My stepfather is an evolutionist. He worked for many years at the Chevrolet division of General Motors in Buffalo, a working-class auto and steel town in upstate New York, and was able to rise from relative poverty to middle class. He believes that each succeeding generation of Afro-Americans will have it better than its predecessor. In 1979, I moved into the kind of neighborhood that he and my mother spent about a third of their lives trying to escape. According to the evolutionist integrationist ethic, this was surely a step backward, since “success” was seen as being able to live in a neighborhood in which you were the only black and joined your neighbors in trying to keep out “them.”
My neighborhood, bordered by Genoa, Market Street, and 48th and 55th Streets in North Oakland, is what the media refer to as a “predominantly black neighborhood.” It’s the kind of neighborhood I grew up in before leaving for New York City in 1962. My last New York residence was an apartment in a brownstone, next door to the building in which poet W.H. Auden lived. There were trees in the backyard, and I thought it was a swell neighborhood until I read in Robert Craft’s biography of [the composer] Stravinsky that “when Stravinsky sent his chauffeur to pick up his friend Auden, the chauffeur would ask, ‘Are you sure Mr. Auden lives in this neighborhood?’” By 1968 my wife and I were able to live six months of the year in New York and the other six in California. This came to an end when one of the people I sublet the apartment to abandoned it. He had fled to England to pursue a romance. He didn’t pay the rent, and so we were evicted long-distance.
My first residence in California was an apartment on Santa Ynez Street, near Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles, where I lived for about six months in 1967. I was working on my second novel, and Carla Blank, my wife, a dancer, was teaching physical education at one of Eddie Rickenbacker’s camps, located on an old movie set in the San Bernardino Mountains. Carla’s employers were always offering me a cabin where they promised I could write without interruption. I never took them up on the offer, but for years I’ve wondered about what kind of reception I would have received had they discovered that I am black.
During my breaks from writing I would walk through the shopping areas near Santa Ynez, strolling by vending machines holding newspapers whose headlines screamed about riots in Detroit. On some weekends we’d visit novelist Robert Gover (One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding) and his friends in Malibu. I remember one of Gover’s friends, a scriptwriter for The Donna Reed Show, looking me in the eye and telling me that if he were black he’d be “on a Detroit rooftop, sniping at cops,” as he reclined, glass of scotch in hand, in a comfortable chair whose position gave him a good view of the rolling Pacific.
My Santa Ynez neighbors were whites from Alabama and Mississippi, and we got along fine. Most of them were elderly, left behind by white flight to the suburbs, and on weekends the street would be lined with cars belonging to relatives who were visiting. While living here I observed a uniquely Californian phenomenon. Retired men would leave their houses in the morning, enter their cars, and remain there for a good part of the day, snoozing, reading newspapers, or listening to the radio.
I didn’t experience a single racial incident during my stay in this Los Angeles neighborhood of ex-southerners. Once, however, I had a strange encounter with the police. I was walking through a black working-class neighborhood on my way to the downtown Los Angeles library. Some cops drove up and rushed me. A crowd gathered. The cops snatched my briefcase and removed its contents: books and notebooks having to do with my research of voodoo. The crowd laughed when the cops said they thought I was carrying a purse.
In 1968 my wife and I moved to Berkeley, where we lived in one Bauhaus box after another until about 1971, when I received a three-book contract from Doubleday. Then we moved into the Berkeley Hills, where we lived in the downstairs apartment of a very grand-looking house on Bret Harte Way. There was a Zen garden with streams, waterfalls, and bridges outside, along with many varieties of flowers and plants. I didn’t drive, and Carla was away at Mills College each day, earning a master’s degree in dance. I stayed holed up in that apartment for two years, during which time I completed my third novel, Mumbo Jumbo.
During this period I became exposed to some of the racism I hadn’t detected on Santa Ynez or in the Berkeley flats. As a black male working at home, I was regarded with suspicion. Neighbors would come over and warn me about a heroin salesman they said was burglarizing the neighborhood, all the while looking over my shoulder in an attempt to pry into what I was up to. Once, while I was eating breakfast, a policeman entered through the garden door, gun drawn. “What on earth is the problem, officer?” I asked. He said they had got word that a homicide had been committed in my apartment, which I recognized as an old police tactic used to gain entry into somebody’s house. Walking through the Berkeley Hills on Sundays, I was greeted by unfriendly stares and growling, snarling dogs. I remember one pest who would always poke her head out of her window whenever I’d walk down Bret Harte Way. She was always hassling me about parking my car in front of her house. She resembled Miss Piggy. I came to think of this section of Berkeley as “Whitetown.”
