City’s Seniors Flock to West Oakland Center For Classes & Friendship

Activist Queen Thurston is a long-time member of the West Oakland Senior Center. By Jo Ann Bell.

By Jo Ann Bell

OAKLAND, CA – The West Oakland Senior Center is not an especially big place. But the two-story building, located at a quiet intersection right across from deFremery Park, is a strong magnet.  The center’s draw is so powerful that John Tatmon, a 79-year-old West Oakland resident for nearly two decades, leaves his house every Friday morning promptly at 8:30, and heads over.

“It is important that I arrive early on Fridays,” Tatmon said, since the WOSC often enlists him as a volunteer greeter, or to help put up streamers and balloons for parties. On some Friday afternoons, the center hosts bid-whist parties. Men pack most of the card tables, and if their games sprawl into the early evening – as they usually do – Tatmon sticks around to lock up.

Tatmon has been a WOSC member for a dozen years. As much as he likes helping out, he said he also goes to bask in “the company of old and new friends. It wears me out but I wouldn’t miss Fridays for anything.”

This is the heart of the WOSC: connecting with friends and being involved. Activity sheets posted near the front desk list a wide range of activities such as line dancing, casino trips, and art classes. But people mainly come here to relax together and socialize.

Visitors and newcomers are always welcome, but the seniors here are a tight-knit group. “The closeness, seeing the people you know, seeing old friends, and meeting new people,” Tatmon said, is what keeps him coming back.  No doubt, some of the seniors also come to sample the tea cakes for which Tatmon, also a baking teacher at the center, is famous.

John Tatmon reports by 9 am every Friday morning for his volunteer shift at the senior center, where he greets, teaches baking, and plans for parties. "It wears me out," he said, "but I wouldn’t miss Fridays for anything.” By Jo Ann Bell.

Just as popular at the center are the line dancing class on Mondays and Wednesdays. Seniors from throughout the East Bay sign up for the beginning and advanced lessons. D. Hollingsworth teaches dancers who are often very willing to display their dance techniques to visitors.

The dance classes, like so many of the center’s activities, draw a large number of their participants from outside of the area. Mattie Long lives in North Oakland, and explained the strong connection she has to the WOSC. Although she’s a board member of the North Oakland Senior Center, she treks to the West Oakland facility, she said, because “there are just more black people there.”   She said a lot of seniors come not just for the activities they enjoy, but also “because they enjoy the company of other blacks, and because it is a comfortable and friendly location.”

Those connections are key, as is the center’s commitment to fitness and well-being of its members. WOSC seniors get a host of health, welfare, and other public services information, and they can sign up for exercise classes. The philosophy: Happiness is key to good health.

The WOSC’s biggest gift might just be its doors, which open to a space where seniors can find a sense of belonging. A lot of them aren’t members of religious groups, and many don’t have family in the area. The senior center gives them a chance to be a part of something.  It certainly keeps John Tatmon moving. The volunteer greeter, baking teacher, and party planner said, “I will keep going the center for as long as I am able.”

Seniors Live, Thrive at St. Mary’s Low-Cost Homes

Residents at St. Mary's Gardens make frequent walking trips back and forth to the Chinatown markets nearby. Parties, dances, and exercise classes also keep seniors active at the facility west of Oakland's Old City. By Diana Alonzo.

By Diana Alonzo

OAKLAND, CA – After a stroke in 2002 left Myra Chang unable to walk, she needed a home that was affordable and handicap-accessible. Chang, a San Francisco native, signed up for an apartment at St. Mary’s Gardens, a West Oakland development where seniors receive affordable and quality housing. Chang was put on a two-year waiting list.

“The wait was worth it,” she said. “I moved all the way from San Francisco to Oakland because it was such a good opportunity.”

