ESSAY

My Neighborhood, Part 2

Ishmael Reed reflects on four decades of change—and humanity—in his North Oakland neighborhood.
JASON HENRY
Ishmael Reed reflects on four decades of change—and humanity—in his North Oakland neighborhood.
An acclaimed writer’s 40-year quest for peace and belonging in a community that has endured incursions of crack cocaine, gang violence, and neglect.

Editor’s note: In 1983, Ishmael Reed published “My Oakland, There Is a There There, Part I,” a much lauded essay that was later anthologized as “My Neighborhood.” Reed’s piece chronicled his family’s search for “home” in towns throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Along the way, Reed encountered both quiet discrimination—cold, unwelcoming stares—and confrontational racial epithets shouted by white teenagers driving along otherwise serene suburban streets. Eventually, Reed and his family settled in a large Queen Anne Victorian and found the community they sought in their North Oakland neighborhood. But even there, acceptance didn’t come easily; it had to be earned.

In 1979, my partner, Carla Blank, a writer, choreographer, and director; our daughter, Tennessee; and I moved from the hills of El Cerrito to the flatlands of Oakland. It was my return to the kind of neighborhood that I grew up in, a black neighborhood. Upon arrival, I was confronted by the patriarchs who managed the block. It was as though I was submitting a job application. They wanted to be sure that we would observe the standards of the block. This was basically a black working-class neighborhood. Maybe they thought that we’d infect the neighborhood with our bohemian attitudes. I was a professor and writer. Carla was one of the pioneers of postmodern dance. At the time of our moving in, she and her codirector, Jody Roberts, were running the Children’s Troupe of Roberts + Blank. There was slight harassment by anonymous people concerning our living there, which amounted to petty hostility, mostly. Glass was placed under our auto tires. There were regular car break-ins. An elderly woman made a habit of dropping empty tuna cans on our lawn, until I caught her in the act. Our flower pots were overturned, stolen, or broken. The most serious incident was a near home invasion, which involved about six young men. I interrupted the plot, and the young men scattered.

Overall, though, I found the neighborhood to be orderly and friendly, with minor inconveniences. I wrote an essay, “My Oakland, There Is a There There, Part 1,” which was later anthologized as “My Neighborhood.” In the essay, I described the relative stability that we found. We were members of all social classes, some thriving in the mainstream economy and others in the underground economy. Those who were selling marijuana were tolerated as long as they were cool about it.

We kept improving the house that we had bought, which was a Queen Anne cottage with four bedrooms built in 1906. When we purchased it, the place was in a state of deterioration. Pigeons had made it their home. Their residency ended when we purchased a plastic owl. The roof was in such disrepair that it rained in the dining room.

I received a 3 percent interest loan from the city of Oakland, which went to making some of the repairs, including the replacement of the original brick foundation with cement and structural anchors to meet California’s building code. Though I had a job teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, it would have taken years to pay off that loan. But in the writing business, you might not have bestsellers, but you also never know who your fans are. I’m always surprised. After reading an op-ed of mine that was published in the New York Times, Reginald Lewis, the late head of TLC Beatrice International, and a patron of the arts, sent a grant that was sufficient to pay it off. Another time, I got a call from someone who said that a basketball player admired my books and wanted me to have dinner with him. It was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Reed outside a neighborhood crack house being demolished in 2010.REED FAMILY TRUST
Reed outside a neighborhood crack house being demolished in 2010.
UNDER SIEGE

In 1987, things changed, and from that time until 2013, we lived under what could be called intermittent neighborhood domestic fascism. We had spent a semester at Harvard, where I taught and Carla was a consultant to the university’s Office for the Arts. Upon our return, I was informed by our house sitter that a crack operation had taken over the neighborhood. Our lives were under constant threat as our block became a sort of crack distribution hub. We eventually became used to the gunfire, and at one Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council meeting, I got so frustrated by the lack of police protection that I suggested to the officers present that they hire suburban white kids, some of whom could shoot a target at 1,000 feet, to come in and give the gang members, who were making our lives hell, instructions on how to shoot straight. Often they would shoot up the whole block without hitting their intended target. One of the block’s sentinels, Sherman Wright, a retired Milwaukee fireman and military veteran who, like me, had inherited the role of patriarch and helped keep order on the block, had his car shot up.

