Goodbye, Oakland — and Every Other City Losing Its Battle With Greed
This is for the ones who’ve been here and don’t plan on leaving, no matter what the tech-boom money says
I’m not an Oakland native.
Although I’m born and raised in the Bay Area with Mexican immigrant parents, a UC Berkeley alum, and a husband married to a Latina with proud family roots in East Oakland, with the city always being a freeway’s drive from where I grew up and the place where I’ve spent the past few years of my adulthood living and teaching, I’ll never really be from here the way that many are really from here. I honor those people. Their stories, vibrations, voices, struggles, triumphs — the various textures of generational fabric that thread together everything special this place will continue to be.
Yet, take a 15-minute drive around Oakland, and you’ll sense how the local presence is diminishing at an alarming rate. Unaffordable high-rise apartments, glittery coffee shops, and exclusive restaurants have popped up in the least expected places, seemingly overnight White-collar techies, free spirits, and hipstery-looking transplants from all over the world have clogged the arteries of every desirable (and neglected) neighborhood in the town.
In my way, I’ve contributed to this gentrification. My privileges are not few. I’m middle class, born with U.S. citizenship, work as a district teacher with a yearly salary and health benefits, update my savings account, travel the world, and have the love and support of my friends and family to pursue artistic passions with a relatively carefree attitude. I eat and drink at bars that many would consider to be trendy or, worse, inauthentic to the real Oakland. I can blend in and not be targeted by police with my every movement. I can code-switch and vibe with nerdy writers about contemporary poetry just as quickly as I can discuss the latest E-40 verse with street dudes. I cannot overlook this flexibility in my identity — the social mobility it provides — and refuse to ignore my complicity in the changing demographics of this city.
This is for the artists and poets, the hustlers and students, those with homes overlooking Seminary and those who make homes out of plastic bags overnight. How it all feeds into each other, a never-ending sentence to the same story.
But this story is not really about me, just like it’s not about the beard-rocking, flannel-wearing outsiders from Pennsylvania and Washington who have flocked here within the past 12 months to chase California dreams and a six-figure salary. It’s about the real locals who seem to be getting less and less recognition. The ones who’ve been here and don’t plan on leaving, whose families carved their reflections into the mirrors of these buildings long before downtown was a place anyone would want to spend a Saturday afternoon drinking IPA beers and eating organic strawberries.
It’s about those rooted in Oakland, from the Lower Bottoms, the Deep East, the North Pole, from the Hills to the Flats. It’s for Black fathers, Mexican and Chinese mothers, Filipino and Samoan cousins, Ethiopian and Yemeni children, and White grandparents who’ve been here, too. Because in my time as a resident exploring this city — often with just my bike’s two wheels powering me from the edges of Emeryville to the potholed liquor store parking lots past the Coliseum — I’ve learned that Oakland isn’t just one thing. It can’t be defined by a singular image, and cannot move forward into the future in a single direction. Instead, it is as soft and eloquent in some places as it is muscular and loud in others, and not always in the ways you’d imagine, something the media will never quite capture.
With only seven days left in this community, which I’ve cultivated into a home of friends, students, parents, neighbors, bartenders, baristas, strangers, and family, I’m learning how to deeply cherish what this unique area offers more deeply. I look more closely at the people, the intersections, the angles, and the sounds. Not that I haven’t already done this work, but somehow, as I prepare to pack up my apartment on 6th Avenue right behind the old Parkway Theater and leave this city, I feel a need to squeeze tighter all that is around. I’m nothing more than a kid from the Bay who has some love to give before I leave this area I love.
This story is for the shirtless dude from the hood driving his Buick down MacArthur, music blasting, phone clutched to his ear as he gives a peace sign to the homie he just dropped off. Never mind an apology for the backed up cars honking from behind, with everything in his body language glistening, everything ahead of him, his gold chain clinging to his dark skin.
It’s for the 80-year-old man in line at the busy Kaiser pharmacy, standing with his cane and his patience, a randomly placed Oaklandish patch on the left pocket of his faded blue jeans, his stance slightly tilted. He breathes calm and steady above the afternoon’s spiraling madness.