Around 1974 the landlord raised the rent on the house in the hills, and we found ourselves again in the Berkeley flats. We spent a couple of peaceful years on Edith Street and then moved to Jaynes Street, where we encountered another next-door family of nosy, middle-class progressives. I understand that much time at North Berkeley white neighborhood association meetings is taken up with discussion of and fascination with blacks who move through the neighborhoods, with special concern given those who tarry, or who wear dreadlocks. Since before the Civil War, vagrancy laws have been used as political weapons against blacks. Appropriately, there has been talk of making Havana—where I understand a woman can get turned in by her neighbors for having too many boyfriends over—Berkeley’s sister city.
In 1976 our landlady announced that she was going to reoccupy the Jaynes Street house. I facetiously told a friend that I wanted to move to the most right-wing neighborhood he could think of. He mentioned El Cerrito. There, he said, your next-door neighbor might even be a cop. We moved to El Cerrito. Instead of the patronizing nosiness blacks complain about in Berkeley, I found the opposite on Terrace Drive in El Cerrito. The people were cold, impersonal, remote. But the neighborhood was quiet, serene even—the view was Olympian, and our rented house was secluded by eucalyptus trees. The annoyances were minor. Occasionally a car would careen down Terrace Drive full of white teenagers, and one or two would shout, “Hey, nigger!” Sometimes as I walked down the Arlington toward Kensington Market, the curious would stare at me from their cars, and women I encountered would give me nervous, frightened looks. Once, as I was walking to the market to buy magazines, a white child was sitting directly in my path. We were the only two people on the street. Two or three cars actually stopped, and their drivers observed the scene through their rearview mirrors until they were assured I wasn’t going to abduct the child.
At night the Kensington Market area was lit with a yellow light especially eerie during a fog. I always thought that this section of Kensington would be a swell place to make a horror movie—the residents would make great extras—but whatever discomfort I felt about traveling through this area at 2 a.m. was mixed with the relief that I had just navigated safely through Albany, where the police seemed always to be lurking in the shadows, prepared to ensnare blacks, hippies, and others they didn’t deem suitable for such a neighborhood.
In 1979 our landlord, a decent enough fellow in comparison with some of the others we had had (who made you understand why the communists shoot the landlords first when they take over a country), announced he was going to sell the house on Terrace Drive. This was the third rented house to be sold out from under us. The asking price was way beyond our means, and so we started to search for another home, only to find that the ones within our price range were located in North Oakland, in a “predominantly black neighborhood.” We finally found a huge Queen Anne Victorian, which seemed to be about a month away from the wrecker’s ball if the termites and the precarious foundation didn’t do it in first, but I decided that I had to have it. The oldest house on the block, it was built in 1906, the year the big earthquake hit Northern California, but left Oakland unscathed because, according to Bret Harte, “there are some things even the earth can’t swallow.” If I was apprehensive about moving into this neighborhood—on television all black neighborhoods resemble the commotion of the station house on Hill Street Blues—I was later to learn that our neighbors were just as apprehensive about us. Were we hippies? Did I have a job? Were we going to pay as much attention to maintaining our property as they did to theirs? Neglected, the dilapidated monstrosity I’d got myself into would blight the entire block.
While I was going to college, I worked as an orderly in a psychiatric hospital, and I remember a case in which a man was signed into the institution after complaints from his neighbors that he mowed the lawn at 4 a.m. My neighbors aren’t that finicky, but they keep very busy pruning, gardening, and mowing their lawns. Novelist Toni Cade Bambara wrote of the spirit women in Atlanta who plant by moonlight and use conjure to reap gorgeous vegetables and flowers. A woman on this block grows roses the size of cantaloupes.
On New Year’s Eve, famed landscape architect John Roberts accompanied me on my nightly walk, which takes me from 53rd Street to Aileen, Shattuck, and back to 53rd Street. He was able to identify plants and trees that had been imported from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Australia. On Aileen Street he discovered a banana tree! And Arthur Monroe, a painter and art historian, traces the “Tabby” garden design—in which seashells and plates are mixed with lime, sand, and water to form decorative borders, found in this Oakland neighborhood and others—to the influence of Islamic slaves brought to the Gulf Coast.