When Willie Hearst invited me to contribute to the San Francisco Examiner, as part of its writer-in-residence program, I wrote a series of articles about Oakland’s crack plague. After reading them, a downtown developer invited Carla and me to dinner at the Claremont hotel, where the mayor was present. They told me that I was costing the city millions. They set up a meeting between me and the city manager, but instead of tending to the crisis in our neighborhood, he wanted to talk about his vacation and Toni Morrison’s latest novel. When I reported this in the Examiner, the city manager called and ordered me to come to the police station and take a lie detector test, which I refused to do. Candace Walker, my fellow crime fighter, was a witness to the city manager’s comments to us.

I took my complaints to the stage in the form of a play titled Hubba City, which received hostile reviews locally but earned a rave from the late New York Post critic Clive Barnes when it was performed in New York. Hubba City was different from Hollywood and television portrayals of drug distribution, in which mostly black faces are involved. My play indicted the banks, gun shops, and real estate interests as benefiting from the drug crisis, as well as people who are offered by the media as model citizens.

Meanwhile, the violence in our melting pot of a neighborhood continued unabated. Two of the gang members on our street were Vietnamese kids. They spoke in the language of corporate hip-hop, a lewd form of the art that is encouraged by middle-aged record company executives. One of these kids was slain around the corner. This was not the only drug-related killing that occurred in the neighborhood, which is bordered by 45th Street, Genoa Street, and 55th Street. One day, there was a shoot-out between two of the block’s gangs, and a wounded man sought shelter on my porch until he was picked up by a getaway car. I had to inform Carla and Tennessee that they should continue grocery shopping because the coast was not clear.

The author’s daughter, Tennessee Reed, by a Neighborhood Watch sign she helped lobby for to combat crime on her street.JASON HENRY
The author’s daughter, Tennessee Reed, by a Neighborhood Watch sign she helped lobby for to combat crime on her street.
‘LET US OWN HOMES’

One of the villains of black novels is the absentee landlord, who appears in books written by Louise Meriwether, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Charles Wright. Those who attend the meetings of our crime council regularly bring stories about absentee landlords jeopardizing the lives of residents by renting their properties to criminal operations. Blacks don’t own the liquor stores whose fronts serve as outdoor offices for drug dealers. Blacks don’t own the hotels where prostitutes and pimps bring their johns.

One absentee landlord, who was careless about whom he chose as tenants, lived far away in Los Angeles. For some reason, the police could not solve the problem. When Tennessee and I were trying to get one of the crack houses torn down, it took the efforts of Paul Brekke-Miesner, author of Home Field Advantage: Oakland, CA—the City That Changed the Face of Sports, who at the time was our neighborhood services coordinator under a program of Oakland’s police department. This was after the absentee landlady had defied a series of citations from the city. Meanwhile, though some of the houses on our block are now selling for over $1 million, some landlords still rent apartments to criminal enterprises and noisy, obnoxious neighbors.

When it came to dealing with the other crack house in my neighborhood, the most surprising assistance came from an ex-felon who had been released from Pelican Bay State Prison. The ex-con was like that plastic owl that shooed away the pigeons. Instead, he got rid of the gangs. That event, in 2013, was a turning point of sorts for the neighborhood. The ex-felon sold his family’s house for $160,000. The new owner brought in a non-English-speaking crew and months later resold the house for $1 million. Where there were once used American autos lined up on our street, there are now BMWs and Lexuses. One of the few American cars is a Cadillac Escalade.

Besides the Examiner, I have written articles for USA Today, Playboy, and other publications based on my experiences living in this neighborhood. The Playboy article was about the many examples of kindness and heroism that far outweigh the troubles I’ve witnessed in the district. On our UN of a block, a Korean American neighbor was shot by a couple of thugs who were chasing him. A black man and his spouse, veterans of Desert Storm, sheltered him and then confronted his pursuers with the threat of lethal action, saving him. The bank foreclosed on the couple’s home. It lay uninhabited for almost a year. A new owner is rebuilding the house. Why couldn’t something have been worked out? One of the reasons for black flight from Oakland is that, historically, the banks have denied blacks homeownership. This issue is addressed in Exploration and Colonization, a 1949 mural painted by black artist Charles Alston in Los Angeles. A man clutches a sign that reads, “Let us own homes.”

