Health of the Hood: Merritt/Cleveland Heights

Each of our correspondents took roughly a 3 square-block walk around their neighborhood, taking stock of the area’s services, stores, homes, schools, and especially how people in the community were living their lives. The goal is to give real, detailed texture to our understanding of the quality of life in East Oakland’s neighborhoods from the perspectives of people who live there. These pieces were done in conjunction with Oakland Tribune Violence Reporting Fellow Scott Johnson’s Oakland Effect project.

By Sabirah Mustafa

I began my journey through my family’s neighborhood in the Lake Merritt area of East Oakland.  My starting point was on Lester Avenue. This diverse, working-to-middle class, ethnically mixed neighborhood, is what I’d like to call the “Oakland Riviera”. The name might seem misleading, because depending on which direction you walk, you might also find blight as well. Located within a three-block area of Lake Merritt, there is plenty of contrast – so much so that at times my journey felt like I crossed city limits into an entirely different town.

I began my travel north, toward Freeway 580.  This area was residential, dominated primarily by a mixed bag of apartments and condos, with an occasional, single-family home.  The condition of the sidewalks varied from block-to-block.  The area was relatively clean, but there were a few potholes on the streets, and uneven pavements and large cracks on the sidewalks.

The apartments and homes varied in style and condition.  Most of the homes were small-to-medium in size, with small yards that had wild flowers, and at least one large tree.  The shady trees and flowers provided a natural, comfortable feel. This was further enhanced by the residents who were outside maintaining their yards, which balanced out the apartments and homes that were not as well maintained.  A children’s day school—sandwiched between two single-family homes—lightened the feel of the area.

Most people I noticed were very casually dressed, as if heading to the park, while others were wearing active wear while walking their pets, jogging or pushing strollers.  The atmosphere was laid-back, charming, friendly and tranquil.  Most of the individuals I saw were between 25 to 45 years old and Asian or white. There were also plenty of cars parked on the street (mostly late-modeled foreign cars: BMW, Subaru, Volkswagen, Toyota, and Honda).

If you travel immediately west, you’ll encounter more apartments with some small businesses mixed in. A wide street divider, encased with flowers and plants, splits the neighborhood in four directions.  On the corner there is a coffee shop and pizza restaurant where you could relax and dine al fresco.  There is also a Laundromat, food mart, and a pet shop. The storefronts were charming and welcoming.

I continued north and saw many more single-family homes. Most were large, with manicured lawns, bursting with many colorful plants and flowers.  The condition of the streets and sidewalks were more consistently maintained.  Some of the streets were narrow and curved, and some didn’t go all the way through.  They weren’t full of potholes, but they were worn and cracked.
Going north parallel to Lakeshore, there were plenty of large trees and colorful flowers lining both the front yards and the curbsides of entire blocks.  Very few homes had fences.   The streets and sidewalks were clear of debris, with garbage cans and recycle bins neatly placed on the curb.

Further north, the streets were wider and relatively better paved. There were flowers and trees enclosed in triangular center dividers. I noticed a difference in the size and luxury of the homes—somewhat dividing the neighborhood into sections. Turning east of Lakeshore, I saw a few small businesses:  a clothing boutique, a gift shop, an insurance office, and a doctor’s office, located close by each other, with storefront’s that were well-maintained and blended unobtrusively into the neighborhood landscape.

Continuing east to Park Boulevard, I came across a clean, well-maintained park and a small recreation center.  The park had two, colorful, modern playgrounds, separated by a full-sized basketball court.   The park had plenty of natural light and lots of grass. I also observed a group of Asian seniors doing Tai Chi nearby.

Across the street on lower Park Boulevard, I began to see more small, neighborhood businesses:  a barber shop, child resource center, massage/acupressure, a florist, and a couple of ethnic restaurants.  Also, there were barbershops, dry cleaners, Laundromats, and hair salons, and a bar/lounge.  Park Boulevard divided the neighborhood in two sections.

After crossing Park Boulevard, I headed toward the “avenues”. The older, fenced-in structure of the apartments and homes, the lack of trees, bushes, hedges, or colorful foliage in most of the yards or by the sidewalks, made a dramatic difference in the landscape.  When there were fences, they were mostly chain linked.  I also noticed bars on the windows and doors of homes and apartments.

The area was quiet, clean and there was hardly any traffic. I hardly had seen anyone outside.  There wasn’t any traffic. The streets and sidewalks were uneven and cracked.

As I began heading south toward E.18th, I saw more traffic. The layout had more small businesses with a few apartment buildings in between.  I saw a liquor store at the corner, between a couple of apartment buildings that were mostly fenced in.  West, down E.18th, there were swaths of areas without any “greenery” at all.  The area had litter strewn around.  Many of the storefronts were in poor condition with peeling paint, and cracked, covered windows.  I wasn’t certain if the businesses were open or the space was vacant.
Further down E.18th , at the end of  Park Boulevard, amongst the businesses,  I saw another barber shop, beauty shop, hair braiding  shop,  and a check cashing store.  There was also a Church’s Chicken, two bar/lounges, two Laundromats, and a Subway.  Lucky’s grocery/pharmacy and Walgreen’s were the largest retailers in the area.  There was also a community bank and a Chase bank located almost next-door to each other.  Nearby, there was an Out of the Closet store, which provided on the spot HIV testing.  The area had a cultural mix reflecting Oakland’s diversity.  Most of the employees and customers visiting the businesses were black, Asian, or Hispanic.

