Conquistadors: On the End of Oakland

 By Kaya Oakes 

Luis Maria Peralta arrived in Alta California as a member of the Spanish-led de Anza expedition in 1776. After pursuing a group of Native Americans through the San Joaquin valley and eventually massacring them, he was awarded with the Rancho San Antonio land grant. That grant spread over the cities now known as San Leandro, Alameda, Emeryville, Piedmont, Berkeley, and Oakland. Luis never lived on his land, choosing instead to stay ensconced in what is now San Jose, but his sons and daughters fanned out across the Peralta grant, asserting themselves onto territory previously occupied by the Ohlone tribe. Before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo threw the ownership of the land into dispute, it became a sprawling squat. Natives, Spanish-born Californios and immigrants lived in uneasy tension. Among the houses built by Peralta’s children, only a few remain standing after the 1868 earthquake on the Hayward Fault ripped a seam through Alta California. But the Peralta sons stayed put in Oakland: in Fruitvale, in West Oakland, and in Temescal.

My paternal great-grandparents arrived in Oakland some time in the late 1800s. Forced out of Ireland, they inched their way across America, eventually winding up in West Oakland, back then an enclave of lace curtain and shanty Irish elbowing up against Italians, and eventually, working-class African Americans. My grandfather’s family followed the now-underground stream of Temescal Creek from cheap flat to cheap flat, until my father was born in 1938, prematurely, to older parents who’d thought they were barren. At this point they moved to West Street, near the intersection that now bears a plaque indicating the location of the first Black Panther Party meeting. My father went to Sacred Heart School on 40th Street, now a dying Catholic parish attached to a Spanish-immersion charter school run by an overworked nun.

In 1960, at a meeting of the Newman Club in Berkeley (a social group for Catholic students at Cal, which later became a parish), my father, who had left the Catholic men’s college he was attending in nearby Moraga, met a young woman from Montana who’d recently transferred to Berkeley. My mother was bored out of her mind by her own small town Catholic college, and came to California, like so many before her, in search of something wider. Two years later, they married and moved to Howe Street, near Piedmont Avenue. Three years later, with three small children crowding their apartment, they bought a shedding, badly wired 1908 house on the edge of Rockridge, then a neighborhood of Italian and Portuguese immigrants. They paid twenty thousand dollars for the house, and it sent them into debt for decades. Several drunken Irish guys, my father’s drinking buddies at McNally’s bar on College, fell off the roof after being hired to “repair” it. The basement flooded with regularity, and we were only allowed to plug in two appliances at once lest we cause the power to go out. That house is now worth just under a million dollars. My grandparents and my father are dead, and my mother now finds herself the matriarch of a neighborhood that looks nothing like the one she arrived in as a young school teacher with children in her arms.

What I mean to say is this: the other day, I drove through Temescal, the neighborhood I lived in for a good decade, after I left college and came home to Oakland. In the early 90s, my neighbors were Eritreans and broke lesbian couples. My neighbors were skate punks and elderly Black ladies who cultivated rose gardens. My neighbors were Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong. My neighbors were from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Chile, Venezuela. My neighbors were Christians, Jews, Pagans, Buddhists, Copts. And I drove through Temescal the other day, and everyone, every single person was white. With the same beard, the same bangs, the same plaid, the same Prius, the same goddamned straw hat, the same baby stroller, the same smugness of having discovered the new neighborhood, the one nobody knew about, the one that was their secret which they would shortly blab about all over the style section of the New York Times, in a feature which actually mentioned $300 jeans as something aspirational, which included a single paragraph about the displacement of 50% of Oakland’s black population within the last decade.

What I mean to say is this: in November of last year my landlord sold the house I’d lived in for seven years, down by San Pablo and Adeline, in an area where one house is Emeryville and the one next to it Oakland, and he put it on the market for $600K. Across the street is a Mexican family with three adult children living at home because they cannot afford to move out due to the rise in Oakland rent, which has shot up to an average of $2500 a month. I am currently in exile, living in the hills above El Cerrito, which is basically a two mile strip mall. Should I desire to spend my life moving between Bed Bath and Beyond and a series of Safeways, I can do that in El Cerrito. What I can’t do is feel like everything I grew up believing in—multiculturalism as praxis, working-class values, staying put in the city you grew up in, walking the same streets my father did—isn’t vanishing in increments.