This plant in Reed's North Oakland neighborhood has been tagged with graffiti. JASON HENRY
This plant in Reed’s North Oakland neighborhood has been tagged with graffiti.

I think that my family’s presence has benefited the neighborhood. Not only did I organize a crime watch and a campaign for speed bumps so that getaway cars like the one that rescued the wounded man would have to slow down, but some celebrities have visited our home since we moved here in 1979. Toni Morrison brought a signed copy of her novel Beloved. The great jazz innovator Max Roach stopped by. Henry Louis Gates Jr. was a guest. Bobby McFerrin came by to ask whether I would write a book for his opera. Jerry Brown visited us. Chester Himes, whose If He Hollers Let Him Go has been declared the great Los Angeles novel by critics, lived in our house during the summer of 1980.

Carla was the caretaker for our next-door neighbor. When she died, Carla picked roses from her garden and airmailed them to be present at her funeral. Her sisters flew to Oakland from Pasadena to thank Carla. And those senior men, the patriarchs, who initially thought that our lifestyle was incompatible with the values of the neighborhood, found that we were among the neighborhood’s best champions. I appointed myself lowercase “king” after the tradition of some marooned societies where one person sought to wrest the best deal for members of his tribe from the colonial government. For us, the colonial government was the downtown political establishment, one that was indifferent to our needs. In comparison with the suburban, largely white neighborhoods I’d lived in previous to this one, our neighborhoods in the Oakland flats were, and are, underserved. I knew that some of the conditions to which my family and my neighbors were subjected when this was a predominantly black neighborhood would not have been tolerated in affluent white neighborhoods. While schools in the flats were neglected and being closed, those in the hills remained open. In order to try to remedy this, Tennessee ran for school board. Though she was outspent and lost, she was the only candidate who advocated on behalf of black and Latino and disabled kids.

Property values in Reed’s neighborhood have soared, and many homes now list for more than $1 million.JASON HENRY
Property values in Reed’s neighborhood have soared, and many homes now list for more than $1 million.
AUTUMN OF THE PATRIARCHS

As part of my responsibilities as “king,” I eulogized the elder men and women who had regarded our entering their neighborhood with suspicion. I even recorded a tribute to one of our deceased elders in a song, “Oakland Blues,” which was composed by Carman Moore and sung by Robert Jason Jackson, a cast member of the Broadway production of Aida.

Looking back, one of the funniest moments occurred when I took a couple of neighborhood kids to the circus. One of them had a John F. Kennedy half-dollar coin. I told them that I had seen JFK in person a couple of times. They asked me whether I was around when Lincoln was shot. One of the most moving events was when a young man down the street came to me on Father’s Day, just as he was about to move away for college, and gave me a Boy Scout Jamboree T-shirt with the eagle’s head on the front. One of the scariest instances was waking one morning to find our street filled with satellite TV trucks and reporters. A man in one of the houses rented out by an absentee landlord was a suspect in the murder of teenage girls. He’d sent an inappropriate note to my daughter.

A handful of black families remain on the block. The street often looks like a construction zone, as new families move in to remodel the old homes or build new ones entirely. Our property values have increased, but sometimes I miss the neighborhood that we moved into. The one-sided media image of what is called “the inner city” does a disservice to the families who work hard and play by the rules—who, according to pundits and politicians, are the ideal family. Yes, some of our kids go to prison, but others go to college, or into the professions.

Sometimes the children, now adults, who lived under the off-and-on-again terror that afflicted our neighborhood for over 30 years return to visit us. Among them: Anthony Alexander, who gave me my treasured Father’s Day gift, the Jamboree T-shirt, and is now a father and living with his family in another town. More recently, we were visited by Shaunice Harris, who was a member, on scholarship, of Carla and Jody’s children’s theater troupe and one of Tennessee’s close friends. She now works as a dentist’s assistant in Atlanta. Candace Walker, my fellow crime fighter and a single mother, raised Shaunice and her two brothers.

All are achievers.

Ishmael Reed is a writer of plays, poetry, novels, and songs. His poem “Pluto and Luca Walk into a Bar” appeared in Alta, Spring 2019.

Continue reading: “My Neighborhood,” the 1983 prequel to this essay.