By Sabirah Mustafa
Growing up in Oakland I used to imagine I was the mayor. Playgrounds and basketball courts would stay open 24 hours if I had my way. Big wheels and dirt bikes would be the official mode of transportation. Ice cream trucks would be posted on ev
ery street corner so my friends and I wouldn’t have to chase them down the block.
In this fantasy dream world I’d create in my mind, I’d change the name from Oakland to Kidland.
I may have outgrown my desire to be mayor, but not the inclination to create names.
Every trip through Oakland’s cosmopolitan neighborhoods conjures up a desire to name it with the same earnest fervor I had as a child. It’s my way of proudly claiming Oakland as my hometown, while embracing this melting pot.
Thinking others might feel the same, I traveled through East Oakland with my fellow Oakland Voices correspondent Katrina Davis, to inquire if residents knew the names of their neighborhoods. We asked residents if they would call it something else, and why?
“Quiet Park” is what Robeson Berry, 37, would name Maxwell Park because “it’s pretty much quiet all the time.”
“I can’t give it a name,” says Chris Jones, 41, when first asked to name 62nd Avenue Havenscourt/Picardy area. When pressed, he said, “we’ll we call it the planet because it’s a melting pot over there. It’s a lot of mixed interracial relations over there, black and Hispanics over there.”
In the Dimond District, Kife Sorenson, 42, a resident of twelve years says the neighborhood was questionable when he first moved there, but “it’s nice now,” he says, “I’d keep it the Dimond.”
In the 23rd Avenue district, Emma Apodaca, 38, carried groceries and closely held the hand of her 4 year-old son Cruz. She said the neighborhood is called “Murder Dubs” because of the area’s homicide rate.
But, she said, “we still survive.” Despite the area’s reputation, “we look out for each other.”
“Bossland” is the “common old name” neighbors use for 96th and Birch, said Julian Damone, 20, of his neighborhood in Elmhurst,
He’d prefer to call it “Ujamaa Village” – the Tanzanian concept of people working in a collective community. The name, Damone says, is a great way to get blacks “into sustaining villages or neighborhoods in a green environment.”
Chailinda Starnes, 20, who lives in the 60’s, believed that her neighborhood is officially called Avenal. But in her neighborhood they like to call it “Purple City,” she said, because they “float purple on the street.” I’m guessing she was referring to either marijuana or a mix of cough syrup or codeine – a popular narcotic on the streets.
She would rename her neighborhood “God’s Gift,” because she said “There’s a lot of talented people (here).”
Oakland is known for it’s diversity and culture – many cultures intermixed in the commercial shopping districts and residential areas. “We got just about everything here,” said Simone Brown, 45, of the Fairfax District. “Diverse Beyond” is how she’d described it. “A whole lot of different races all in the same neighborhood. Some get along and you see some that just don’t.”
Leo Elias, 36, and his friend Gabby shared a common theme for their neighborhood. “The Plaza” is what Elias would rename the Fruitvale District, because he says it “unites families together.” Gabby, likes the “Spanish District” as its new name because “it is family,” he says emphatically.
For Paula Johnson, 42, of Cleveland Heights, it is a no-brainer that she describes the area that borders Lake Merritt as “The Lake Neighborhood.” Smiling, she said, “it’s all about the lake, and that’s why so many people live, exercise and walk around it.”
In the end, I realized that Oakland isn’t so easy to label or define. Natural beauty surrounded by concrete and steel. Foreclosures alongside model homes. World class arts and entertainment within blocks of escalating crime.
What name would explain the crime, unemployment, and local politics which govern some of our neighborhoods, but barely impact others?
I believe a child can imagine anything if they just believe. Maybe we can all take a cue, and if the reality of your neighborhood isn’t what you want it to be, take a deep breath, and just name it.