I won over my neighbors, I think, after I triumphed over a dozen generations of pigeons that had been roosting in the crevices of this house for many years. It was a long and angry war, and my five-year-old constantly complained to her mother about Daddy’s bad words about the birds. I used everything I could get my hands on, including chicken wire and mothballs, and I would have tried the clay owls if the only manufacturer hadn’t gone out of business. I also learned never to underestimate the intelligence of pigeons; just when you think you’ve got them whipped, you’ll notice that they’ve regrouped on some strategic rooftop to prepare for another invasion. When the house was free of pigeons and their droppings, which had spread to the adjoining properties, the lady next door said, “Thank you.”
Every New Year’s Day since then our neighbors have invited us to join them and their fellow Louisianans for the traditional Afro-American good luck meal called Hoppin’ John. This year the menu included black-eyed peas, ham, cornbread, potato salad, chitterlings, greens, fried chicken, yams, head cheese, macaroni, rolls, sweet potato pie, and fruitcake. I got up that morning weighing 214 pounds and came home from the party weighing 220.
We’ve lived on 53rd Street for three years now. Carla’s dance and theater school, which she operates with her partner, Jody Roberts—Roberts and Blank Dance/Drama—is already five years old. I am working on my seventh novel and a television production of my play Mother Hubbard. The house has yet to be restored to its 1906 glory, but we’re working on it.
I’ve grown accustomed to the common sights here—teenagers moving through the neighborhood carrying radios blasting music by Grandmaster Flash and Prince, men hovering over cars with tools and rags in hand, decked-out female church delegations visiting the sick. Unemployment up, one sees more men drinking from sacks as they walk through Market Street or gather in Helen MacGregor Plaza, on Shattuck and 52nd Street, near a bench where mothers sit with their children, waiting for buses. It may be because the bus stop is across the street from Children’s Hospital (exhibiting a brand-new antihuman, postmodern wing), but there seem to be a lot of sick black children these days. The criminal courts and emergency rooms of Oakland hospitals, both medical and psychiatric, are also filled with blacks.
White men go from door to door trying to unload spoiled meat. Incredibly sleazy white contractors and hustlers try to entangle people into shady deals that sometimes lead to the loss of a home. Everybody knows of someone, usually a widow, who has been gypped into paying thousands of dollars more than the standard cost for, say, adding a room to a house. It sure ain’t El Cerrito. In El Cerrito the representatives from the utilities were very courteous. If they realize they’re speaking to someone in a black neighborhood, however, they become curt and sarcastic. I was trying to arrange for the gas company to come out to fix a stove when the woman from Pacific Gas and Electric gave me some snide lip. I told her, “Lady, if you think what you’re going through is an inconvenience, you can imagine my inconvenience paying the bills every month.” Even she had to laugh.
The clerks in the stores are also curt, regarding blacks the way the media regard them, as criminal suspects. Over in El Cerrito the cops were professional, respectful—in Oakland they swagger about like candidates for a rodeo. In El Cerrito and the Berkeley Hills you could take your time paying some bills, but in this black neighborhood if you miss paying a bill by one day, “reminders” printed in glaring and violent typefaces are sent to you, or you’re threatened with discontinuance of this or that service. Los Angeles police victim Eulia Love, who was shot in the aftermath of an argument over an overdue gas bill, would still be alive if she had lived in El Cerrito or the Berkeley Hills.
I went to a bank a few weeks ago that advertised easy loans on television, only to be told that I would have to wait six months after opening an account to be eligible for a loan. I went home and called the same bank, this time putting on my Clark Kent voice, and was informed that I could come in and get the loan the same day. Other credit unions and banks, too, have different lending practices for black and white neighborhoods, but when I try to tell white intellectuals that blacks are prevented from developing industries because the banks find it easier to lend money to communist countries than to American citizens, they call me paranoid. Sometimes when I know I am going to be inconvenienced by merchants or creditors because of my 53rd Street address, I give the address of my Berkeley studio instead. Others are not so fortunate.
Despite the inconveniences and antagonism from the outside world one has to endure for having a 53rd Street address, life in this neighborhood is more pleasant than grim. Casually dressed, well-groomed elderly men gather at the intersections to look after the small children as they walk to and from school, or just to keep an eye on the neighborhood. My next-door neighbor keeps me in stitches with his informed commentary on any number of political comedies emanating from Washington and Sacramento. Once we were discussing pesticides, and the man who was repairing his porch told us that he had a great garden and didn’t have to pay all that much attention to it. As for pesticides, he said, the bugs have to eat, too.