Today, 75-year-old Chang enjoys the quiet, long hallways where she’s learning how to walk again. There’s a flower garden that Chang visits every day, waiting for the roses to bloom.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church opened the facility two decades ago because it recognized a lack of affordable housing for low income seniors. Today, it’s run by Christian Church Homes, a national non-profit that provides affordable housing.  St. Mary’s Gardens also gets support from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Priscilla Gojocco is an 85-year-old Philippines native who finds comfort in her one bedroom suite. She has filled it with art, wall decorations, and two pianos she loves to play.  She prepares her own meals in her kitchenette and she writes poetry.  She has lived at St. Mary’s for 20 years. “I enjoy the organization of the staff and the peace and quiet,” she said.

Almost all of the seniors are Asian, and like Gojocco, they travel to their home countries at least once a year to visit their families. Residents who can’t make those long trips find some of the comforts of home in nearby Chinatown’s markets and restaurants. Seniors shop there regularly, and are often seen returning through St. Mary’s front doors with bags full of fresh produce.

St. Mary’s has more than 130 residents, attended by just a dozen regular staff members. Mary Francis Giammona is St. Mary’s administrator. She came to the job last December with more twenty years of experience in senior care. “I want to make St. Mary’s an active force in the community for good,” Giammona said.

Location is on her side. The facility is surrounded by two other senior housing facilities, as well as several schools and churches. To make St. Mary’s more visible to its neighbors, Giammona has opened St. Mary’s doors to the public. Children gather in the dining room after school to practice circus acts for the Prescott Elementary circus theater program.  Myra Chang thinks it’s important to keep the seniors in touch with the neighborhood because it prevents isolation.

85-year-old Priscilla Gojocco has an apartment at St. Mary's, where she plays two pianos, cooks, and writes poetry. As much as the services, Gojocco enjoys "the peace and quiet" she finds at the facility. By Diana Alonzo.

One of the toughest jobs at St. Mary’s is connecting residents with Social Security, Medicare, health insurance, and other programs. Calvie Yeung is the social services coordinator. She helps residents wade through the paperwork and application processes seniors often find difficult. Yeung is fluent in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin – a skill set perfect for her work at St. Mary’s.

“Yeung is wonderful,” Chang said, grateful that Yeung helps her read Mandarin because “the characters are too small and too many to understand without help.” Yeung also gives Chang advice on personal problems. “My favorite part about working here,” Yeung said, “is helping the seniors get the help they need.”

Half of St. Mary’s seniors – including Chang and Gojocco – receive In Home Support Services. The state program provides assistants to help seniors with their daily activities and chores. Chang says she really appreciates the IHSS aids who come to clean, bathe and dress her, and help with her housework.

The staff and seniors work together to make St. Mary’s fun. They organize bingo, dances, shopping trips to Alameda, movies, Chinese karaoke, and art classes. From her wheel chair, Chang pointed to a glass case filled with paper swans and vases. “I used to be able to make those,” Chang said of the intricate origami art displayed in the lobby. “But it’s too difficult now. My fingers wont let me.” Instead, Chang teaches Chinese knotting – just one way she stays tied to her St. Mary’s family.

Oakland Liquor Stores: Activist Recalls Controversial History

Oakland resident Ed Kikumoto has been fighting for liquor store regulation since the 1990s. By Adimu Madyun.

By Adimu Madyun

OAKLAND, CA – It’s been nearly two decades since Ed Kikumoto proudly accepted his role as a Home Alert block captain in West Oakland. Kikumoto was 43 years old when he and his wife moved into the neighborhood. They had lived in Oakland for a while, and the young Japanese couple was not concerned about moving into a predominantly African-American community.

“I was invited to a Home Alert meeting by my new neighbors, and shortly thereafter was elected to be the new block captain.” Kikumoto remembers. “Most of the small group were home owning seniors, and the main issues at that time were trust, drug related problems and violence.”

To gain the community’s trust, Kikumoto spent several hours every Saturday for a couple of years picking up litter on the sidewalk and the street. “My hope was that being public in this way would help with the trust issue, and it did put the so-called bad guys on notice that someone was watching.”

That work also helped Kikumoto learn a lot about his neighborhood. “I soon realized the majority of the safety problems we were seeing on our street were linked to the same problems in front of the two liquor stores around the corner from us. I spent a lot of my time as block captain working on the problems coming from the liquor stores.”

