Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Inner City Boundaries

I've been thinking about the borders that Oakland shares with other cities. Berkeley segues into Oakland pretty seamlessly, but it can be jarring to cross over from Alameda into the Town. Consider the Fruitvale bridge border. On the Alameda side are middle-class homes with boats docked.



On the Oakland side are a pair of crumbling houses and a factory. People park their beat-up old cars and leave assorted junk out on the street.

The reason for this disparity seems pretty straightforward. Oakland, especially at the waterfront, has historically been a site for heavy industry and blue-collar jobs, whereas Alameda's roots are more as a resort and quiet suburban town.

To me the contrast is more interesting on the border with San Leandro. Here we can really compare apples to apples, since these are both primarily residential districts with no physical boundary between the two cities. But they couldn't be more different.

The above houses in San Leandro are not mansions by any means, but they're still solidly middle class housing. The only fence is a small white picket one. Compare that to the scene in Deep East Oakland, about 3 blocks away on 105th Avenue:



The threat of violence is omnipresent, implied in the guard dogs and metal fences and bars on the windows. The sense of financial despair is also present, in the "bank-owned" for-sale signs. I spoke to a resident on 105th who pointed out the three houses on his half-block that had been foreclosed on in the last year. The one pictured immediately above has been vacant for more than a year, despite an asking price of $80,000. These physical markers serve as a 24/7 reminder to people of the problems contained in the neighborhood, even when no actual threat of violence is present.

Compare International Blvd as you drive from San Leandro into Oakland. Keep in mind that this is literally a few blocks down the same exact street:

San Leandro: a tree-lined street, tidy 3-story housing, middle-class retailers.
Oakland: a vacant (and ugly) church property, no trees, vacant lots, and pawn shops.

Why is Deep East Oakland one of the roughest hoods in the Bay while San Leandro seems so safely middle-class? The most compelling reason I can find is the long shadow of segregation.

It came as something of a surprise to me to learn that the Bay Area was once racially segregated. Call me naive, but a part of me got so caught up in thinking that the Bay Area is different that I just assumed it never practiced Jim Crow-style segregation. But it did. After World War II, as the suburbs sprawled outwards, black people were basically confined to places where they had already established a presence--namely, Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco, and parts of Berkeley. I learned much of this from The Second Gold Rush: Oakland and the East Bay in World War II by Marilynn Johnson. She writes:
With federally guaranteed loans provided under the Servicemen's Readjustment Act (G.I. bill) of 1944, many middle-income residents found housing among the burgeoning subdivisions of surrounding suburbs...Furthermore, black families of all income levels were barred from most suburban developments through restrictive covenants, a practice resulting in additional pressure on the central city housing market.
(p. 213)
Consider what happened to one black family who made the mistake of moving into a home in San Pablo, north of Richmond:
When the Garys moved in, a crowd of more than 150 neighbors greeted them with jeers, rocks, a white cross planted on their lawn, and a brick through their front window. After several hours under siege, the county sheriff arrived and dispersed the crowd, but the attacks on the Garys continued intermittently for several weeks.

The local homeowners' group, the Rollingwood Improvement Association, offered to buy out the Garys at a $1200 profit--a considerable sum at the time. But the Garys refused to sell at any price, determined to keep their home. At that point, several white neighbors, including four board members of the Rollingwood Association, acquiesced and sent a letter of welcome to the Garys. At the group's next meeting, angry residents voted to recall the four board members by a three-to-one margin.
(p. 227)
East Oakland is today a ghetto in the sense of "a bad place to live," but it's helpful to remember that it was once a ghetto in the original sense of the term, i.e., "minorities must live within these quarters." San Leandro in particular was very aggressive in using restrictive covenants to make sure no black East Oaklanders spilled over into its borders. As quoted here:
M. C. Friel and Associates, a Hayward real estate firm with expertise in racial covenants, became the East Bay's leading consultant on shoring up segregation. In 1947 Friel developed a plan to place as much of San Leandro's residential property under restrictive covenants as possible, limiting future property sales to "members of the Caucasian race."
The situation began to change in the 70's, but by then the die had been cast. It's hard to believe that social policies from 30+ years ago would leave such a lasting imprint, but the evidence is right in front of our eyes.

25 comments:

Georgia said...

I recommend Robert O. Self's book entitled "American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland."

Crimson said...

That's the section I quoted from where it talks about San Leandro. (As referenced on SanLeandrobytes.com.) Haven't read the book, I'll have to check it out.

Becks said...

Wow, that's a bit depressing, but I'm glad you brought up this important issue.

I highly recommend The Second Gold Rush to anyone interested in Oakland history. It's fascinating!

Anonymous said...

