Seeing Cities

Who Is Oakland
Intro wall for Oakland Museum’s “Who Is Oakland” exhibit.

Glancing through a national magazine this week I saw an article about Oakland that started with this:

Talk about core strength: Oakland’s urban center has gone from dodgy to trendy as newcomers fill its forgotten architectural gems with happening new restaurants, bars, and shops.

Hearing such remarks about Oakland doesn’t surprise me anymore — in fact it’s pretty much all I’ve heard about Oakland from people who don’t live here, as well as from a lot of the people who do. But it still makes me sad. The underlying message is that Oakland wasn’t a place to be before the “newcomers” arrived to make it spiffy and fun.

Full disclosure: I’ve only been in Oakland a few years myself. So I can’t say from personal experience what it was like in the past. But I know that thousands of people lived here. Diversity abounded. There were local jobs, and plenty of people grew up and raised families here. In short, Oakland was home to many, many people, just as it is today.

I would never want to sugarcoat it and say that Oakland was perfect before. The city has, and always will struggle with a variety of the issues that dense places tend to struggle with. And again, I wasn’t here to make any definitive statements about what the before looked like. But what I’m wishing is that we could at least respect peoples’ history here. I want us to stop pretending that Oakland was just some vacant wasteland of crime and poverty before the people with money decided they wanted to invest in the city again. That story just isn’t true.

I’m worried about the way that new folks approach the cities that are repopulating with wealth and whiteness across the U.S. When we get somewhere new to visit, to live, are we really looking for the good things that are already here, or are we looking to make that place ours and fill it with the things that are important to us?

Maybe it’s an overly-rosy view to think that we can all live and thrive here together, but that is where I fall. New, old, black, white, multicolored, queer, straight, differently-abled, etc. folks coexisting and supporting each other is sort of the dream of what Oakland is all about. So before we go denouncing Oakland’s past, or any other city’s past, let’s make sure we actually realize the richness that sources from it.

Quiet Place, Quiet Space


I walked into the dimly lit room and noticed one woman lying with her feet toward the window, head and shoulders propped up by a set of meditation cushions. Another man sat across the room from her, legs folded and eyes closed in inward stillness.

Neither budged as I entered and found my own spot away from them to lie down on the carpet and do some stretches. I pulled first one knee into my chest, then the other. I stretched my arms long and full above my head. I closed my eyes and let my body relax against the floor, soothed by the stillness and the cool darkness of the room.

I was on break during a daylong meditation workshop on an intense topic. While I was happy to be at the workshop, by the break time I was also ready to leave the crowded main room and carve out a space for myself in a peaceful corner. Some of my fellow workshop participants — like the two in the room with me — had similarly sought out a space to close their eyes and have quiet. Others went outside for a dose of sunshine, and some went into the kitchen to refuel with a granola bar or make a cup of tea while casually engaging with other participants.

I was struck by the luxury of each participant being given time and space to accommodate his or her needs throughout the day. I basked in the freedom to move from place to place in order to modulate my level of stimulation. Clearly the workshop coordinators deeply understood the connection between one’s immediate environment and one’s mood.

How wonderful would it be if everyone could accommodate their environmental needs like this on a daily basis? What if we had more ability to set our personal space to the level we prefer at all times — at work, running errands, socializing, and at home?

We often do try and make our setting fit our needs in a broad sense: by choosing to live in cities or suburbs or rural areas based on what we instinctively like most. Or perhaps we seek out a particular neighborhood that is more or less stimulating than others based on our needs or the needs of our family.

But so much of the time this choice isn’t completely up to us. Maybe our best shot at a job is in a busy area that feels overwhelming, or we are displaced from the vibrant, accessible areas we love by high housing prices and forced to move to an understimulating suburb where we are bored and unable to meet our social needs. And much has already been written about how so many employees don’t have the control over their immediate environment that they need to function most successfully throughout the day.

I like to think that our need to set our own space is something that we do all understand on at least a subconscious level, but maybe we just don’t talk about it enough yet, or in enough different contexts. There’s a lot to explore about neighborhood choice and individual psychology, and how the freedom to choose our environment may or may not affect our overall wellbeing. Through that connection we have yet one more lens for looking at issues of place and justice.

Book Review: Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger

Friday Night Lights 2

People liked hearing that Texas was back, that they were tough and could take it and were up on their feet again. Fact and fiction merged. They liked George Bush in the same way they absolutely worshiped Ronald Reagan, not because of the type of America that Reagan actually created for them but because of the type of America he so vividly imagined.
Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger

A few years ago I worked for an organization that focused exclusively on rural issues. It was my first foray into frequently speaking with and researching people who didn’t grow up in the liberal bubbles within which I navigated my life. I quickly realized that the things I had “known” about rural places, particularly rural white places, were often just stories and caricatures of a way of living very different from my own.