It’s for families barbecuing next to Lake Merritt, cars lined up along Lakeshore on Sundays, standing in the spot where BBQ Becky’s infamous accusations rippled across the surface of this city faster than oxygen bursting into flame. Her paranoia brought reality closer by pushing us uncomfortably apart.
This ode is for the Grand Lake Theater, one of the first and last icons visitors see when coming in. How the brightly-starred, old-fashioned lights flash neon above the 580 ramp, announcing a history that is real and imagined, a bygone era of glamour that remains with the dust of yesterday. It’s for Andrew and Jerome, my brothers, my fighters. How we used to box at Miguel’s gym, then hit up Grand Ave for beers and slam dunk theories, talking each other up before dispersing into the moonless night.
It’s for TDK, for Desi Mundo, for the Illuminaries, for GATS. How their graffiti breathes on walls across this city, speaking with concrete teeth for the people, for their place here.
This story is for the Coliseum, that giant toilet bowl of a home we love to cheer in while sitting in the bleachers, behind the Left Field Die Hards as they call out and wave their flags. All of us with beers in hand, in unison with drummers, chant until our voices get raspy, and give battle cries of, “Let’s go, Oak-Land!” It’s one of the few places from my childhood that hasn’t changed, a fortress against the financial violence happening outside its walls.
This letter is for that Afro-Latinx kid walking the block in his black hoodie in June, bouncing his basketball and his microphone-shaped afro in syncopated rhythm across a cracked sidewalk on his way to Mosswood. He walks with victory in his toes.
It’s for the Golden State Warriors, for Latrell Sprewell and Steph Curry, for every iteration of the team I grew up listening to on KNBR as a boy. They’ve dribbled themselves into our hearts from the ashes of our past.
It’s for Beto, my barber, my Hayward compadre. He’d hit me up when he was free at the loft on Broadway, and we’d chop it up in his chair, a master of buzz fades, his touch made of gold.
This story is for those teenagers on scraper bikes, confetti wheels spinning and speakers blaring while popping wheelies, a river of young bodies that mobb and push down avenues while onlookers stare. It’s for the artists and poets, the hustlers and students, those with homes overlooking Seminary and those who make homes out of plastic bags overnight. It all feeds into each other, a never-ending sentence to the same story.
It’s for all the damn broken glass on streets, back-alleys, empty lots, reflecting an imperfect beauty. I’ve seen it make people cry when their windows of hope shattered in front of them.
This ode is for the Eastern Span of the Bay Bridge, the one dismantled for the newer, more polished arrival. Its ugly hips birthed my understanding of this place when I first drove over it, and it has been buried in my chest ever since.
It’s for the taco truck on International and 29th parked in front of the Goodwill — where my father-in-law would go to find forgotten paintings to hang on his walls. The carne asada grease would mix our blood into fuel for weekends of pachangas and eternity. It’s for that bag of Marshawn Lynch-edition Skittles sitting on my bookshelf right now. How one of my students gave it to me after attending a Raiders game; how they are too sacred for me to rip open.
This story is for summer heat waves on First Fridays, when classics would park at the gas station, doors swinging wide, Too $hort’s lyrics hustling into the ears of anyone who’d walk by, an unapologetic occupation of space. How the city eventually tore down that zone and fenced it off, a metaphor I can no longer hold in my mouth.
It’s for all the open mics on MLK, the still-standing Panthers in the West, Mistah FAB’s Mustang parked on 19th, and for the trivia night crews and sailboaters in Jack London. It’s for the zapateros and paleteros on Foothill, and for the late-morning fish heavers in Chinatown near the Lincoln Park basketball courts. How diversity isn’t just a word here, but a lived truth.
The night I hopped into my car with Briana to see her childhood house off 55th for the last time, the warmth of July wrapped us in a way I will never unfeel. With P-Lo’s music in the background, we rolled up the hills around Maxwell Park, where you can take it all in — the Coliseum’s bulk, the eucalyptus salt of a nearby Bay, the deep mountainsides hiding the sunset above a faraway Pacific.
My wife started crying because this home is no longer hers, the scaffolds of construction everywhere a jagged scar across her mourning. We must leave. We must learn to say goodbye.