Now 60 years old, Kikumoto is executive director of Oakland’s Alcohol Policy Network, a non-profit working to reduce alcohol related risks to communities.   “It’s difficult because people aren’t aware of how Oakland got so many liquor stores,” Kikumoto said. “Not a lot of neighborhoods know how to close down a problem store.  It’s complicated and a slow political process.”

Before the mid 1960s, corner stores in Oakland were neighborhood grocery stores operated predominantly by white owners.  The stores sold food, not alcohol. They kept daytime hours, and were subject to state laws that made grocery prices uniform. This allowed corner stores to compete with large grocery chains.

Then came a mass exodus of whites from Oakland’s flatland neighborhoods, as more middle class African-Americans moved in.  Members of an African-American trade group, California Package Store and Tavern Owners, bought up a majority of the stores. The corner stores gradually switched from white to black owners around 1965.

Store deregulation came that same year, when California lifted price controls on food. The advantage went clearly to the big grocers, which could sell food at lower costs. The only way corner stores could survive was to rely on more profitable items, like tobacco, alcohol and junk food.

For some Oakland residents, the liquor store business was good. “African Americans owned a lot of the stores at that time,” Kikumoto explained. “Over the years, the owners made good money.”

The crack epidemic of the 1980′s helped turn Oakland’s liquor stores into havens for criminal activities.  “Drug dealers would set up shop in front of liquor stores,” recalled Kikumoto. “The stores provided easy access to clientele.  During that time, crack brought the drug dealer to the curb and they began serving the community. People began blaming the liquor stores for the crime and for contributing to alcohol abuse among the poor.”

Most of the African-American store owners were at retirement age. Kikumoto said that when the decision was made to sell, many of the stores changed hands to a new group. “The Yemeni-American Grocers Association (YAGA) was ready to buy.” Immigrants from Yemen could get the money through business loans created to help them adjust to life in the US. Kikumoto said that YAGA now owns more than 80 percent of the 300 liquor stores in Oakland.

For several decades, community members have complained about the high concentration of liquor stores in the city’s flatlands. Local Muslim groups began confronting Yemeni grocers in West Oakland in 2005, demanding they stop selling alcohol because it violated Islamic law. Kikumoto explained that for the new store owners, it’s all about business. “It’s a misconception that the Yeminis brought the plague of more liquor stores. Over-concentration already existed. Stores were in existence and already selling alcohol. The Yemenis didn’t do anything new.”

Due to a lack of adequate funding, Kikumoto’s APN will close down on Friday after 20 years of fighting to bring order, safety and control to Oakland’s liquor stores. “My biggest fear,” said Kikumoto about the end of APN, “is the city won’t provide a way for communities to utilize city resources to address liquor store issues. Communities need a lot of help with the enforcement process, and APN won’t be here to help them.”

Port Trucks Test The Limits of Emission Rules

West Oakland resident Xue Pan, a port trucker for 10 years, shows off his truck, which has a sticker certifying its compliance with clean air rules until 2020. By Brian Beveridge.

By Brian Beveridge

OAKLAND, CAWhile more than a thousand Oakland port trucks were replaced with taxpayer assistance or cleaned up to meet federal engine emission standards, companies serving the port say that non-compliant vehicles known as “dirty trucks” are still rolling through Oakland to pick up cargo.

In what California Air Resources Board officials call “dray-offs”, a clean truck picks up a container at the ship, then hands it off for a fee to a dirty truck in a nearby parking lot or warehouse facility. “Drayage” is the industry term for hauling port cargo. Dray-offs may even take place on Oakland city streets.

The state air board provided the money for truck clean-up and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District managed the program to clean up more 1,600 trucks. But state and local enforcement staff are uncertain whether dirty trucks are getting around the Port Drayage Truck Rule with the dray-offs.

“We’re aware of some locations where it may be happening,” said Manfred Oshner, the Air Resources Board’s manager of enforcement for the Drayage Truck Rule. “The trouble is, dray-offs are not illegal.”