E.18th and Park Boulevard is one of the busier intersections in the area, and provides a highly visible contrast between the lake area and the less-affluent avenues. At the end of E.18th, at the Lake, there was a park-like resting area with benches, tennis courts, and plenty of birds. Some locals, with shopping carts filled with garbage bags and other items, were casually feeding the birds in the park.

On Lakeshore, there was a lot of construction taking place on the streets and sidewalks. The streets were being paved. Bus Line connections to destinations throughout the East Bay were plentiful. The traffic lights placed at such close proximity created constant gridlock.

Next, I reached Lake Merritt. The Lakeshore side of Lake Merritt is beautiful.  It’s the area that would most likely fit the description “Oakland Riviera.”  Lake Merritt‘s murky, deep blue depths are intoxicating.  The ducks and geese carelessly walk the green, grassy banks. The wide-open, meticulously manicured grass area harbors striking plants and flowers on the peripherals of the sidewalks.  Often, you witness random street musicians, serenading the joggers, lunch crowd, and couples, relaxing on the benches strategically placed near the walking paths.

The area had clean, newly paved, wide sidewalks and walking paths.  The area is lovely, especially if you’re lucky enough to catch a romantic gondola glistening in the evening sun, bright-colored sailboats easing by on the weekends, or crew boats darting past the towering backdrop of downtown.

The Lake area has undergone, and continues to be undergoing, extensive renovations, and the streets and sidewalks were somewhat congested with foot and motor traffic, not to mention bike riders sharing the space as well.

The diversity of cultures sharing space in this microcosm of urban beauty covers just about every age, ethnic, and social status you can imagine, reflecting the heterogeneous mixture of cultures. I saw an endless parade of dog walkers, strolling couples, joggers, babies in strollers, kids goofing off, and workers wearing badges, speedily walking by in track shoes.  Their atmosphere was energizing. The street narrows to one-lane on each side of the road, with a bike lane taking up another on the lake side, and street parking readily available on either side.
There weren’t any businesses along the Lakeshore area I covered.  There were apartment buildings located on the opposite side of the Lake.  

Heading back to Lester from Lakeshore, there was a large grassy park, which surprisingly, had public restrooms! The park was almost entirely grassy and spotted with an array of beautiful yellow daisies.

I reflected on my brief, but enlightening journey, through the neighborhood.  Overall, it felt safe, comfortable, and charming. Judging by the diverse mix of apartments and single-family homes, this neighborhood is easily suited for single professionals, families, couples, and everything in between.

There weren’t any hospitals or public schools in the three block area I covered. However, if I travelled a few blocks further, in either direction, I would’ve found schools, post offices, and gas stations.

Part of the neighborhood I covered was quaint and cozy.  It seemed designed for individuals and families to be able to stroll safely and comfortably, while greeting a neighbor or two on your way to the park or lake. Almost the entire area was located in a natural setting with an abundance of clean, well-maintained parks, shady trees, flowers, and other foliage.

In other parts of the neighborhood, mostly heading east and south, it felt like the neighborhood was designed primarily for individuals to be mobile throughout the city based on the location of most of the public transportation outlets.  The litter, unkempt lawns, and chain-link fences, could give some of the areas a less than welcoming appeal.  There were traffic lights on E.18th and it appeared to be a traffic thoroughfare from east Oakland to the lake area, which made it less quiet and quaint than the areas that didn’t have stop signs or any traffic stops at all.

The small businesses in some of the areas reflected the ethnic makeup of the area (hair and barber shops) but also some social factors as well, as witnessed by the check cashing store, liquor stores (one east and one south), and the two bar/lounges. In some areas, al fresco dining or comfortable places to congregate and greet neighbors and friends, was noticeably absent.
The natural, and man-made, dividers strategically placed throughout the neighborhood were hard to miss. Although each area had brought its own unique atmosphere, the dividers broke the neighborhood into disparate sections so that when compared side-by-side, revealed obvious environmental and economic disparities.

Author Profile

Sabirah Mustafa is a community liaison and cultural enthusiast. “My aim in life is to facilitate, inform, and educate others,” Sabirah says, “about what is happening in our community and society at large in order to share our stories, bridge our differences, and create a more welcoming world.”


  1. Nice however what about the rapes and bettings?and how come no one but me calls popo or rescues our poor lost and abused four legged cats and dogs but me I also always call if feel something is not correct . Where are the rest of u??????????????

  2. Wonderful project and source of information (similar to what I referred as a “windshield audit”) on the health of Oakland’s neighborhoods. I would expect the police department to read such sources regularly to glean important, ground-level information and then assess the implications for policing and community betterment through a “ligh-touch” intervention strategy. Keep it up!

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