Jan 4 2011

Fewer Churches! More Bars!

I think I’ve mentioned before that we’re in a so-called transitional neighborhood—to the north and west of us it’s really nice, but to the south and east it gets pretty dodgy. So I’ve spent some time trying to analyze what sets the nice neighborhoods apart from the sketchy ones. Part of it’s obvious—in the good areas, people keep their houses in good shape and they take pride in their gardens and lawns, while in the bad areas there’s graffiti, and trash in the lawns, and boarded-up windows, or windows that have bedsheets hanging over them instead of curtains. Some of it’s a little less obvious and I can’t tell whether it’s cause or effect: the nice neighborhoods have a lot of “greenscaping,” big trees shading the streets and planted medians and so forth, while the bad neighborhoods are all concrete.

And some of it’s really counter-intuitive. So, part of the obvious problem is that in the really bad areas there’s no shops aside from liquor stores. In the good neighborhoods there are commercial districts: the one closest to us is the Laurel district, where we go to have brunch on Sundays or take Robin to his toddler dance class (which I really need to describe in another post). The Laurel has lots of restaurants: Italian and Thai and Chinese, a burger joint and a diner and a couple of fast food outlets. It has clothing stores and a toy store and a barbershop and a laundromat and a great little independent bookstore. It has the Kids ‘N Dance studio, and a gym, and two grocery stores, and a bunch of other stuff. The farmer’s market where we pick up our veggie box is there. In short, we go there all the time, and we wouldn’t have bought this house if it wasn’t convenient to the Laurel district or something like it. In and around the other shops, there’s a couple of bars, which is so completely normal that I wouldn’t have mentioned it, except:

There are other commercial districts to the south and east, but they’re abandoned and derelict. Drive around in that direction and you find no restaurants, no grocery stores or produce stands, no clothing shops, no bars or lounges or nightlife of any kind—nothing but liquor stores. Frequently there are knots of young men standing around outside the liquor stores, drinking.

The only thing you’ll find open in these neighborhoods, other than the liquor stores, are the churches. There are a ton of churches. Churches in the old single-screen theaters, churches in what used to be a boutique or a tailor’s shop, churches hastily built up on the lots left when other buildings are knocked down. We’re talking like five churches in a block. There are really a lot of churches, so many that Sam thinks some of them must be fronts for something else. I just think the churches flourish in areas where the people have given up. I was talking this over with my dad and he had a great quote which I cannot remember exactly, but it was something about looking heavenward when all hope of material recourse is gone.

In conclusion, bars are a sign of a healthy neighborhood. You want bars. You want places where people can go to have a drink and be social in the evenings, as opposed to drinking out of brown paper bags in the liquor store parking lot. You want venues for nightlife. And you don’t want churches, or at least, not too many of them. The people should not be living on prayer. So when I think about what east Oakland needs, that’s where I start—fewer churches, and more bars.

Jul 9 2010

At Home

The Mehserle verdict came down yesterday, and as expected, there was some violence in Oakland—although the majority of the protests were peaceful.

Officials said the main instigators appeared to be organized ‘anarchist’ agitators wearing black clothing and hoods. Many of the most aggressive demonstrators smashing the windows of banks and shops were white.

So those people are obviously real winners. Most of them probably don’t even live in Oakland, and couldn’t care less about the Mehserle case: they just want to go out looting.

But as for us, we’re at home getting to know little Davy. So far it’s been a pleasure watching Robin absorb the fact of his new little brother:

He’s nice with the baby, quick to give him kisses and pats, and when we’re nursing he likes to come sit by us and chat with me. I encourage him to tell Davy all about choo-choos, which he does quite happily. Robin, I think, is amazingly good at adjusting to changes: he took the move to the new house in stride, and it looks like he’s accepted Davy just as easily.

We’ve taken a few outings together as a family, with the boys each in their separate carseats, but yesterday when we were making a quick trip to a pharmacy we left Davy napping at home with his Pappy. As we started the car Robin pointed over to the empty carseat, and said “Baby! Baby!” with some alarm. We had to assure him that we hadn’t forgotten the baby!

As for Davy, it’s hard to get much of a sense of his personality, but he’s got his baby skills down. He’s great at nursing, he can get his fingers directly into his mouth, and he likes to cuddle. A-plus baby!