Some local trucking operators say the problem is real and won’t get better until the state moves forward with emissions reduction rules for the rest of the trucks in California. “It’s gonna continue to be a problem until the city gets on the same page as the port with the CARB rule,” says Ron Cancilla, a partner in Impact Trucking, who operates a cargo transfer yard on Port of Oakland property. He says his competitors, directly across the street on City of Oakland property, do not have to meet the same truck emission standards.

It turns out that it may be more than just sour grapes between competitors. This loophole in the state Drayage Truck Rule means that while only clean trucks can enter port cargo terminals, any truck, can drive all the way through Oakland to pick up cargo on city property near the port. Those dirty trucks continue to spew deadly diesel soot all the way. Air Board scientists and public health experts say diesel pollution is the major cause of respiratory disease in California. Children in West Oakland have five times the state average for asthma-related illness.

Cancilla said he complained to the city attorney, as well as to West Oakland Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, and the Mayor’s office. He’s gotten no answers. The City Attorney’s office did not respond to numerous contacts for this story.

“It’s silly,” said Cancilla, “We’re all in the same business, but people on opposite sides of the street have different rules.” Other truckers agree there is problem, but some think the situation is necessary until the state passes the On-Road Truck Rule, which will cover the rest of the freight-haulers in California. That rule is meeting with heavy resistance from agriculture and long-haul trucking companies.

“I agree with the rules, they’re here, but the On-Road Rule needs to kick in sooner, said Bill Aboudi, owner of Oakland Maritime Support Services. Aboudi is the operator of the city’s 15-acre truck parking facility at the old Oakland Army Base. He says a few street turns probably take place at his facility, but he doesn’t think it is a significant problem. Enforcement of the emissions standard by the city would not affect his business economically.

“We tell our out-of-state customers, ‘at least you’re not in LA,’” where the rules are even tougher. Aboudi feels the dray-offs outside the port give out-of-state truckers who don’t know California’s rules a place to take care of their business. “It’s not a money-maker, it’s a relief valve,” he said.

The air board’s enforcer, Oshner, said they do random inspections of trucks coming out of the port cargo terminals to verify the data that truck owners put in the state on-line truck database.

But since compliance stickers are not mandated by law, there is still no way for a community member to know if a truck is polluting or not, except for that black smoke coming from the exhaust pipe.



A “clean” truck by California Air Resources Board standards is one that meets US Environmental Protection Agency 2007 engine emission standards. All truck engines made before 1994 have been banned for use at the ports of California.

A clean truck can have a 2007 engine (as opposed to a 2007 model year, as some 2007 trucks have 2006 engines) in any truck, or it can be a 1994-2005 engine year with a CARB certified, after-market diesel particulate filter (DPF) installed on the exhaust system. The DPFs are what the state helped pay for, as mentioned in this story, at a cost of $16,000 on average per truck.

2005 and 2006 engine years are also considered “clean” until 2014. After 2014, only trucks made this year or later will be compliant with state standards. All the trucks the taxpayer just paid to retrofit and all the other pre-2010 trucks on the road will have to be replaced by Jan 1, 2014.

Oakland Gun Violence Triggers Debate Over Control

By Tyrese Johnson

OAKLAND, CA – James Harris likes his guns. The 39-year-old West Oakland resident owns a .45 caliber pistol, a .9mm handgun and a 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun. Harris’s father was a Marine who instilled in his son an affinity to firearms.

As an avid gun collector, Harris is part of a debate that stretches from the US Supreme Court, to the streets of West Oakland. Part of the argument is over the extent to which national and local governments should regulate the possession of firearms. Another piece of the debate – one felt especially strongly in this city – is how more stringent regulations might stanch the gun violence in US cities.

For the last several years, Oakland’s annual homicide rates have reached the triple-digits.  Last year, 110 people were killed in the city, and the Oakland Police Department reports that 90 percent of those deaths were from guns. Firearm homicide is the biggest killer of young people in Alameda County. The issue of gun control policy is very much on the minds of East Bay residents.

