Curse of Geography: Lower Bottoms
Curse of Geography (9/9)

Curse of Geography: Lower Bottoms

The dense and layered sociocultural fabric of West Oakland – a fascinating mix of the sub/urban, industrial, and historic – has faded from public recollection yet retains a character that persists despite the dispossession the neighborhood has endured for decades.

As I wander along 7th Street, I take photos of graffiti—fresh, colorful, straight letters, burners and fill-ins. Along with all that remains of this once vibrant, pulsing cultural hub are commemorative plaques dedicated to artists and community leaders embedded in the sidewalk leading to the West Oakland BART station: a mural of activists Yuri Kochiyama and Angela Davis, a handful of nondescript historic landmarks and lingering mementos of the many great advancements that African Americans and immigrants struggled to achieve on these very streets. Battles lost, and won. And lost again. 

The blade signs outside Esther’s Orbit Room are empty. Its rusting frames and decades-old hand-painted façade are well worn, barely catching the eye of passersby. This short stretch of road was for decades an essential cultural corridor for the growing African American middle class. Slim Jenkins Supper Club, Creole Café, Lincoln Theatre, and Ester’s formed the epicenter of this cultural ecosystem. Along with New Orleans and Memphis, 7th Street in West Oakland was a destination for jazz musicians and aficionados from around the country and world to make pilgrimage. On any given night at Esther’s you might have run into the likes of Al Green, B.B. King, Etta James, and Tina Turner.

“The Grand Lady of 7th Street” Esther Mabry opened the club in 1950 and remained at the center of the West Oakland cultural scene until its shuttering in 2006. Walking along 7th Street towards the water, try as I may, it is nearly impossible to imagine the bustling splendor that preceded this abject desolation—the West Oakland that was once referred to as the “Harlem of the West Coast.”

A BART train screeches by overhead as an armada of 18-wheelers wait to enter the port—whistling and groaning belligerently as they start and stop, inching forward in painfully slow increments. Addicts and drunkards are scattered about, stumbling through a food desert paved with litter, never very far from the one local liquor store that happens to stock some basic sundries. Twenty-two Super Post-Panamax Cranes rise from the horizon, a roost of ominous sentinels guarding the countless freight containers stacked like coffins. They loom over the bay, casting a shadow over the clusters of ragtag homeless encampments. 

The rise and fall of West Oakland has been shaped by the successive waves of migration from the late 1800s into the 1960s. The shipping yards and the railway depot attracted migrant workers from Mexico, Puerto Rico, China, Japan and from across Europe, who formed ethnic enclaves, of which there remain traces of influence today. In 1867, two years after slavery was abolished, the Pullman Car Company—the first luxury sleeper trains that carried well-to-do passengers across the country in grand style and comfort—was founded. The staff were almost entirely African Americans, and though the work was akin to indentured servitude, the job offered a stable paycheck and mobility. As the terminus of the continental railway system, West Oakland was the gateway to a coastal “promised land” for those African Americans wishing to distance themselves from the state-sanctioned violence and open racism of the South and create new possibilities for prosperity during the Jim Crow era. 

Passengers on the Pullman sleepers, refusing to acknowledge their individual names, referred to all the staff as “George”, referencing their collective employer George Pullman. A malignant practice presumably derived from the custom of naming slaves after their “owners.” Along with enduring second-class citizenship, ire was fomented amongst the porters, and in 1925 they formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), the first African American-led labour union in the United States, laying groundwork for the Civil Rights movement that would explode decades later. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the BSCP served as connective tissue between African American communities across North America and at its height had a membership of 18,000 porters spanning the United States, Mexico, and Canada. It served as an aboveboard railway, circulating news of employment and emerging political ideologies from the west coast to the east and south of the country and vice-versa. The transcontinental rail lines formed an axis of connectivity and activism that integrated revolutionary internationalism and workers’ rights, and cultivated a broad-based coalition for progressive social change that sought to advance opportunity, prosperity, and quality of life for African Americans.

Beginning in the 1950s, this corner of West Oakland came to be known as the Lower Bottoms, following the construction of the Cypress Freeway extension that effectively severed West Oakland in two. Six hundred families were forced from their homes. Three years after its completion, 12 square blocks of Victorian homes on the south side of 7th Street were demolished, displacing another 400 families. The impact looms today in haunting, post-Industrial pockets of BROKEN WINDOWS and URBAN BLIGHT. 

