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The Invisible City: Entering Oakland
Posted on Mar 11, 2007
By James Harris
“If you ain’t been to the ghetto, don’t ever come to the ghetto. You wouldn’t understand the ghetto.” Naughty by Nature, circa 1991.
Living in Oakland is like living inside “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” It is a city that reflects both poverty and prosperity. Walking through the North Oakland Safeway on College Avenue, I see couples and families shopping for organic products in a Disney-like scene. However, in West Oakland—about 10 minutes away—Grand Grocery is deserted. There is only the brave Afghan clerk in the dark and dirty store who scrutinizes each of his occasional customers.
Talking to residents around Grand Grocery, I discovered that many of them have lived in or near the neighborhood for most of their lives. Many have never left Oakland or even crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, which is less than 12 miles away. For as long as Oakland has had a problem with violence, the mayhem has come from East and West Oakland. Residents know where to go and where not to go. It’s like a game of musical chairs. If you want to live, just make sure you have a safe seat when the music stops playing and the lights go out.
As long as blood doesn’t spill on the safe streets and the violence stays where it is supposed to, Oakland residents, much as those in St. Louis or Camden, have proved again and again that they can live with the terror. With people being killed this brutally and this fast, it’s the only available coping mechanism. If you can’t change it, you got to stand it, I suppose.
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For those who don’t know, Oakland had a celebrity mayor in former California Gov. Jerry Brown, whose so-called 10K Plan was great for business but not for the murder rate. There are about 10 new developments in Oakland, yet no new developments in the areas that need it most. There are more than 100 vacant acres in the city’s poorest communities. Brown held true to his promise to bring 10,000 residents to the downtown area (the 10K plan is still in the works), but he failed to illuminate the problem of crime and genocide. His ironic reward came in November, when he was elected California’s attorney general—the top cop.
What happens in Oakland now is, by and large, up to Mayor Ron Dellums, a Democratic fixture in the U.S. House of Representatives for 27 years who has now instilled hope in the more than 8,000 Oakland citizens who signed a petition pleading with him to run for mayor. Since taking office, Dellums swore that he will work tirelessly to turn Oakland into a model city. “If we can do it in Oakland, then the word is: ‘They did it in Oakland,’ ” said Dellums in an interview with Oakland Magazine.
Dellums’ ideas are grandiose, to say the least. He is calling for a decrease in crime, a new focus on quality education, ecological integrity, continued business development and a multimillion-dollar increase in the city budget. So far Dellums has put in place some 81 task forces around the city and has been determined in his effort to involve youths in the political process. Dellums also urged drug dealers and gang leaders at his Hyphy-Soul Showcase event to “come to the table on equal terms” and talk to him. Dellums cried out to the audience, “The senseless violence must stop!”
For those 8,000 Oakland citizens who signed the petition to get Dellums to run for mayor, he is a lot like Robert F. Kennedy, for he embodies the hopes of a broken people and he has the political know-how to turn Oakland around. The major criticism of Dellums is that he has yet to say how he will accomplish any of this, or what, exactly, he would do with an increased budget. But neither did RFK say exactly how he would take the hopes and dreams of millions and turn them into a presidential legacy.
There is no blueprint. There is no mayor who has solved these problems before. Oakland achieved modest success in reducing crime in the mid-1990s, but no mayor has ever systematically and successfully addressed the problems that plague black people in inner cities.
The problems of Oakland, and other cities suffering from the failure or departure of industry, are paralleled in hip-hop, which has become plagued by violence rooted in a lack of tradition. The original form of hip-hop means nothing to artists aiming only to make a dollar; just as Oakland as the home of revolution in the 1960s means nothing to the children trying to survive on inner-city streets.
Hip-hop artist Nas recently released a magnificent album that discusses the “murder” of hip-hop in its original state: an energetic voice for young blacks. No violence. No killing. No hate. Just music. The song “Carry on Tradition” crescendos:
First and foremost, black people must take ownership of this problem, but a sense of humanity obliges us all. If black children are dying in inner cities across the nation because they lack values, then why don’t the politicians who govern these districts pour every available resource into correcting the problem? More important, why aren’t neighborhoods banding together to discuss these issues? Why are there not more block parties and block socials sponsored by cities plagued by violence and lack of communication? These are the questions that Mayor Dellums is asking, the questions of a man who is trying to breathe life into a ghost town.
If you read this in accord, I hope you will join the struggle.
But if you read this and are not compelled to act, and act daily, remember that silence is compliance.
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