There are people on this block who still know the subsistence skills many Americans have forgotten. They can hunt and fish (and if you don’t fish, there is a man who covers the neighborhood selling fresh fish and yelling, “Fishman,” recalling a period of ancient American commerce when you didn’t have to pay the middleman). They are also loyal Americans—they vote, they pay taxes—but you don’t find the extreme patriots here that you find in white neighborhoods. Although Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s, and Easter are celebrated with all get-out, I’ve never seen a flag flying on Memorial Day, or on any holiday that calls for the showing of the flag. Blacks express their loyalty in concrete ways. For example, you rarely see a foreign car in this neighborhood. And this 53rd Street neighborhood, as well as black neighborhoods like it from coast to coast, will supply the male children who will bear the brunt of future jungle wars, just as they did in Vietnam.
We do our shopping on a strip called Temescal, which stretches from 46th to 51st Streets. Temescal, according to Oakland librarian William Sturm, is an Aztec word for “hothouse” or “bathhouse.” The word was borrowed from the Mexicans by the Spanish to describe similar hothouses, early saunas, built by the California Indians in what is now North Oakland. Some say the hothouses were used to sweat out demons; others claim the Indians used them for medicinal purposes. Most agree that after a period of time in the steam, the Indians would rush en masse into the streams that flowed through the area. One still runs underneath my backyard—I have to mow the grass there almost every other day.
Within these five blocks are the famous Italian restaurant Bertola’s, “Since 1932”; Siam restaurant; La Belle Creole, a French-Caribbean restaurant; Asmara, an Ethiopian restaurant; and Ben’s Hof Brau, where white and black senior citizens, dressed in the elegance of a former time, congregate to talk or to have an inexpensive though quality breakfast provided by Ben’s hardworking and courteous staff.
The Hof Brau shares its space with Vern’s market, where you can shop to the music of DeBarge. To the front of Vern’s is the Temescal Delicatessen, where a young Korean man makes the best po’ boy sandwiches north of Louisiana, and near the side entrance is Ed Fraga’s Automotive. The owner is always advising his customers to avoid stress, and says goodbye with a “God bless you.” The rest of the strip is taken up by the Temescal Pharmacy, which has a resident health adviser and a small library of health literature; the Aikido Institute; an African bookstore; and the internationally known Genova deli, to which people from the surrounding cities travel to shop. The strip also includes the Clausen House thrift shop, which sells used clothes and furniture. Here you can buy novels by J.D. Salinger and John O’Hara for 10 cents each.
Space that was recently occupied by the Buon Gusto Bakery is now for rent. Before the bakery left, an Italian lady who worked there introduced me to a crunchy, cookie-like treat called “bones,” which she said went well with Italian wine. The Buon Gusto had been a landmark since the 1940s, when, according to a guest at the New Year’s Day Hoppin’ John supper, North Oakland was populated by Italians and Portuguese. In those days a five-room house could be rented for $45 a month, she said.
The neighborhood is still in transition. The East Bay Negro Historical Society, which was located around the corner on Grove Street, included in its collection letters written by 19th-century macho man Jack London to his black nurse. They were signed “Your little white pickaninny.” It’s been replaced by the New Israelite Delight restaurant, part of the Israelite Church, which also operates a day care center. The restaurant offers homemade Louisiana gumbo and a breakfast that includes grits.
Unlike the other California neighborhoods I’ve lived in, I know most of the people on this block by name. They are friendly and cooperative, always offering to watch your house while you’re away. The day after one of the few whites who live on the block—a brilliant muckraking journalist and former student of mine—was robbed, neighbors gathered in front of his house to offer assistance.
In El Cerrito my neighbor was indeed a cop. He used pomade on his curly hair, sported a mustache, and there was a grayish tint in his brown eyes. He was a handsome man, with a smile like a movie star’s. His was the only house on the block I entered during my three-year stay in that neighborhood, and that was one afternoon when we shared some brandy. I wanted to get to know him better. I didn’t know he was dead until I saw people in black gathered on his doorstep.
I can’t imagine that happening on 53rd Street. In a time when dour thinkers view alienation and insensitivity toward the plight of others as characteristics of the modern condition, I think I’m lucky to live in a neighborhood where people look out for one another.
A human neighborhood.
Ishmael Reed is a writer of plays, poetry, novels, and songs. His poem “Pluto and Luca Walk into a Bar” appeared in Alta, Spring 2019.
This essay was originally titled “My Oakland, There Is a There There, Part 1” and appeared first in California Magazine in March 1983.
Continue reading: “My Neighborhood, Part 2,” an Alta exclusive.