Feb 28 2011

At the Library

So I want to tell you about our local branch library. It’s wonderful. It was closed for remodeling when we first moved in:

library (closed)

But now it is open! Yay! Let’s all go to the library!

library steps

(If you wonder why Sam is hauling what appear to be—and are—two very heavy grocery bags, it’s because they’re full of comic books to donate. If you wonder what Robin has on top of his head, hold on, you’ll see it better in a minute.)

Built in 1916 with a Carnegie grant, the library is a gracious, serene Classical Revival building (look at those marble steps!) with some Craftsman touches inside. Check out these skylights:

ceiling detail

The reading areas are sunlit and peaceful, fitted with old-fashioned bookshelves, tables, and chairs, and splendid wooden paneling:

shady nook

Here and there they have carved benches set in the walls. Here’s a picture of Robin looking goofy on one of the benches (yes, that’s quite a hat he has):


Every Thursday morning they have toddler storytime at the library, which I’ve been trying to attend faithfully, although last week we didn’t go as it’s a longish walk and it was rainy. But Robin loves it. The children’s librarian, Adina, is one of those delightful people who seems to brim with cheerful energy. She knows all her regulars by name, and when we poked our head in for the first time she was quick to take Robin under her wing. She’s got the kids’ book section categorized, partly in the expected age-range groupings, but also partly by interest—so there’s a “dinosaur” shelf and a “things that go” shelf, where fiction and non-fiction books for readers of different levels are mixed in together. So within just a few minutes she was handing Robin as many train books as he could hold.

I felt a kinship with Adina almost immediately. She’s a library person. I have spent a lot of time working or volunteering in libraries: I can quickly recognize library people, and I like them very much. “This library,” I told her, “is amazing.” I really was blown away. I hadn’t expected it to be anywhere near this nice. It’s the nicest library I’ve seen in ten years. It’s vastly superior for our purposes to the San Francisco Main Library—they have fewer books of course, but with interlibrary loan you can get any book you want. And they provide something that the San Francisco Main Library does not: a calm and beautiful space that’s inspiring for children.

I mean, when we lived in downtown San Francisco we rarely went to the library because it was ugly and depressing, with scowling security guards and metal detectors at every door, and homeless people bathing in the restroom sinks. I just ordered books from Amazon instead. But this library is a treat to visit—it’s not simply a place to get books, it’s a place for Robin to spend a delighted half-hour playing and exploring, while I chat with the librarians or just bask in the sunlit serenity.

Modern libraries are torn in two different directions: there’s the old mission, that of serving as a sort of communal temple to the mind, and there’s a new mission of providing Internet access to the homeless. The second mission is important too, but I wonder if it’s wise to try and combine the two functions in one facility. Places that are set up to provide services to the homeless aren’t usually great spaces for kids. It’s obvious to me only now—from being in a library that executes the old function and does it well—how much can be, and has been, lost.

“What do you need?” I asked Adina, after I’d had a few minutes of just being staggered to find such a treasure in a place where I’d almost forgotten to look.

“Well,” she said, “there’s the Friends of the Library…”

“Yes, yes, obviously,” I said, somewhat impatiently. I already knew we’d be joining the Friends of the Library, just as I already knew this library would be imperiled—all libraries always are. “But what do you need? Any specific materials? Periodical subscriptions? Infrastructure?”

And then there was a little gleam in her eye. “Circulation,” she said, with an intensity answering my own. “We need circulation. The city allocates funds based on usage, and we’re coming up short. Check things out. Here, take more books. There’s no late fee on the children’s materials.”

“How many can we check out at a time?”


“I’m sorry, I don’t think I heard you right, it sounded like you said–”

Forty. You can have forty items checked out at a time, and please do, we have DVDs too—I would be just delighted if every visitor went home with forty things every time they came.”

“Well,” I said. “All righty then. We’ll start over in this corner here, how does that sound?”

So that is how we embarked on a new mission, that of reading every book in the library, forty at a time (although to be honest we don’t take forty things every time, because I have to carry them home). But we do try to go every week, and check out as many books as we can keep track of. Robin practically sings all the way there: “Going to the library! Going to the library!”

And what a nice library it is.

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!