No love for Emeryville? It’s always seemed that Emeryville and Berkeley were more urban than their bigger neighbor. Berkeley is much denser. Deep East Oakland has a suburban look. The little slice of density in that photo of San Leandro compared to sprawling East Oakland is telling. Crossing into Alameda, both sides are industrial at Park St if I recall correctly. Historically Alameda island has had a higher density than Oakland (today they’re about the same) and its roots include heavy industry (ship building) and street trolleys. The history of segregation you cite is disturbing but it’s great to see all these cities are much more integrated and diverse today.

Rachael Herron said...

A startling line of demarcation is on Bancroft -- one side of the street has no trees and chain link, and the other side of Bancroft is suddenly full of tall trees and lawns. Crazy-looking.

Coolhand Luke said...

Thanks for writing this up. It's a difference I've always noticed, but I never really peeped the correlation to the city borders. American Babylon is great for this history, but isn't the most entertaining read. East Oakland at one point also featured restrictive covenants which forbid the settling of Blacks. It's clear that city officials never venture to the East, because such a blatant contrast is embarrassing. I still would never want to live in San Leandro tho

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your posting on the borders of Oakland. Neighborhoods with a high number of Blacks are always shittier, & I don't blame anyone for wanting restrictive covenants. If Black neighborhoods weren't always crime infested shit-holes. there would be no desire for this type of covenant. The problem is not segregation, the problem is Black culture. Please don't bother with any indignant & self righteous comments.

Crimson said...

Wow. I was going to delete the comment above, but then I decided it might be better if I left it as proof of the attitudes behind segregation. Except now people are too scared to express racist opinions in public, so they do so as anonymous posters on websites.

By the way, step your grammar game up.

Anonymous said...

Why are black 'hoods so crummy, if the problem isn't blacks? If the trouble wasn't black culture, black neighborhoods would be as nice as any other neighborhood, wouldn't they? Are you saying blacks are too stupid to make a nice neighborhood? Blacks need a nice example from Bwana on how to live? Once upon a time things were different. Black 'hoods were generally perfectly nice, but since the late nineteen sixties, well, you better watch your ass.

MontclairOak said...

Last year, I heard Brian Copeland speak about his upbringing as the only black kid in San Leandro. His book, Not A Genuine Black Man, is very telling!

Take the time to watch this 1970s video about San Leandro real estate and their discriminatory practices. It's a real shocker, even today.

The Suburban Wall:
http://www.briancopeland.com/media/suburban_wall.html

silverkris said...

To Anonymous:

You obviously haven't been to the Washington, DC metro area - where there are long established, middle class to upper middle class neighborhoods like the Gold Coast which are well maintained, and mostly black. Or to newer, expensive suburban subdivisions in Prince Georges' County, where there are nearly all-black neighborhoods with lots of professionals, lawyers, doctors, government workers, etc.

The problem with declining neighborhoods isn't culture - it's disinvestment, both public and private, such as flight of businesses, banks, and other institutions, and political marginalization of the residents. But I don't expect folks who display the willful ignorance (like you) to understand that.

Anonymous said...

San Leandro's story parallels a lot of the smaller suburbs on the edges of the older Bay Area communities. Albany was known for it's segregationist attitudes. I believe the drug store at the corner of San Pablo and Solano was the headquarters of the John Birch Society. There are several old bars with names from the KKK past, like the White Knight.

Gruella said...

Great post!
Do you take requests?
I've been dying (yuck, yuck) for this blog to take on Oakland cemeteries. I'm only familiar with the Mountainview Cemetery, but ooowee, what a beaut! It functions far better as a park than say Mosswood or Lake Merrit. Also, there's the not so subtle ethnic division among the plots...

Crimson said...

Hey Gruella,
I'm always trying to get Cleb to visit the Mountainview Cemetery with me, but she thinks that "cemeteries" are "depressing," what with all of their "dead people." Whatever.

But yeah, maybe I'll have an idea for a post about that sometime.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in D.C.. Then, I went to college in Baltimore. You hae the "willful ignorance", not me.

Crimson said...

Note: I have now disabled anonymous comments. I don't want to censor people, but I also want to keep the tone constructive.

Steve-o, aka "Ignatius J. Reilly" said...

Congratulations on a really great piece, with very effective photographs. I live in the area, so I'm used to seeing these sites every day. The differences just a few blocks apart are indeed dramatic.

Marcel F. Williams said...

Neighborhoods infested with poor and ignorant people will always be bad whether they're occupied by poor and ignorant blacks, Hispanics, whites, or Asians.

And why are some neighborhoods predominantly black in a country where African Americans are only 12% of the total population? There shouldn't be any black neighborhoods in America in the first place. There should only be American neighborhoods.

Marcel F. Williams

Crimson said...

"And why are some neighborhoods predominantly black in a country where African Americans are only 12% of the total population?"

Perhaps if you read the post?

Marcel F. Williams said...