Harris wants to be sure that any new laws don’t interfere with his right to keep guns. He says it’s a mistake to blame firearms for Oakland’s homicide problems. “Most gun owners are law abiding citizens,” he says. “Most guns used in crime are usually stolen.” Harris insists that criminals are the cause of Oakland’s murder problems, not firearms. “More guns do not equal more crime.”

Harris’s 38-year-old wife Amana agrees that guns aren’t to blame for violence. She argues that people use guns to hurt one another because “we live in a fearful society. It is the nature of our country.”

Some Oakland residents support the idea of stronger gun control laws for the city. 17-year-old Oakland resident Arianna Pharr says a gun ban in neighborhoods with high murder rates “would be a good thing.” One of Pharr’s friend’s was shot and killed in Oakland nearly a year ago, so she wants to see firearms off of the city’s streets.

But her beliefs about gun control are complicated. “People should have guns to protect themselves,” Pharr says. “They should have licenses and be able to take a class to handle a gun.” Gun collector James Harris agrees. “It’s good that people arm themselves.” For example, in the case of a home robbery, “you wouldn’t want to be at a disadvantage,” he explains.

While the gun control debates are far from decided, Harris says he will teach his 12 and 13-year-old daughters target practice with BB guns. “I don’t mind if they own guns when they’re old enough. I want them to be able to protect themselves.”

The Cast

Mom had a bad fall last year. She broke her shoulder and her wrist.  When she came home from the hospital, she was patched up in splints, wrappings, and a sling. Each morning I stepped into her room to help Momma start her day, I was welcomed by the sight of her having ripped everything off.

Here was our dance: I would painstakingly put it all back on her, gently scolding her even as I used the softest touch to keep from aggravating her injuries. Then, overnight she’d unwrap herself with the deft efficiency of a child tearing into a gift on Christmas morning.

The orthopedic doctor and I agreed to a plan b. We decided a cast would be the only way to contain her curiosity and divert her determination in removing the menace.

The cast was good. Ruth was better.

Momma was determined to now figure out how to liberate herself from the block of plaster.  The aid and I would find her quietly sitting, like some mad concentrating scientist, diligently picking and poking at the cast, scanning for vulnerabilities, searching for the smallest opening or tear that would allow her entry.

I would ask her, “Momma, what are you doing there?”  Never one to be dishonest, she would reply, “Trying to get this thing off. Can you help me? Do you have any scissors?” She asked the visiting physical therapist, “Can I use your scissors?”

She was relentless in her mission to extract herself. She once quietly asked the assistance of a young man from the neighborhood as he walked by our house. “Hey, come here a minute,” she called to him from the porch. “Do you have a knife or a saw or something?  I want you to help me get this off.” He politely told her, “Ms. Ruth, your daughter will kill me if I take that off of you.”  Ruth the Defiant hissed back, “I don’t give a damn what she does! Just help me.”

Wisely, the young man moved on.

Momma never did believe in things being out of order.  The house always had to be tidy. Her children – we were expected to be clean, studious, respectful, and quiet. Nothing was to fall out of place.

Today, my mother is just a decade away from being a century old. She still believes in the order of things, and this physical inconvenience turned her world upside down. When the cast was finally cut off (by the doctor, not by Ruth), all of us – Momma, her aid, and I – chanted, “Free at last!”

Suicide Survivor Heals By Helping Others Cope With Loss

By Peace Harmony

OAKLAND, CA – Nicci Butler is turning 40 years old this year, and the Oakland native has already picked her birthday wish. It’s a serious one. “I hope to live another decade without anyone I know committing suicide.”

After losing three people to suicide, Butler has found a way to help herself and other survivors – people left to grieve for loved ones who have taken their own lives. Last year, she co-founded the East Bay support group Survivors of Suicide Loss.

SSL is a public service born out of Butler’s personal experiences with suicide.

She was in the second grade when her uncle John “Bill” Hutchinson shot himself. Seven years ago, Butler’s close friend Samuel Gibson died when he deliberately overdosed on his HIV medication.

