Blues City: A Walk in Oaklandby Ishmael Reed
Often overshadowed by San Francisco, its twinkling sister city across the Bay, Oakland is itself an American wonder. The city is surrounded by and filled with natural beauty—mountains and hills and lakes and a bay—and architecture that mirrors its history as a Spanish mission, Gold Rush outpost, and home
Oakland is a blues city, brawling and husky . . .
Often overshadowed by San Francisco, its twinkling sister city across the Bay, Oakland is itself an American wonder. The city is surrounded by and filled with natural beauty—mountains and hills and lakes and a bay—and architecture that mirrors its history as a Spanish mission, Gold Rush outpost, and home of the West’s most devious robber barons. It’s also a city of artists and blue-collar workers, the birthplace of the Black Panthers, neighbor to Berkeley, and home to a vibrant and volatile stew of immigrants and refugees.
In Blues City, Ishmael Reed, one of our most brilliant essayists, takes us on a tour of Oakland, exploring its fascinating history, its beautiful hills and waterfronts, and its odd cultural juxtapositions. He takes us into a year in the life of this amazing city, to black cowboy parades and Indian powwows, to Black Panther reunions and Gay Pride concerts, to a Japanese jazz club where a Lakota musician plays Coltrane’s “Naima.” Reed provides a fascinating tour of an un-tamed, unruly western outpost set against the backdrop of political intrigues, ethnic rivalries, and a gentrification-obsessed mayor, opening our eyes not only to a singular city, but to a newly emerging America.
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Unlike Oakland writer Joaquin Miller, whose The Destruction of Gotham (1886) painted a grim portrait of New York, or Jack London and George "the Greek" Sterling, whose experiences in New York were depressing, or Bret Harte, who went broke there after the novelty of being a cowboy writer wore off, I was spoiled by New York. Western writers, at least in the view of urbane easterners, have usually been classified as cranks. Jack London, a socialist, cussed out some wealthy New Yorkers, and the western-style dress of London and Joaquin Miller was viewed with amused curiosity by New Yorkers. Much later, San Francisco writer Richard Brautigan continued the tradition of wowing easterners with frontier attire and manners. He'd be dressed as a cowboy when I used to meet him at 1 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village for lunch in the 1960s. This eccentricity seemed to be provoked by the westerner's presence in the hostile East.
But I had the opposite experience. It wasn't New York that frustrated me but San Francisco. In 1958, when I was twenty, I traveled to the city from my hometown of Buffalo in a beat-up car with two friends, an Italian-American named David and a Native American named Kirk. Kirk drove. Of course, we didn't know he was Native American until he slammed the brakes in anger when David, upon seeing some Native Americans on the street, remarked, "Look at those drunken Indians." Once the car had come to a sudden stop, Kirk said, "You've been seated next to one all day." We hadn't realized he was drunk, either.
We hung around North Beach for a couple of months but, unable to find jobs, headed back to Buffalo. The police stopped us for speeding near North Platte, Nebraska, and arrested Kirk. We were stranded. David and I went to a local restaurant to figure out a plan when, overhearing our predicament, the strawberry-haired waitress told us to go to her house and have dinner. She said that her sister was home. I think that I must have been one of the few blacks in town, because as we were headed to the waitress's house, an Indian woman, sitting in a passing truck, pointed at me frantically. The driver, a black man, saw me and, with a startled look, began to wave. He waved until the truck was out of sight. I was a kind of celebrity, accorded the kind of treatment that black American celebrities received in Europe at the timea combination of shock and fascination. It was an exciting week all around in North Platte: In addition to the presence of a second real, live black man, a man claiming to be Buffalo Bill's grandson, goatee and all, was putting on a show.
Later that day I went to the judge's house and explained to him that we had to be back at school the following Monday. He was seated in a rocking chair and wearing a top hat like the one Lincoln used to wear. He ordered that Kirk be released, and we made it back to Buffalo. After the coldness of San Francisco, where we were dependent upon the hospitality of a few friends to keep us alive, I had welcomed the warmth of North Platte, Nebraska. I will never forget North Platte, Nebraska.
