Portrait of an Oakland neighborhood: Gardens, Garages, and Garbage Cans

In All, The Story by Kathy Sloane

I live a few blocks east of the Oakland Estuary, across from the rail line and elevated BART track. The names of this neighborhood have changed over the years, starting with when it was a suburb of Oakland called San Antonio . Then it  changed to  Brooklyn.  Now it’s referred to as either the  Lower San Antonio, Eastlake or alternately, the new Chinatown. The streets and avenues have the same numbers so that  14th Ave. and East 14th street cross each other. Now east 14th St., which begins in downtown Oakland and runs for miles and miles out to i’m- not- sure- where,  has been renamed International Blvd.– but old timers never call it that. Developers moving here in the latest economic boom are renaming us once again: Brooklyn Basin is what they are calling the area along the Embarcadero, and we may be swept into that designation as well, even across the track.

Years ago this neighborhood was home to a sizable Native American population. A remnant of this community is the Intertribal Friendship House on East 14th St. between 5th and 6th Avenue, opened by the American Friends Services Committee in 1955.  Still alive and well,  it is  one of the first  native American urban community centers in the nation providing social services and cultural activities: Lakota language classes, beading, Native American dance.  In the past few years the center has planted a thriving garden which brightens the street. Chai Thai, the best Thai restaurant in Oakland, is their next-door neighbor.

In  more recent history, before the arrival of South East Asians after the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese refer to as the American War)  the demographic was primarily Mexican, and Black. Now it is home to a large immigrant population of Vietnamese, Vietnamese-Chinese, Cambodian,Mexican, Colombian and other people from South and Central America. More than 50% of the residents are foreign born. All manner of artists fromTaiko drummers to painters, photographers and print makers, always searching out affordable space, have been tucked in here for years. The neighborhood doesn’t call attention to itself.

Here too, although there are no amenities, no banks, Walgreens or Trader Joe’s among the innumerable auto repair garages, auto body shops, and smog test centers, there are at least a dozen Southeast Asian markets.  They stock seasonal fruits and vegetables: pea greens, durian fruit, rambutan, bananas, boxes  of mangoes and a staggering variety of noodles, colorful jars of kimchi, and fresh fish. Vietnamese sandwich shops and the cafes which are gathering places for men, share no resemblance to Starbucks.   Tattered Victorian houses that haven’t seen paint in generations, their wooden exteriors weathered by time and the estuary salt air, fill in the rest, along with multifamily stucco houses. The train goes by several times a day and you can hear the lonesome whistle in the middle of the night. This is my neighborhood.

It’s a funny little neighborhood that I used to know only as the place where I’d go to get my auto glass replaced. That’s when I lived in more upscale Rockridge, and my car was a regular target for kids with nothing to do.  Now that I have lived in this community for almost 18 years, I see it differently. It’s not a pretty area; some would describe it as poor, run down, dangerous. There are young prostitutes who solicit during the day as well as when dark descends, and graffiti backgrounds the streets.

But it is a vibrant community, alive with a multicultural congregation of people who stop and speak as we go about our daily lives, bring each other a bowl of something special we’ve cooked up, share a beer on a hot afternoon.  People who want to shed belongings put them out on the sidewalk with or without  a sign: ”free”, and they are gone in minutes. It’s the kind of neighborhood that is referred to as blighted if one is fooled by the surface and doesn’t look beneath the skin.

When I moved into this neighborhood 18 years ago, I retrieved 2 ancient concrete washing tubs from the auto electric shop next door, left them on the sidewalk, and filled them with flowering plants and succulents. My next door neighbor to the East had huge garbage cans filled with bamboo on his sidewalk  Over time a women in an apartment house across the street beautified her piece of sidewalk with a big box, collaged on the outside with discarded computer innards, and filled it with birds of paradise and canna lilies;  later she added tomatoes in a waste bin. The garden has expanded for half a block.  Two doors down in the same apartment complex another artist built a planter from drift wood and filled it with roses. One summer I planted Asian poppies in my planter tub, and often when I was watering them early in the morning, Vietnamese women, carrying the signature pink plastic grocery bags from the pan-Asian market around the corner, would stop and smile at me and the poppies. I gave away cuttings of geraniums when a passerby admired them.

A few summers ago, needing to stretch and get away from my computer, I started walking up and down my neighborhood blocks and noticed gardens everywhere.  People had made a mark, staked a small claim, reclaimed the commons and said, “I am here.”

Flower Pots ascend the outside steps of a two story apartment building. Someone has dug a small patch of earth next to a sidewalk and planted a flowering cherry tree seedling.  All manner of humble “pots”–plastic containers, tin cans, washing tubs and wooden boxes–filled with flowers and vegetables sit behind fences where the garbage cans are stored, or on a cement yard, or alongside utility meters.  Containers of blooms lean this way and that atop engine parts inside auto body shops, and they all proclaim that someone lives or works here who loves life and values beauty.  Red flowers predominate perhaps because in Chinese and Vietnamese culture it is the color of good fortune.

Yes, there are signs of financial poverty in my neighborhood, but there is more evidence of an enormous wealth of spirit…you just have to look.

*All photos copyright by author/photographer

Kathy Sloane began her professional life as a self taught photographer in San Francisco’s Keystone Korner Jazz Club in 1976, drawn to the music of improvisation, beauty and resistance that was a metaphor for her of the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s. While continuing to document the music, she committed herself to photographing the life of the San Francisco Bay Area with an emphasis on the multicultural and multiethnic richness of the area. Her self-assigned task has been to understand and depict the myriad ways various communities, often voiceless in mainstream media, give meaning and value to all of our lives.