Jul 2 2010

Also, That Other Thing

Another thing making us uncomfortable right now is that a verdict is expected soon in the trial of Johannes Mehserle, and it’s pretty much assumed that there will be riots in Oakland if he’s acquitted. And specifically the violence may well center around Fruitvale—as I mentioned before, our house is on the border of that neighborhood. So, we’re a bit tense.

The police are bracing for riots. So are the local shopkeepers. I don’t want to freak anyone out (Mom, don’t freak out) by mentioning this; I just thought it would be worse if the riots actually do happen and you hear about it on the news or something first. It’s extremely unlikely that we would be affected by any violence, anyway: the BART station where protests will be centered is a mile and a half from our house, and most of those blocks are quiet residential ones. For myself, I hope Mehserle is convicted at least of voluntary manslaughter, and obviously we’re all hoping that any protests organized after the verdict remain peaceful ones.

Jun 28 2010

Mi Pueblo

So I went around the supermarket snapping pictures like a gawking tourist so that I could bring you a post on Mi Pueblo, our local Hispanic supermarket.

I guess I should start by noting that, though you’d never know it by looking at me, my great-grandmother was born and raised in Mexico. Not much of Mexican culture got passed down to me—in fact, pretty much none of it got passed down to me—but I suppose my fondness for the Latinos may be to some degree self-congratulatory. In any case I seem to gravitate to Hispanic neighborhoods; the first place I lived in San Francisco was the Mission, and now here in Oakland we’ve settled just on the border of Fruitvale.

Now I’m going to go off on a tangent, but it’s something that’s been knocking around my head lately: I don’t understand the hostility against Hispanic immigrants that’s erupting so virulently in Arizona and other places. It’s not just that I don’t agree with it; I don’t understand where it’s coming from. Hispanic people make great neighbors! They’re hard-working, family-oriented people, and in their areas they create the infrastructure—restaurants, produce markets, bars, street vendors and entertainers—that makes for a great, livable neighborhood.

The contrast between Fruitvale and the Coliseum area of Oakland—essentially, the contrast between the barrio and the ghetto—is stunning to me, and I haven’t fully wrapped my head around it. In the poorest Mexican neighborhoods (and not all of Fruitvale is very poor, but some of it is), you still have commerce and vitality and cultural vibrancy. In the poorest black neighborhoods, there’s nothing. No restaurants, no bars, no grocery stores, no street life other than groups of young men standing around on corners. Block after block of bombed-out houses and occasionally someone sitting on the front steps, staring with an empty face at whatever passes by. I think it must have a lot to do with the generations of institutionalized assault on the African-American family? And I should say quickly that the majority of Oakland’s black population isn’t represented by the city’s worst blocks; mostly the black people of Oakland, like the white people of Oakland, are living in a patchwork of diverse neighborhoods that vary by income. Still, because Fruitvale and the Coliseum area are right next to each other, the contrast between them is really, really striking, and I wish I better understood the cultural and socioeconomic forces that created one neighborhood versus the other. To the uneducated eye, the most apparent difference is that in Fruitvale people are working.

And shopping! Which is why in Fruitvale we have this:

Behind that yellow barricade is where the magic chickens happen. Almost every day they’re roasting pollo asada on the barbeque, and for a little under ten bucks you can take home a whole chicken along with some salsa and a packet of tortillas.

Inside, it’s like a party! There’s music! There’s streamers! People are happy and smiling! Let’s all get some groceries now! Yay!

You want salsa? We got salsa.

You want peppers? Dude, this isn’t even half the peppers. Please note also that you can buy your cactus with the spines still on, or you can go around to where one of the store employees is deftly de-spining them with a great big knife that might be a machete someday if it drinks its milk. I assume you pay a little extra for the cleaned cactus, but it’s probably worth it.

Someday I’m going to make my own tortillas!

This is only a small glimpse of the sweets case in the panaderia. There’s also a savory case, where they sell soft fresh-baked loaves, and rounds of cheesy jalapeƱo bread. People are always lined up to get the fresh bread.

Against the other wall there’s a “deli” that’s more like a whole restaurant:

They also have meat, and seafood, and a whole case of fresh cheeses, but at some point I started to get embarrassed about taking pictures, so this is all you get. Mi Pueblo! What a great place!