Butler’s hardest loss came when her friend Tonya Thompson took her life with a gun. Butler and Thompson met in 1992 when they were neighbors at Waterford apartments in Richmond. One day, Butler and her first husband were having an argument. Thompson overheard them and came to intervene because she was worried about their 2-year-old son. Butler remembers Thompson telling the couple, “The two of you can kill each other, but this baby is coming with me.”

The two women grew close after that. “We were more like sisters than friends,” Butler explains. “Tonya was the life of the party.” Butler points to a picture of Thompson showing off a big smile. She talks about her best friend so much that Butler’s young daughter knows Thompson by face even though the 3-year-old has never met her.

No one saw Thompson’s death coming. But looking back, Butler says there may have been some signs. “When Tonya was mad, she was really mad, and when she was sad, she was sad. She went from extremes.” Butler wishes her friend had turned to her for help, instead of taking her own life. “I felt guilty because Tonya and I we’re not speaking prior to her death.”

Thompson’s death hit Butler hard. She found it difficult to go to work. Her sadness shifted to hope when Butler stumbled across a suicide prevention brochure. She volunteered for a  survivors support group – an experience that inspired Butler to co-create SSL. Butler is now also a board member of San Francisco’s chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. AFSP is hosting Out of Darkness Walk to promote suicide awareness. The walk will take place at Lake Merritt on Saturday, October 16 from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.

Peace Harmony is a former Oakland Voices correspondent.

The Shoes

There is something about Momma and shoes.

Not any shoes. Ruth’s shoes. She imagines everyone wants Ruth’s shoes. She thinks everybody just might be trying to wear them.

One night when I was getting her dressed for bed, the shoes became more than a simple issue.  As I took her shoes off, Momma called the whole process to a halt. “Wait.  Wait a minute.  What do you think you are doing with my shoes?”  We were just starting the last of our daily routines, and I was already frustrated. I was so sure this was going to escalate into another of our nightly episodes.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Momma,” I snapped. “I am taking off your shoes so you can get into bed.  Give me the shoes.”  Impatient, I stood there, waiting, demanding. It’s not easy to demand things of your own mother. It’s a role I’ve grown into uneasily.

Still, she hesitated, then lobbed some classic Ruth belligerence at me. “You don’t know what I know.  Those are my shoes, and I don’t want you to wear them.”  I exhaled deeply, in that way that’s supposed to calm me down. But I was only getting angrier. “Momma, I do not want your shoes, OK? It’s time to go to bed. So just give me the shoes.”

I saw it in her eyes. This was war. Momma refused to lose.

Holding the shoes close to her chest, she pulled the covers back. Then she tucked the shoes under the covers as if she were burying treasure meant never to be found. “I don’t want anyone to come in while I’m sleeping and take my shoes.”

“I hope you know, Cookie, (I call her Cookie out loud, sometimes like a mantra, just to remind myself how much I really do love her) those shoes are not staying there.” Only then did I realize that I could have kept this simple. On previous nights, I would have just waited until she had fallen asleep to play shoe thief. Rarely has she been any the wiser.

When we were little, Momma always loved shoes. Her closet still holds more than a dozen pairs of sling backs, pumps, and flats – a style for any occasion.  She probably does not remember the torture we experienced as children when, in an effort to keep all of us in shoes, she would bring home whatever shoes she could grab on sale at the local discount store.  Lots of pairs, all brand new.

I laugh when I recall my brothers and I going to the park sporting our purple, green, and red knock-off Converse sneakers.

Those shoes really deserved to be buried under the covers.

PHOTOS: Trash Fires, Riot Police, Protesters Light Up City

Protesters ignite several trash fires throughout downtown Oakland, as police in riot gear move in near Broadway and Grand Avenue. By Oakland Voices correspondent Dawneka Akins.

Many downtown businesses, including this Sears at 20th Street and Broadway, had their storefronts broken during tonight's protests and looting. By Oakland Voices correspondent Dawneka Akins.

PHOTO: Woman Hit By Police Car As Tension Builds in Oakland

A police car in downtown Oakland struck a woman as people gathered to protest today's Oscar Grant murder trial verdict. By Oakland Voices correspondent Tyrese Johnson.