Tuesday, June 14, 2011

History Class/ Class History

I love houses with history. Even better, I love neighborhoods with history. My family is about to move into the Prescott subdivision of West Oakland into a house that was built in 1891. We will be the first family to live in this home since the current company took possession and refurbished it. Before that it seems to have sat empty for a few years after a foreclosure. If you look at Google maps, you see a much worse neighborhood than what currently stands. The city of Oakland has been putting more and more into the area since the Loma Prieta quake and the improvements are spreading outward in a somewhat staggered way.

I learned a bit about the neighborhood here: West Oakland on Wikipedia.

"In the 1880s and 1890s, a large number of shops and small and medium-sized houses were built to accommodate the large number of European Americans, African Americans, Portuguese, Irish, Mexicans, Japanese, and Chinese immigrants who settled in West Oakland. Many African Americans were employed as porters for the Pullman Palace Car Company, and the headquarters of their union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was at 5th and Wood Streets. The writer Jack London lived in West Oakland in the late 19th century, and his novel Valley of the Moon is set in West Oakland. Many of the houses built in that period are still standing today and make up the quaint character of the neighborhood."

The area has always been working class and easily fell into decline. In the 60s it was home to the Black Panther Movement and the neighborhood earned a bad reputation. Today there is a lot going on to improve the area, bring in artists & businesses, and improve the lives of the people already there. There is still work to do, which is readily apparent when you drive from one neighborhood to the next, but the wheels in motion are visible. I am looking forward to learning more about what's going on and writing about it, but so far I see a growing local foods co-operative, urban farming complete with an entire lot of chickens(!), and a group started by a couple single mothers trying to teach poor women to grow their own organic food and cook healthy foods for their kids. Across the street from our new place there is a lot that has 16 large raised beds in it that appear to need attention. My curiosity set in motion a lot of late night research into what is going on there. (When I have an answer, you'll hear about it here.)

Yesterday we took a walk through the neighborhood, first passing the office of the Service Worker's Union, offering help to the underpaid worker. As we passed various houses, I took inventory of the herbs growing in people's yards and couldn't help but run my hand along the rosemary sticking itself bravely through a fence over the sidewalk. It smelled delicious. There were also lavender and mints and various others (and later in the walk we found morning glories!). Jamie and I were really struck by how polite everyone was. Nearly every person we walked past greeted us, and there were a lot of people out walking, socializing or just sitting on the porch enjoying the warm weather. Most of the people in the neighborhood are African-American or Hispanic, so when we passed some shrubbery and came into view of a white man about our age with about as many tattoos as us as well, we saw him jump noticeably with surprise. He was on the phone, yet he still took a moment to say hello to us with a huge smile. We are certainly not in San Jose.

When you stand on the sidewalk and look at our new place, to the left is a brightly painted Victorian that shows the character of the family living there. They have two dogs, one a beagle with quite a voice. To the left of them is an 1890s multi-family building that is not neglected but could use a little attention. To the right is the house that intrigues me the most. Built in 1901, the place seems to be empty. The windows are mostly covered in paper from the inside and the paint and woodwork could use some love. It isn't trashed, just untended. The grass is cut and shows that someone cares at least a little bit. Ariel views on Google maps show this to be the largest lot in the area and I can see the backyard from ours, so I know this is likely true. I asked our property manager and found out that there is an old woman living there who refuses to leave. She raised her kids in that house and she won't give it up. It is her kids who come by to care for the yard and try to do what they can. Online research shows that she has had possession of that house since the year I was born and it hasn't been renovated at all since 1905 according to public records. The assessed property value is $12,000. (Can you imagine what will happen when she dies? Wow...) We were warned that we would eventually meet her and may never forget having done so. She's got some attitude.

I am, I admit, an eternal optimist and lover of adventure, but I think we will be ok here. I get a good feeling from this neighborhood and I'm ready to put my love into the mix. Around the corner lives a friend of Jamie's dad who I am sure we will connect with soon and I have plenty of family and friends nearby. Our property managers are great people who just feel at ease and happy. They've done great things with our new place and we're all looking forward to moving in and setting up our homestead there.

I will keep researching the history and when I get a chance to I am going to go by that lot of chickens on Mandela Parkway and get some pictures. I think it was at 10th street.

A few local links:
Mandela Foods Cooperative
GreenSoul Movement
The Crucible
Engineered Artworks
City Slicker Farms

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