Or perhaps if we look at the history of this country!

Ethnic balkanization is almost aways a recipe for disaster.

Bee said...

I live in this area, and though its problems are likely rooted in historic racial hatred some of the residents refuse to move on to a different reality. Some seem to have consciously chosen to never let go of past rancor and bitterness. Too many are now self-segregating, though this neighborhood has recently become at least half Hispanic (with a sprinkle here and there of other ethnic groups). Whatever ethnicity resides here, the area still struggles with crime and grime.

The problem I see is that many Deep East Oakland parents have failed to transmit ANY workable value system to their children. Education is not respected, and truancy is rampant. Generation after generation imagines that the government, a rap or sports career or crime, rather than self-help, will lift them out of this neighborhood, and so they continue to fail. Many of them die at the hands of family, friends or acquaintances. If you want an illustration of the CDC's statistic that murder is the leading cause of death for African-American males aged 15-34 you can find it here.

No one stops Elmhurst's residents from planting gardens or trees, maintaining their own homes or doing any of the other things that make a neighborhood livable and attractive. If you think it's poverty, it's not. Most residents drive newer SUVs, many owned their homes until just recently. If they appear to be "poor" on paper it's largely because there is a lot of "under the table" income in the Deep E. While money always seems to be available for illegal fireworks, whistlers on their cars, car stereos that can deafen, illegal mosquito bikes, etc., buying house paint is out of reach. Oakland even used to give away paint...

Our family and any number of others maintain our properties as best we can and try to raise our children with respect for life. When we pass on these so-called "middle-class values," we're criticized for "gentrifying" neighborhoods, even though many of us are African-American. When our neighbors near the King Estates complained about youthful crime increasing they were criticized as "racist," though most of them were African-American and so were the youths burglarizing homes. It's frustrating.

Our community group (which is almost 100 percent African-American) wishes for a neighborhood Starbucks or a decent cafe of any kind and sees that as the height of civilization. I don't share that value, but I understand the desire for something better for ourselves and our children.

Thank you for at least giving this issue some thought, but racism only explains the Deep E's problem if you admit that the hated have now become the haters and are perpetuating this cycle of misery and ignorance. It's true that San Leandro doesn't want Oakland's criminals, but my neighbors don't want them either. Unfortunately, they live among us.

There is a Bantu proverb that says, "If you do away with the traditions of the past, then you must first replace them with something of value." Too many value nothing here, and I don't know to help them.

len said...

lived in oakland for 30 plus years, and worked in san leandro in the early 70's.

yes for years san leandro had a not so invisible electric fence that kept out blacks. it was enforced by cops who came within seconds to hassle any black who walked over the border; and probably by realtors and their customers.

but none of that caused the black areas of East O below 580 to as eff'd up as they are today. why stretches of E14th look the night of the living dead can't be blamed on racist past of san leandro unless you can explain the connection to us.

-len raphael
temescal

Fifi said...

People.. you are too young to recall East Oakland was not always a "ghetto". Having grown up in "deep East Oakland" in the late 50's and 60's no one is more horrified than as I drive down International Blvd. it looks as if someone as dropped a bomb. Devoid of flowers, trees, green lush lawns,vegetable gardens, small but lovely modest homes. Ask anyone who was there.. it was a fabulous part of the city. I have written both Ron Dellums and Jerry Brown.. Mr. Brown informed me there was no problem, come on down... no joking.!

jim said...

Good Grief .....

In the early 60's my German aunt and her US husband brought me and my sister to their hill top home in San Leandro ....
While playing teether ball with filipino kids up there (who apparently were allowed) some white kids came along enquiring what race we were....
My sister 9 years old announced that WE WERE (half black) NEGROS AND PROUD OF IT .
The neighbors made it clear to my aunt that SHE should be sent away immediately back to LA ...
Although I would return often, my sister remained unwelcomed because of her attitude .....

..... sad ....

Two weeks ago, 40 years later, a new Mac Arthur Freeway (not there in the 60s) blocks off growing blight below in a declining ( once exclusive) San Leandro ...

As for the drive from E 14 street crossing into Oakland....
International Street on a hot day was EVERYONE in tee shirts and sagging with underwear for all to see ....
DRIVING WAS HARROWING AS SOME DRIVERS HAD LITLE RESPECT FOR TRAFFIC RULES IN FLIGHT FROM THE POLICE.

It was chaos in progress, police seemed to be busy with various crime scenes
while bored
agressive looking "homeboys" ran up and down and across the street INTO TRAFFIC! with broad smiles ....
At jack n the box a young prostitute came right to my car offering herself or some meth ....

The ambience of International Blvd is that of a dangerous slum in Rio or Santo Domingo or Lima, Peru.

HOW DID WE EVER ARRIVE AT THESE EXTREMES ?!?

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