Sidewalk Memorials: A Softer Side of Oakland

Street Memorial for Lorenzo Castrejon on Chapman Street

Living in East Oakland is like having a close relationship with a problematic relative.  You can call your auntie “crazy,” because she’s your auntie, but you can’t let anyone outside the family call her crazy.  You understand that she’s multi-faceted and complex.  And yes, she can behave erratically, but this does not mitigate your connection or the value she brings to your life.

The news we often hear about Oakland relates to gun violence and other crime.  The media love to report how many shootings and murders happen in Oakland and compare the numbers to years past.  I’m not sure what objective this kind of reporting tries to meet.  Yes, there’s crime.  We can regurgitate stats but what does that really do?  Does reporting stats without context address historical and structural inequality that divides Oakland?  Does it explore the origins of why crime exists in the first place?  Or does it confirm the tired bias that Oakland is rife with inherently criminal brown people that actively choose this “lifestyle?”

East Oakland is peppered with symbols that mark the disproportionate death of people in the form of sidewalk memorials.  Despite the stigma of their relative or friend being involved in a crime, remaining loved ones show honor by displaying flowers, candles, toys, drinks, food, figurines, sports memorabilia—anything that represents their slain loved one.

One early morning in February, a shooting occurred in Jingletown.  Two young men shot another young man who was inside a car on a residential street.  According to my neighbor, they used semi-automatic weapons.  He told me our neighborhood hadn’t seen that level of violence, “in 30 years.”  I don’t know if that’s true, as I moved to Jingletown in 2011.  The shooting happened less than a block from my house, but I didn’t hear anything.  I only saw the memorial that the victim’s loved ones left near the scene of the shooting the next morning while walking my dogs.

Lorenzo Castrejon was 22- years- old when he died.  He is clearly loved, because someone has cared for his sidewalk memorial on Chapman Street since February 9th.  It is now May and the memorial has survived record-breaking rainy days, as well as the chaos of Jingletown street life.   Currently, two new apartment buildings are being built, street construction constantly hums and large trucks enter and exit the neighborhood all day long.

People walk their dogs and push their carts up and down the streets daily.  It strikes me that despite the litter and car break-ins, nobody really disturbs this memorial.  Near the area where Lorenzo was shot and killed, on the sidewalk, two lawn chairs host a large stuffed teddy bear, a small penguin and a large stuffed Stewie from the show, Family Guy.  A small table with writing, “we miss and love you Lencho” supports vases filled with flowers, jars, drinks and figurines.  Someone comes by regularly to light candles.  They have maintained the shrine for over two months.

Some say these sidewalk memorials have African roots.  Some say that modern life has limited access to traditional cemeteries.  Some are offended by the liquor bottles.  Some add these details to confirm their bias that Oakland loves to celebrate violence.

I didn’t grow up in an urban environment.  I never saw sidewalk memorials.  I never heard of anyone being shot when I was in school.  I can relate, however, to the traditions and rituals communities create, perform and continue, to honor their loved ones.

My heart is moved by someone diligently lighting candles and tidying up this memorial that sits next to a major highway amid frenetic industry.  Someone makes time to keep Lorenzo’s memory alive.  Regardless of the circumstances where a young man lost his life, people loved him and are deeply affected by his absence.  The upkeep of his memorial must bring them solace and healing.

The position of the toys and chairs vary weekly, attended by someone

I walk by the memorial with my dogs every day.  They often express interest in the candy, the stuffed animals and the balloons tied to the chair arm.  “Don’t touch,” I tell them gently, “that’s a special place for someone who died and we have to be respectful.”  The candles flicker as we walk past and I marvel that they stay lit.

About Sandra Tavel

Sandra Tavel lives and works in East Oakland. Emigrating from La Paz, Bolivia and growing up in suburban Denver shaped her desire to put roots down in a place that is diverse, politically progressive and rich in social justice oriented history.  This journey brought her to Oakland, which gets a disturbing and bizarre rap on much of the media that exists today. She’s looking to move the needle to create different narratives that reflect the complexity and nuances that make Oakland what it is. She has been an avid writer and voracious reader her whole life.  When she’s not working, reading or writing, you can find her at yoga class, hiking the Redwood Regional Park System or playing on the beach with her partner and two dogs. View all posts by Sandra Tavel →

5 Comments

  1. Maria

    We miss you lencho forever in our hearts UNTILL WE MEET AGAIN

  2. Erika Ramos

    Hell, my name is Erika Ramos I am Lorenzo Castrejon Ramos cousin. First off, I would like to thank you for your time in creating this beautiful article it touched my heart along with all of my family as well. Lorenzo better known as “Lencho” was a kind soul he would give his last to help anyone in need he didn’t care if his last dollar was to help another in need he would do it. He was dearly loved by all his family and his absence has left a great agony in our hearts we are deeply hurt we are still grieving this terrible loss, truth is we will never heal we will never see Lorenzo again, but without a doubt we will always keep his memory alive and he will always be in our hearts forever until our time comes. Sandra Tavel, If you have time to make an arrangement to personally thank you I would appreciate it I will provide my email please contact me at your convenience. Thank you, Erika

  3. S.C

    There’s no time I don’t think about him. As his older sister I watched him grow. Losing him has been very hard for us. Oakland is a place filled of hate. Someone always has to be better, or be on top. Growino up in Oakland you get so used to seeing things like this, but when it’s someone close, you seem to lose yourself in the world of hell like things happening. Thank you for writing about my little brother who was murdered in such a cruel heartless way.
    We miss him, we love him. He will continue in our hearts always.

  4. Juana

    Hello my name is Juana Ibarra Ramos, cousin of Lorenzo Castrejon. On behalf of the Family we are deeply hurt and slowly recovering from our loved ones death. We love Lorenzo dearly we go to his Grave every Sunday to celebrate the memories,t now he has entered Heavens Gate and is aside with our uncle Santiago. We thank you for your understanding. Oakland we love you !

  5. Maria

    Thank you for this Lorenzo is my brother and yes he was very loved and we miss him everyday

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