Since then there’s been this pull inside me to learn more and read more about rural places — not just the news headlines about crazy conservative politics, but first person narratives and in-depth journalism that can only come from lived experience.

A lot of my reading about rural places has been from authors of color, like Louise Erdrich’s beautiful works about Chippewa reservations (example: Love Medicine) and Isabel Wilkerson’s fantastic odyssey The Warmth of Other Suns about the Great Migration. In picking up Friday Night Lights, I felt like I had found a thoughtful, respectful book about small-town (if not exactly rural) white America.

On face, Friday Night Lights is all about football. The author-journalist Bissinger moved to Odessa, Texas in 1988 to capture the entirety of one high school football season. He moved his whole family with him, sending his kids to school in the Odessa school system and doing his best to fully embed into the community through endless interviews and longer-term profiles of the team’s coach and several key players.

Bissinger eloquently captures the frenzy that overtook Odessa every Friday night that a football game was happening — the intense pride and unity that all community members supporting Permian High School felt for “their boys,” as well as the intense pressure the football players themselves felt to be perfect both on and off the field so as to live up to their community’s dreams. There are stories of the school district chartering a jet for fans to travel to away games, of teachers giving the football players test answer sheets along with their test to help keep grades up, of players delaying X-rays on knowingly-fractured bones so as not to become ineligible for playing in the next game, of the near-celebrity status of the stars of the team.

You can see pretty early on though that this is not just a book about the craze of football. It’s also a book about the town itself — its people and its politics, as well as the way it represents a lot of small-town middle America overall and the values of much of that demographic.

Some of the parts I found most interesting were about how the town of Odessa grew and changed over the years, including the race politics of the city. Oil created Odessa, which was mostly white in its beginnings. During the boom years new people arrived and the town flourished, and in the years when oil prices were low the town fell into a stagnancy and economic depression common to so many other small-town places. The black community of course lived almost exclusively on one side of the tracks, in the least desirable part of the city. When Latinos began moving to Odessa in larger numbers, most of them lived on the black side of the tracks as well, though some were able to make it to more affluent part of the town.

As the city got bigger the eastern part of town became the most affluent, most white section and also the location of the football powerhouse high school Permian. Bissinger chronicles how football played a role in perpetuating racism as it grew. When the town was forced to integrate its schools for instance, the black high school got closed down. Permian High School got to have a larger share of the black residents bused to their high school than the third high school across town because of the belief that blacks were faster than whites and the best candidates for runningbacks on the football team. Bissinger discusses several other unsavory accounts of race biases and discrimination throughout the book.

Some of Friday Night Lights is about politics. I felt that Bissinger did a great job of capturing why conservative politics resonated so strongly with the residents of Odessa. Respect, pride, and fighting for your lot in life were values burned into them by the indignities of the economic depression and the isolation they felt from the government. A few particular chapters of the book took me forward light years in understanding (not agreeing with) conservative towns — that it’s not about the policies but the rhetoric and the ability of politicians to tap into a hazy, dreamy vision of American grit. I kept having flashbacks to that Chrysler/Eminem commercial from the Super Bowl of a few years ago as Bissinger detailed the particular political ethos of the town.

I do have some reservations however about what this book meant to the residents of Odessa. The book faced a lot of controversy when it came out, and many people in the town didn’t appreciate the way Bissinger talked about their frenzy for football or their racial dynamics. Bissinger stresses his journalistic objectivity in defending his book, but the idea that anyone can be a completely impartial reporter has never sat well with me. So I do wonder what is missing from the book — if there are ways in which it doesn’t completely capture what the town was all about.

I think it’s about being open to multiple truths. You can learn a lot through documenting a new reality or from reading someone else’s first-hand experience of a new place, but I’m sure there are even more stories to be had that rest with the people of Odessa themselves. All in all, a well-created portrait.

5Stars25/5 STARS

See a full list of my book reviews here and my book review policy here.

Oakland’s Old and New

canon 50mm

From a young age my mother instilled a love of photography in me. I remember playing around with her 35mm film camera in high school photo class, developing the rolls of film by hand in the dark room and waiting to see what shadows and highlights would magically emerge from the paper in the process of moving it from one chemical bathtub to another.

Ever since then photography has been an on-and-off hobby of mine. I’ve found over the years that getting behind the viewfinder of a camera often sparks my creativity in writing and my work life. I also feel that taking photos helps me focus in on (no pun intended) the place justice issues I care about.

In reading The Artist’s Way recently I’ve been animated to play around with photography again. And since I just bought a prime lens for the first time (the standard Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM for any fellow photo hobbyists who want to know), I decided to take a spin out to Oakland’s Chinatown and Old Oakland districts to see what I could capture.

Every time I walk through the area my senses are deluged by the mix of gritty urban elements, established culture, and newer changes to the neighborhoods. This mixture seems similar to so many other cities where demographics are changing but established communities are still trying to hold on to their identity and ownership over space.


