear downtown Oakland compared to the more geographically concentrated city by the bay. Despite the similar amount of crime in the two cities, it’s Oakland where everyone assumes they’ll be shot on sight or that the ghost of Huey Newton will greet them at the Twelfth Street BART with a shotgun and a toll for Whites Only.
Downtown Oakland is changing in many ways, but my habits on Fourteenth and Jackson aren’t one of them. A smoke by Lake Merritt and some quarter snacks from the bodega next to the Ruby Room lead to nuggets from the fast-food dispensary next to my old building, Peralta Apartments on Thirteenth and Jackson. Eating and smoking under the ground-floor tree, three floors below the apartment that housed me, my books, my desk, my box spring, and mattress twice the box spring’s size beginning in June 2007, a year after I graduated from UC Berkeley a few BART stops away.
Downtown was feared when I first moved to the East Bay in 2002. It was the small businesses of Seventeenth Street’s previously tree-lined lane between Franklin and Webster and Chinatown that held up downtown for years, most of the money leaving around 2 P.M. when the business class went home early. Vacant lots and dilapidated car repair shops dotted Telegraph across from the Oakland Black Box, where I first performed poetry in the Town as a teenager.
From my window, I’d look west toward Broadway across the mostly empty parking lot housing the USPS trucks across the street from the downtown post office on the Alice Street side of the lot. A shin-high ledge lined the lot where the local derelicts would sip and smoke atop the white streaks of goose and egret shit dropped from trees housing entire aviaries downtown. At night the sound of the birds mating and fighting fills the blocks up and down Oak near the Eleventh Street tunnel and the Oakland Museum all the way up to Fourteenth Street. It’s from this third-floor window that I spotted an old couch—an abandoned brown, leather, three-seater beaut lurking by the hardware emporium on Alice and Twelfth—that my roommate and I dragged a few blocks, then up a couple flights to my four-hundred-and-change room inside apartment 310.
We inherited the three-bedroom apartment from college friends, all of us previous undergraduate co-opers used to one another’s habits. In common was our shared home state and the unspoken boundaries of our debauchery. Hourly San Francisco Financial District temp wages fueled our livelihoods. I subsisted on fast food and the taco truck on the other side of the lake, skateboarding across a preconstruction Fourteenth Street with potholes and graveled nascent bike lanes before ollieing up as thick a sidewalk as I would have wallriding Rome’s Colosseum, let alone East Oakland’s Coliseum. Lake Merritt’s sidewalk was getting paved, signs of gentrification slowly emerging with the economy plummeting as quickly as full-time job prospects. I’d sit on my board on the east side of the lake or on the white benches on East Eighteenth if they weren’t covered with too much bird shit, smashing carne asada quesadillas and Mexican Coca-Colas, not knowing that in 2019 I’d propose to my wife on the side of the lake closest to the now-renovated Fourteenth Street.
The bodega heads knew us so well we got free bottles on our birthdays on the way out of the bar next door. We knew the bartenders and when they worked. If we didn’t have to work for the day, we were at the lake, or lurking in Chinatown, or just home, in my case, writing a play with a faint chance of production. Folks enjoyed being over. Odd watch parties for Warriors games. We hosted a viewing party when Caltrans shut down the eastern expanse of the Bay Bridge, building the temporary S-shaped, slow-speed detour at the westbound entrance of Treasure Island that fascinated us Los Angeles freeway-series transplants. Odd now, weighing that era of barely making the four-hundred-dollar rent against being the bottom-rung gentrifiers of our time, if only for having college degrees, but we awoke to the reality of the recession—no jobs, no future—every day for what would be years.
This intersection was flooded with rage in the wake of Oscar Grant III’s murder by BART police on New Year’s Day 2009. Mayor Ron Dellums nonviolently parted a sea of protestors here on Fourteenth and Jackson before addressing a crowd rightfully demanding justice for the unarmed, handcuffed, and executed man shot and killed on the southbound Fruitvale Station platform in East Oakland. As the protests turned into minor riots, the owner of the Ruby Room bar, synonymous with the Oakland-based motorcycle club East Bay Rats, stood outside his bar, shotgun in hand, ready for the type of looting that generally occurred a few blocks west. The night of the marches, I demonstrated with coworkers-slash-activists, friends who taught youth by day and risked arrest at night. I turned around and saw some friends being arrested and others fleeing east toward the lake, rendezvousing near the then-standing Merchants Parking toward Webster. I fled to Berkeley just before the calls poured in on my thick flip phone about a police car aflame on my corner, assuredly the same cop I’d seen in my rearview.
The day before I leave Oakland for practically anywhere that isn’t San Francisco or Berkeley, my anxiety propels me downtown toward Lake Merritt, a type of travel anxiety pushing me straight to the axis of both the city and my life circumnavigating it, reconnecting through physical proximity to something tangible and memorable before anything, everything, goes astray the moment I cross the Altamont Pass. Amid work, the sardined commutes, the constant reports of realtors’ dollars flooding lobbying campaigns throughout the state, solace meets resistance when I’m standing around downtown and bearing witness, remembering and documenting the befores and my place within its breathing afters.