Temescal was always going to be the next to go. The gentrification of Rockridge, which began in earnest with the opening of the Rockridge Market Hall in the 90s, meant that more modest upper middle class folks couldn’t afford to buy one of Rockridge’s stately craftsman homes, so savvy real estate agents came up with a plan. They re-labeled Temescal as “Lower Rockridge” and slapped it on For Sale signs. Then came the Priuses, then came the organic almond milk, then came the restaurants where the entrees cost more than most families spend on groceries for three meals. Then came the white kids, working as servers in those restaurants. Then came the people from San Francisco and Marin, fighting over parking spaces. Then went the idea of a neighborhood being a place where people root themselves.

I am in the parking lot of the Walgreen’s in Temescal just before Christmas. A homeless woman is moving though the lot, staggering, weaving, you understand. She’s asking people for money, and they’re getting into their cars. She’s asking me for money and my hands are full of shopping bags, so I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t put them down and dig out a $5 bill, which I do, and she bursts into tears because no one will speak to her. No one will look her in the eye. And because I make breakfast at an overnight shelter for homeless mothers and have heard this story again and again, I take her in my arms and let her cry. All around us, people get into their cars.

It is easy to turn away from poverty because poverty reeks. It is easy to ignore history because history is inconvenient: all those dead Native Americans, all those Oscar Grants, all those strivers and failures, all of that money performing its steady act of erasure.

When I talk about white people you may want to point out that I am white. The sunburn I get when walking even halfway around the loop that encircles Lake Merritt (if you are new to Oakland, and perhaps you are, you may not be aware that it is not really a lake but an estuary, and a man-made one; also, it is full of dead bodies) is testimony to that. My family brought struggle and poverty to America, but not melanin. When I talk about white people I mean the deliberate erasure of a history that includes poor white people and working-class white people alongside people of color. The erasure of the Oakland I grew up in is the erasure not just of race, but of class. 40% of Oakland lives below the poverty line. It has one of the highest rates of robberies in the nation. But where is that in the news? Poor people are funneled out of one part of town, and then another, and then another, and where do they go? Private security patrols drive through Rockridge. Temescal recently completed a crowd-funded campaign to hire its own private security, from a company that prides itself on having cars that are easily mistaken for the OPD. Meanwhile, the city does little to provide community centers, after school programs, or any sustained support for the young. This is what I mean by erasure. People without money are being erased.

The house where I live now sits at the top of a steep hill above Richmond. It is always windy, a wind that moans up from the Bay. There are no trees, only a peeling palm in a neighbor’s yard that looks like it has a disease. Down the hill, the Chevron refinery glows at night, plumes of smoke rising up from the cylindrical tanks. Just a few years ago, it exploded, and thousands of working poor and middle class people rushed to the ER, unable to breathe. All over Richmond, Chevron has posted billboards testifying that “Chevron Cares.” Enough to choke the people who live here. The bearded and banged people have not discovered Richmond; there is one coffee shop, a 20 minute drive, and it closes at 3PM. In exile, my view is of a refinery killing thousands of people slowly with cancer and asthma, and the wind sends the garbage skittering down the street. The rent, it must be said, is much cheaper.

It took a writer as gifted as Rebecca Solnit to make people care that the Google Bus was killing the San Francisco she loved. Can I persuade you that Oakland, as cousin-ish as it has always been in comparison to San Francisco, is also losing its soul? Perhaps not. Maybe my rhetoric here is off, and I should stop lobbing grenades and tell you instead about walking over the long hill of 51st street to the all night Payless, where you could always find something bizarre on the shelves, like a fishing pole, or the ceramic dragon that still sits on my desk years after I shoplifted it. On the other side of that hill was the home of the guy who’s been my friend for nearly 30 years. In the graveyard at the top of that hill are my grandparents, my father, and his older brother, dead as an infant, buried under a tombstone the size of a shoebox lid. Maybe you’d be convinced there was an Oakland decades and decades back if you’d driven in a beater over to the Merritt Bakery late at night for waffles. Or we could talk about Bif’s diner on Broadway, where punk kids razzed the elderly waitresses, the days when downtown was so empty and creepy you’d never expect to find a band playing in an out-of-the way bar, but I was in that band, playing for three old Vietnamese guys and two comic-book-reading nerds from the comic shop where I worked. Or junior high at Claremont Middle School with Mister Puente, and his talk about La Raza and his bell-bottom jeans. The summers of Festival at the Lake, standing with thousands of Ethiopians listening to Aster Aweke, plumes of pot smoke in the air; evenings of cooking up last-chance produce from the market on Telegraph and 48th into curries so hot we couldn’t eat them but that was all we could afford; afternoons outside of Royal Coffee reading books in the rain, under an awning; the certain slant of light that hits Oakland like no other place in the world and reveals that yes, much of it is ugly, but also, much of it is home.