Under the guise of URBAN REVITALIZATION, public works projects advanced under the Housing Act of 1949 enabled and justified forced displacement and theft of minority home ownership via eminent domain, and, as always, in the name of the greater common good. Community efforts to lobby for subsidies to refurbish their properties were routinely ignored. As the national competition to modernize American cities commenced, deliberate incisions by way of new INFRASTRUCTURE were made.  Block after block, aging homes were razed, dispossessing owners of their real estate and effectively dismembering West Oakland’s thriving African American middle class.

Blatantly prejudicial public policies, not well disguised behind the inherently racist framing of URBAN RENEWAL, were the mechanisms for casually uprooting and forcing entire neighbourhoods into cramped public housing with no further options for property ownership and accumulated wealth. Six city blocks and 500 homes were destroyed in the heart of the neighbourhood for the construction of the Oakland Main Post Office in 1960. The ACORN housing projects and the elevated BART rail line running above 7th Street, which followed suit, landed devastating blows to the community. As elsewhere, the BART was purported as a developmental advancement that would bring prosperity and employment to the neighbourhood. Instead, it instrumentalized West Oakland’s geographic positioning as a through line of prosperity and employment between the predominantly white communities of San Francisco and sub/urban Oakland.

By the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing and URBAN PLANNING had been fully weaponized as a subversive measure to neutralize African American progress and demands for equality; a “kinder, gentler, machine-gun hand,” as Neil Young put it. It should come as no surprise that West Oakland in the late 1960s would be the birthplace of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the larger Black Power Movement. It would also be the site of its symbolic death in 1989—amidst the ravaged backdrop of the crack epidemic—when co-founder Huey P. Newton was gunned down in West Oakland by a rival Black Power group in what was presumably a drug deal gone sour. 

From its inception, the BPP was outmanned, out-resourced, and out-gunned by local law enforcement and undercover agents assigned to the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had long pursued an aggressive campaign to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” prominent African American community leaders. In 1969, the FBI began targeting high level Black Panther Party members and set in motion a theatre of calculated subterfuge, political sabotage, unlawful incarceration, and planned assassinations intended to discredit the Black Power Movement as a violent criminal network and demoralize its members. 

Through the 1970s, working in tandem with city officials, the federal government manifested a desperate landscape of disillusionment and immobility for African Americans, not much different than plantation life. And in its legal ambiguity and cultural opacity, an extension of white supremacy that commuted the delegitimized function of slavery to a legitimized system of mass incarceration.

West Oakland became synonymous with unemployment, addiction, mental illness, homelessness, violence, pollution, contamination, and in its final act, gentrification. There is no shortage of research and writing on the engineering of URBAN BLIGHT, through the mechanics of URBAN RENEWAL and facilitated by the brutal, invasive tactics of the WAR ON DRUGS: CRIMINALIZATION, VIOLENT POLICING, and MASS INCARCERATION. Yet, somehow this very recent history has been completely obfuscated (I, as a fairly well schooled individual, had never heard of the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters at all), by a state and a news media that wilfully denies or sugarcoats the patterned brutality—physical, psychological, and systemic— inflicted upon working class people of colour in this country.

By the 1980s, the lustre of West Oakland’s cultural and socioeconomic heyday was being lost to unalleviated poverty, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, and co-related violence. The neighbourhood today, with all its innate eccentricities and extraordinary historical value, remains an emaciated shadow of its former self and a case study of the insidious racism of urban development in the United States. Vagrants, descendants of a once-thriving citizenry deprived of opportunity and dispossessed by blatantly racist public policies, now roam West Oakland’s cold, damp underpasses and homeless shantytowns, muttering obscenities and summoning deities in post-industrial desolation. 

Despite the litany of abuses that the Lower Bottoms has withstood, somehow there is a palpable kindness and camaraderie when walking these streets. Almost every person you pass shares an acknowledgement, simple head nods and hand waves, an easy “Good Morning.” Even the addicts and the drunkards here are polite and friendly, offering a joke, a smile, or a story for a loose cigarette or change, with no angry rebuke for having neither to share. 

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