I began writing in Buffalo, New York, and in my late teens, I collaborated with some black intellectuals to build a theater group at the black YMCA, but I was getting nowhere. In 1960 I was living in the Talbert Mall projects (named for a black abolitionist) and stuck in a marriage that was destructive for my young wife, our child, and me. My main problem was that I couldn't find a job that paid a decent salary, and even though I had a few years of college, no white-collar firm would have me. I remember answering an ad for Allstate Insurance and the personnel person saying that he liked the way I sounded on the phone. He asked me to come to his suburban office for an interview. I naively thought that I had the job, even went out and bought a new suit. But when I showed up for the interview, he took one look and told me that there was nothing for me. I tried to get a job at IBM as a salesperson, but the interviewer said that my math was bad. There were no equal-opportunity or affirmative-action provisions in those days. I couldn't even get a job as a laborer at the plant where my stepfather worked. Buffalo, a manufacturing town in those days, had been good to him and my mother, who were part of the 1940s migration from the South. He told me, when I announced that I was moving to New York City, "If you can't make it in Buffalo, you can't make it anywhere." I was stuck at a low-paying job at General Hospital on High Street, and often I would go to the bar, located a block away from the projects, and play "Please Mr. Postman" by the Marvelettes. I wanted someone to deliver a message that would get me out of my situation. I was writing a play and acting in local theater productions, but outlets for such expression were limited in Buffalo.
One weekend in 1962 I went to New York and hung out at a tavern called Chumley's on Bedford Street in Greenwich Village. On the walls, the book jackets of famous authors who'd drank there, people like Edna St. Vincent Millay, were on display. Hooked on the literary life, I left Buffalo for New York in 1962. I was twenty-two years old. I joined the Umbra workshop of African-American writers, and attended parties where Norman Mailer, Ralph Ellison, Amiri Baraka, and James Baldwin were holding forth. By the time I was twenty-seven, I had a book contract with Doubleday, thanks to the assistance of poet Langston Hughes and the late editor Anne Freedgood.
Boxer Mike Tyson once defined tragedy as giving millions of dollars to a twenty-year-old. I didn't receive even $1 million, but I was still not ready for early literary success. I messed up. Drank too much. Talked too much. Left a trail of hurt feelings. I wasn't used to such attention. My poetry was quoted in the New York Times. My name was dropped in gossip columns. I wasn't up to the dinners held in my honor at Doubleday's town house, the adulation of women, the fame that accompanied being young, gifted, and black in the New York of the 1960s. The jacket of my first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, was put up on the wall at Chumley's months before the book itself had even come out.
I was living with a dancer/choreographer named Carla Blank. We had an apartment on Twenty-third Street in Chelsea. Carla was a star among an avant-garde group of dancers and artists that included Meredith Monk, Elaine Summers, and Sally Gross. Her last major public performance in New York, with collaborator Suzushi Hanayagi, titled The Wall Street Journal, had received a standing ovation and cheers at Judson Church. But we both felt a need for change. For new challenges.
I tell people that if I'd remained in New York, I would have been murdered by affection. Indeed New York's ability to absorb talent is one of the reasons that among American cities, it's still the most brilliant. But such affection can lull you into apathy. Alfred Kazin told Ralph Ellison that if he hadn't spent so much time hanging out at "21," Ellison could have finished his second novel, whereupon a scuffle reportedly ensued. Ellison wore out his welcome among the literati, and by the time he made a public break with his sponsors it was too late. He'd lost his creative juice. My solution to wearing out my welcome was to leave, and in 1967 Carla and I went to Los Angeles. We spent a very frugal summer there. She worked as a theater instructor at Eddie Rickenbacker's camp in the mountains. Because I had received an advance from Doubleday, I was able to remain in our apartment in Echo Park Canyon, working on my second novel, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, a deconstructionist Western, before the term became an American academic buzzword.
In September we traveled to Berkeley. We found an apartment in a ticky-tack and waited for the publication of my first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers. The book came out and nothing happened. Of course, had I remained in New York there would have been the network interviews, the parties and bookstore appearances, but I was on the West Coast, which Mike Gold, the New York communist writer of the 1930s, described as a sanatorium. I could just as soon have been in another country. We were broke, but a couple of days after I'd returned from the Berkeley unemployment office, I got a call from the late Thomas Parkinson, then professor of English at U.C. Berkeley, inviting me to teach. That was 1968. I've been teaching there ever since.