Okay, but also the bad shit. Yes, there was that. Cars broken into and stolen over and over, bags snatched, being driven around in the back of a cop car looking for the thief with the cop repeatedly asking why I lived in this neighborhood (“because I was born here”), a friend raped in her apartment, another friend stabbed, another shot. My mother taught for decades in the Oakland schools; she’d lock her purse in the trunk of her car and her own students would crowbar it out. Drugs that were fun that turned, for some of us, into drugs that stopped our heart. If we lived, we stayed (“because I was born here”). Or some of us left, and years later, came home. Oakland was ours because San Francisco was always for people who had just a bit more money, more hustle, who just had more. If you were from Oakland, San Francisco was mostly where you went to buy clothes.

It is easy to ignore history when a town is a town, and not a city, even though half a million people live there.

It is easy to ignore history when it looks like the Ohlone. Like Dr. William Watts, an African American doctor who opened a hospital for Black patients turned away from other hospitals. Or like the tens of thousands of poor people who streamed into the town to work in the canneries and shipyards. Like the Braceros from Mexico. The 1946 General Strike. The Black Panther Party. El Movimento in the Fruitvale. Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Korean immigrants. Too $hort selling tapes out of his trunk at the Laney Flea Market. That smell that comes off of the lake, which is not a lake, on a hot day. It’s easy to make that disappear.

It is hard to say this. Perhaps I am part of the problem. Some friends started a magazine ten years ago. Yes, I confess: I was involved. We threw parties in Oakland warehouses to pay the printer’s bills, and people came. And articles were written in newspapers, “hey, something is happening in Oakland.” More people came. Then some friends opened art galleries, it turned into a thing on First Fridays, more people came. And a sense of alarm began to creep in, well, at least for me. There were too many people walking around and treating us like an exotic species, people making art in Oakland. Who knew. When in fact it had been happening for decades. When in fact we had no idea what we were doing, but people liked it, and they latched on.

It is hard to say that the neighborhood where we used to meet and lay out the magazine pages is now called “Uptown” and has condos that start at five hundred thousand dollars and yes, I am going to write that number out.

It is hard to say that the magazine died in fights and stress and acrimony, and that the boxes of it we had stored in a friend’s attic were destroyed when his landlord decided to renovate the apartment, because the rent in the neighborhood was going up.

Now Oakland makes lists. Hot cities, happening cities, cool cities, conquerable cities. When the landlord sold our house, we went to a series of open rentals and found ourselves crowded into kitchens, filling out applications alongside dozens and dozens of people, each of them looking anxious, trying to catch the landlord’s eye. And most of them were saying, well, we looked and looked in San Francisco. And we were saying “I was born here” and, as it turned out, that did not mean we deserved to live there. Beyond the Ohlone, who does?

It is hard to say that the place you live is built on a history of conquistadors and of their erasure of those who came before. But that is where we live. That is America and that is California, and that is Oakland. The new conquistadors do not ride in on horses with nostrils flaring and sweat pearling their flanks. They arrive in cars that whisper, and the disease they bring is called privilege. And the natives flee, and watch, waiting, from the tops of the hills.


Kaya Oakes is the author of Radical Reinvention (Counterpoint Press, 2012), Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture (Henry Holt, 2009), and a poetry collection, Telegraph (Pavement Saw, 2007). Her fourth book, about faith, doubt, and non-believers, is forthcoming from Orbis Books in 2015. She is a contributing writer and editor at the website Killing the Buddha, and her writing about faith and feminism regularly appears in many magazines. She teaches writing at UC Berkeley.