IMG_2588aNote: After first publishing this post it was brought to my attention that both the dragon painted on the mailbox and the Malcom X portrait are works done by Dr. Dragon of the Dragon School. You can check out some of the other amazing works from this awesome group here: Wrist Ship Supply , Spittin’ Fire, OMWB White Elephant Sale Building and Cat Town Cafe Wall 1 and Wall 2.

vegetable boxes

I once took a walking tour of Oakland Chinatown where the guide told us this building wasn’t actually built according to Chinese architecture — it’s a “fake” in a sense, a fetishism perhaps of Asian art and design as the builders tried to add what they saw as a sense of authenticity to the neighborhood.

Chinatown building

On a different note I’m not sure whether the person who posted this sign was an older resident or a newer one, but I appreciate the acknowledgment of the unconscionable police oppression of black and brown bodies that happens across the nation. Notes like this give me hope that people are starting to understand how America’s cities large and small are connected in this way. Cities themselves can be platforms of protest. May Michael Brown and too many others rest in power and peace.

michael brown



Signs of the new…

pointing hands

restaurant tables

All in all I’m quite happy with the new lens so far. I’m looking forward to more adventures with it, and hoping that practicing photography will spark more thoughts of place justice along the way.

Trains, Servitude, and Class Mobility

Pullman Porter

A friend recently told me that she was going to be visiting Chicago, a city I briefly lived in years ago that was formative to my understanding of the way race and place are connected. She asked for suggestions of what to see while she was there, and one of the first thoughts that came to mind was the Pullman neighborhood and Pullman Porter Museum. Much to my regret, I had never made it myself to the museum while living in Chicago, but I’ve long been thoughtful about who the Pullman Porters were and the role they played in growing the black middle class through serving on trains.

My curiosity about the Pullman Porters has to do with one of the central questions I’ve always had about my family, namely, how did we make it? How did my black family move from slavery to the upper-middle class in three or four generations when so many others have not?

My family, like most families has many stories that have been passed down through the years and across the various branches that make up our ancestral tree. Some of the stories which are told over and over involve a great-grandfather of mine who was a Pullman Porter in the Eastern part of the country. This great-grandfather is always spoken of with the utmost respect, and his position as a Pullman Porter held up on a pedestal of pride.

These stories were a part of the respectability politics that I grew up with, but as I got older I started to realize that they went much deeper than that. I started to realize that there was a huge socioeconomic importance to my great-grandfather’s career. In being reminded of the Porters again, I wanted to look into their history a bit more and see what connections people have dug up between those opportunities and class mobility.

I found that the Pullman sleeper trains were all about simulating upward mobility, and not just for blacks. Whites who rode the trains were often middle class, but got to have the experience of very comfortable accommodations and being waited on hand and foot. The almost exclusively black Pullman Porters got to hold a job that (for the most part) avoided hard physical labor, and which projected a certain air of capability, cleanliness, and sophistication that was so often denied African Americans at the time. Porters traveled widely for their jobs, meaning that they also gained a certain worldliness that they brought back to their home communities. They also learned valuable skills by listening in on the lawyer, businessman, and doctor passengers, and then applied those skills by starting small businesses of their own.

It’s important not to have too rosy a view of the job though. The salary was terrible at about $7,500 in today’s dollars (most of the money Porters made came from tips), and they weren’t paid for the hours of preparing trains in the morning or for the meager 3-4 hours of sleep granted to them each night. Passengers often called all Porters “George” after George Pullman who owned the line of train cars, seeing the black workers not as individuals but property of the company.

Many of those challenges were addressed by the Porters’ labor union led by A. Philip Randolph, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The Brotherhood was the first black union to force a big company to the negotiating table. Their wins of higher wages, a pension, and benefits were critical in helping the Porters lead a higher quality of life, save for their children’s education, and financially assist their communities.

Said Pullman Porter Museum founder, Dr. Lyn Hughes:

The families who had Pullman Porters in their families were the ones who had a telephone, they may have had a TV. They would have owned their own property. The wives had china, lace table cloths.

My great-grandfather only represents one branch of my family tree, and I’m guessing there are a lot of other factors that contributed to our upward mobility. But the history of the Pullman Porters and how those employees were able to carve out a living, a real and decent living from their job is important. The Porters represent one of those small windows of opportunity that had a tremendous socioeconomic legacy for those few who were poised and able to take advantage of it.

I think the trail can lead back even further — who was most able to get a job as a Porter and why? Who didn’t qualify, didn’t have the “look” that George Pullman sought out? It’s devastating that class mobility can have so much to do with these exclusive opportunities rather than be a lifting of all families at once. We still use this “magic job” strategy often in workforce development — we think if only we can train enough people for a certain highly-paid, career-ladder job, for instance, then we can increase the size of the middle class. But the bifurcation of the classes throughout history might be showing us that without changing the underlying economic structure, individual jobs can only ever be a mobility solution for some.

Image Source: antefixus U.E. via Flickr.