At first I lived in different Berkeley neighborhoods. I wrote Mumbo Jumbo, my third and best-known novel, in an apartment that was part of a huge house with a Japanese garden. It was located on Bret Harte Way, named for the famous Oaklander and chronicler of western lore. By the late seventies Carla and I were living in El Cerrito, a small, conservative town with a lot of gun shops on the main drag, located north of Berkeley. In 1979 we began house hunting in Oakland, although it had a bad reputation and I had reservations about moving there. (I had even made some unfair and disparaging remarks about the town in The Last Days of Louisiana Red, published in 1974.) We were about to decide upon a purchase of a house on Market Street when poet Victor Cruz's then-wife Alicia told us that the house we wanted was around the corner. She'd had a dream of our buying a house in Oakland and the house around the corner was a match for the one she'd seen in her dream. It was a huge Queen Anne Victorian in dilapidated condition. Having a mother whose psychic abilities are acute, I decided to take Alicia's advice. We bought it. Her wisdom has been borne out; over the years we've nearly restored the home to its original splendor.
In 1979, when I moved to Oakland, the city was a model for black power, partially due to the efforts of the Black Panther party, which had helped to transform the city from a feudal backwater run by a few families to a modern city with worldwide recognition. From the seventies through the nineties, there was a black mayor, a black symphony conductor, a black museum head, black members of the black city council, and, in Robert Maynard, the only black publisher of a major news daily. Mayor Lionel Wilson, whom the Panthers wanted to lead a nationalist surge like Sun Yat-sen, a U.S. congressman, supervisors, and other black elected officials openly attributed their electoral success to support from the Black Panther party.
The Panthers supported the campaign of our current mayor, Jerry Brown, too, and the scene at his commune after he'd won the mayoral election in 1999 resembled a Black Panther party reunion. But soon the Panthers and many other black supporters broke with Brown. The decline of Oakland's black power began with the election of Brown, whom some say deceived his progressive black supporters with anticorporate broadcasts aired on Pacifica Radio's KPFA before the election. He wouldn't be the first Oakland mayor elected through the efforts of blacks only to abandon them once in office; a progressive conservationist mayor had done the same thing more than a hundred years earlier. The only reminder of the power that blacks once wielded might be the names of black leaders etched on downtown buildings, the post office, a courthouse, and the federal and state buildings, like monuments to now-forgotten pharaohs covered by desert sand or the Oakland schools and streets now named for forgotten invaders from New Spain (Mexico). But now that many of Brown's policies have failed, Wilson Riles Jr., the mayor's opponent in the last election, predicted that African-American influence was making a comeback, and that the mayor's much ballyhooed plan to draw middle-income blacks and hi-techers at the expense of low-income blacks would fail. A couple of days after interviewing Wilson Riles Jr. for this book, my daughter Tennessee and I ran into Dori Maynard, daughter of the late Robert Maynard, at DeLauer's, Oakland's all-night newsstand. As if to confirm Riles's comment about a black comeback, Dori said that she and some other black Oaklanders were restoring a Victorian block in West Oakland under a first-time home ownership plan, planting roots.
Still, as a result of Brown's "elegant density" plan announced during his 1999 campaignnicknamed "10K" because it aimed to bring ten thousand new residents into downtown Oaklandmany poor residents and residents of modest means are finding themselves priced out of the city. Brown had promised that this wouldn't happen. He described his elegant density plan in a speech that was reprinted in a 1999 article in Whole Earth magazine: "He wants to create construction jobs and stimulate the retail and entertainment sectors. He's trying to bring 10,000 people to live downtown. He's trying not to overwhelm these areas with too much new traffic or turn downtown Oakland into a gentrified hub at the expense of low-income residents."
To provide a model city for elegant density, Brown invoked Manhattan.
Meet the Author
shmael Reed has taught at Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth and has long been on the faculty at U.C. Berkeley. Reed is the award-winning author of more than twenty books—novels, essays, plays, and poetry—that have been translated into seven languages. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and was twice nominated for the National Book Award. He lives in Oakland, California.
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