If the Bay Area is a microcosm, six figures and stock options will become the base level for surviving in America. The kind of anxiety my wife and I shared the night news broke of the Sears building being sold to Uber—we were either so shocked or so drunk that we still can’t remember the name of the bar where we were.
I channeled this worry into a script for a short film, Payday, about a day in the life of an aspiring Oakland artist trying to get a major grant check during the day and go on a date at night. Half the reason I wrote this was to get an establishing shot from behind the characters showing the whole scene in the park—the dragon swing set, the basketball courts and constant pickup games, downtown Oakland’s skyline, the playground—with the Tribune Tower perfectly placed in the background.
Before the script was even done, I got the shot without actors in place, two Chinatown locals instead sitting on the red metal and curved-back benches in the corner facing the dragon. I heard the Merchants parking lot was being destroyed for a new development that will become the tallest Oakland has seen. I didn’t know that it’d be an even closer city-block-sized development that’d jeopardize the shot, even when I was recording background audio near the sign explaining the history of the dragon boat, the sound of basketballs, kids playfully screaming in multiple languages, the AC Transit stop on the corner and its multiple necessary lines to East Oakland, the sounds of the Town playing in the new shadows of skyscraper investments.
Maybe it’s for the best. Who am I in the grand scheme of things? These words will never re-create the Oakland reflected in the swish of Hammer’s parachute pants or the dread of Loma Prieta’s tremors. I still feel scorn watching the Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts murals get covered by new developments, even though city funding was allocated for the murals’ creation.
How can I tell you how much an intersection means to me—Warriors victories and simultaneous unspoken citywide agreements to protest here, memories of friends getting arrested and fights ensuing and tear gas being thrown—without sounding pedantic, soapbox driven, as if having an opinion is the equivalent of publicly bearing a contagious disease, a cog in the path to your next call?
In the final weeks of 2019, these memories whirl around me as cars maintain their evergreen multiple-file entry lines into the fast-food drive-thru before noon. The last Raiders home game ever starts in about an hour, the franchise having decided to leave Oakland again, this time for a massive new Las Vegas arena.
The Coliseum’s packed with silver and black every year. Imagine a masquerade ball from hell sponsored by Bud Light and soundtracked by Too Short. But also imagine a tailgate bigger than most city swap meets, where friends from across state and family lines set up shop, shoot the dozens, and truly find community in the middle of a parking lot where season ticket passes are handed down to next of kin.
What will the internally displaced Raider Nation do now every Sunday morning before 1 P.M. kickoff?
Is the Oakland Coliseum the next space to disappear?
Visions and thoughts of the future swirl before me, the honks of impatient horns blaring nearby at the automated fast food beeline. And I’m still here, somewhat sober and still eating too many fries in the developing shade of a new six-story building that’s replacing the root-bursting dead asphalt that housed those derelicts, the bird shit, the mail trucks, the “empty” fluid spaces increasingly disappearing in downtown Oakland.
Still—What do I fear forgetting? Fear losing? The ability to walk around the lake and point to my former roof and say, “Every day I’d start the day there”? Is Lake Merritt the last thing I want to see, ever? As if having this choice is something life and Oakland permit.
I’ve lived in the East Bay for more than half my life. I’ve stubbornly believed Oakland was the only city that made me want to be myself. It wasn’t until 2019 that I questioned that belief. And reaffirmed my answer.
And why a place, and not a person, a scent, a touch, a song, knowing full well the lake, too, is man-made? I wonder if I’m mistaking these walls and Lake Merritt and Chinatown’s alleys and the subway elevating toward Fruitvale for the smiles, sweat, laughter, drink orders, inside jokes, and apartment buzzer numbers of old friends now breathing and living on other sides of this still-spinning axis. For the hope that the faces that are still here will not just remain but flourish. This persistent fear, acceptance, and forecast of change guides my fingers to the shutter button and pen, documenting all the same. It is December 2019 in the city of Oakland, my habits are not changing, and I no longer live in the downtown Oakland of 2007 or in the downtown deemed Uptown or Oakland Central. Why yell at people on the train when I can show them a hi-res still image of that unobstructed angle of the Tribune Tower and, in an all-caps Sharpie caption, scream, DOES ANYONE ELSE MISS THOSE RED LETTERS IN OAKLAND’S SKYLINE, TOO?
José Vadi is an award-winning essayist, poet, playwright, and film producer. Vadi received the San Francisco Foundation’s Shenson Performing Arts Award for his debut play, a eulogy for three, produced by Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Living Word Project. He is the author of SoMa Lurk, a collection of photos and poems published by Project Kalahati / Pro Arts Commons. His work has been featured by the PBS NewsHour, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Daily Beast, while his writing has appeared in Catapult, McSweeney’s, New Life Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review of Books, SFMOMA’s Open Space, and Pop-Up Magazine.
Copyright © 2021 by José Vadi, from Inter State. Excerpted by permission of Soft Skull Press.