The Lower Bottoms: The Edge of the World

I like this neighborhood best late at night. When it’s quiet and bathed in a kind, artificial light, and smelling vaguely of weed, flowers, and the places where former neighbors now live on curbs. I am flooded with the recollection of the country feeling that used to overtake me here. 

11th and Pine St. The edge of the known world–if your world is the Lower Bottoms. This is the perfect vantage to understanding this West Oakland neighborhood in 2019. Standing on the corner of 11th St., facing Pine St., early in the morning, or in the still of the night, you can hear the freeway. It sounds like the ocean. In the fog of morning or the dusk of sunset, it is easy to imagine the cranes nestled at the Port of Oakland, as ancient primordial guardians, inefficient in keeping us in or the world out.

Looking left down Pine, people live on the sidewalk. Walking in that direction, you pass the house where my brother used to live. The sign of short tempers, nine bullet holes emblazon the mint green fence. Across the street, remnants of a dream called ‘Bottoms Up.’ The dreamer, like my brother, lives elsewhere now. Signs of what was, remind one of legends faded and overwritten; like the mural once painted to mark space, painted over by those who claimed the space. Beyond the façade of the overwritten mural, a yard holds an insular community of mobile homes on a site once imagined as a hydroponic fish garden. 

To the right, the condominiums that helped to wash those that lived to the left out onto the curbside. Look towards Frontage road, between where you stand and the cranes at the Port, is the recycling center. The center has barricaded off the last segment of the dead end street in order to stop the homeless from squatting in its odorous shadow.

If we turn and walk towards Wood St, we pass the 100-year-old Victorian house I rent, alongside two homes that sold for a million dollars each, sitting mid-block like they were dropped in from someone else’s future. A construction supply building across the street takes up most of the block. The walls, persistently tattooed with the smears of late-night meth heads creating non-art, scream blight.

An odd house larger than those it faces on Wood St. ends the block. The house looks like its too many floors did not agree on what to wear  – a patchwork monster, even though it’s new. At 11th and Wood St., look to the left, right, and straight ahead, it is like a photograph of the memory of the West Oakland I discovered: the Victorians, the yards back and front, the families who animate them, often multi-generational. However, the nostalgia only works if one discounts the construction sites, editing the photo while you watch.

West Oakland was the center of my world. ‘What comes after the world melts?’ is a question that will go unanswered here. I have tucked it underneath the feeling of being untethered from one reality and poured into another, where it collides with the feeling of not belonging anywhere.

Author Profile

Ayodele Nzinga is an arts and culture theoretician/practitioner working at the intersections of cultural production, community development, and community well being to foster transformation in marginalized communities. Nzinga holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Writing and Consciousness and Doctorate of Philosophy in Transformative Education & Change; she resides in Oakland, CA. Described as a renaissance woman, Ayodele is a producing director, playwright, poet, dramaturg, actress, performance consultant, arts educator, community advocate, and a culture bearing anchor. Ayodele is the first poet laureate of Oakland.

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