As I walk down this residential street in East Oakland, I notice how the front yard of every house is green. There are no lawns in this working class bedroom community, but the young weeds sprouting up after recent rains add vibrant color to the streetscape and help hide some of the trash and debris that is ubiquitous on this turf. While the scourge of crack cocaine gave this neighborhood its deadly nickname – the Killing Fields – the weeds growing out of the cracks in the sidewalk are proof that life somehow finds a way.
I come upon an intersection that has been anchored by a barbershop ever since it replaced the corner store that only sold lung cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and white t-shirts. The barbershop’s proprietor is very preachy about men’s fashion and vocabulary, and is considered to be an asset to the block.
Next door to the barbershop is a donut and candy store that secretly sold organic, free-range chicken and whole wheat waffles at an unbeatable price. The cook wants to convince his community that healthy food tastes good, but it is currently closed, perhaps permanently.
“Hey there’s a doggie!” says my young son who is accompanying me on this walk. I turn to my left and see a little dog, off leash, lifting its hind leg up so that it can pee on a low retaining wall.
We come upon one of those houses that looks like it’s always under construction even though it never is. Two doors down, someone’s entire living room is out in the front yard soaking wet.
At the next intersection is a church that has been holding down that corner for 86 years. Next to the church is a charter school, which, statistically speaking, means that we live in an unhealthy neighborhood that other people with more money have their sights set on.
There is a greenspace median in the middle of the busy thoroughfare, Bancroft Avenue, we are walking down. Across that street is a large park with a long history of memorable barbecues, concerts, and fights. The apartment complexes here are from the ’50s and ’60s and feature fancy artwork, stylish architecture, and palm trees.
We arrive at a “creek” which is now just a concrete drainage canal. Graffiti covers its walls, and trash adorns the ground above those walls. While these canals offer escape routes from the police, it is a shame that these important channels moving nature’s energy through our community have been paved over with cold, lifeless cement.
Following the creek, we turn up a wide residential street where, even though most of the houses have about three to five cars associated with them, they are all occupied and maintained. Some have actual lawns healthy enough for mushrooms to grow out of them.
Neighborhood fixture “Jim” crosses through the intersection ahead of me, heatedly arguing with invisible rivals as usual. An older African- American gentleman, “Jim” comes off as homeless, but always has a fresh set of clean clothes.
We cross the street to where a church is. The well-dressed African -American members of this congregation don’t come from the neighborhood, and stand in stark contrast to the young African- American men who are always hanging out in front of Mr. Wendell’s halfway house across the street. They also create traffic jams on weekends.
After the next block is MacArthur Blvd., where circular skid marks decorate the intersection. Another off-leash dog strolls down the sidewalk, and discarded furniture and clothes line our route. This stretch has a deserted feeling to it, as most of the buildings appear to be unused and vacant, despite the high population density here. In stark contrast to the stylish apartment complexes on Bancroft, these on MacArthur are nothing but right angles with minimal glass windows and maximum steel bars.
There are two markets here, a laundromat, a post office, a motel, and an empty lot which claims to be a “decolonize academy.”
Next to the post office, Latino children dressed in their Sunday best are playing on the sidewalk in front of an old storefront that has been converted into a church.
Two corner stores line the last major intersection on our tour. Graffiti art organized by veteran artists for kids from the neighborhood adorns the outside of one. The other corner store also has legal artwork honoring the local high school on its wall.
As we turn the corner to head home, we cross paths with a white man walking his dog on a leash. This is life in the Killing Fields.