Can you Love a City?

Since coming back to Oakland I’ve been trying to tease out what kind of relationship I have with my old town. I spent some very formative years here. My folks moved us to Oakland from Santa Barbara in 1968. I remember sitting in the back of our station wagon as we drove north on US 101 that September and wondered what my parents were thinking. We had it all. Santa Barbara had beaches. The weather was perfect. I loved my school. And there was Karen Calene. I was just starting 6th grade and my love life was being interrupted by a senseless change of venue.

Settling into our new town was slow. Our new next door neighbors were eccentric. It was foggy. Even though our new school was just a short distance from home it was a scary walk. Instead of the flat streets of our Santa Barbara subdivision, our new home sat on a curvy, hilly road. There were no sidewalks and splitting the distance between a deep ravine and the rushing cars was a little unnerving. And while there were some nice kids at Joaquin Miller Elementary, I still missed Karen Calene.

It took me well into the 7th grade to really begin to like living in Montclair. My homeroom teacher during my 3 years at Montera (a fun-loving German teacher named Mrs. Mahabir) helped me gain my legs with the ladies, introducing me to a pair of beauties in German class. “Wie geht es dir?” Sue and Sylvia helped make Karen Calene a fading memory. Oakland was turning out to be a pretty nice place to live.

High school was really fun. I met other girls, I learned to speak better German, and Santa Barbara became a place where one might go on vacation, but who’d want to live there? The late 60s and early 70s in the Bay Area were groovy. My parents would take us down to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. In our early days we’d drive down the street and stare at National Guardsmen who were looking warily at hippies dressed in colorful rags. Eventually the Guard disappeared and the street was walkable. I bought my first suit when I was a senior in high school at a store on Telegraph — it was a white linen suit. French cut and altered to fit just right. I wore it on graduation night and when Jon and I took dates to a Stevie Wonder concert at the Cow Palace.

Oakland was the center of our universe. We were perfectly situated — close enough to San Francisco to enjoy the theatre and urban culture, but we lived on the warmer, sunnier side of the bay. Close enough to the colorful culture of Berkeley to visit on occasion. At one point my dad was considering a call to a church on the far western side of San Francisco, the foggier side. We kids were against it.

High school gave way to Summer theatre at Woodminster, some classes at UC Berkeley, and a fun job teaching motor development at Thornhill Elementary School. “Motor” (as we called it) was built around the theory that kids learned to read more easily if they developed good physical agility and used gross, oppositional locomotive skills on a regular basis. This is where I officially met the woman who would later become my wife. She taught motor, too.

Anna and I married. We had a son. We moved to Los Angeles (there were reasons) but we missed Oakland. We moved back and had another son. Our boys attended Joaquin Miller Elementary School. We had been here for a few years when things started to feel crumbly. Teachers went on strike. The school district felt kind of iffy. We were not in a financial position to send the boys to a private school. Most of my work was starting to be in Silicon Valley. I had an aunt and uncle living in Palo Alto who called us one day to say they had seen a really great house for rent very near where they lived. We bit the bullet and pulled up stakes and headed to the Peninsula.

It was more costly to live there, but I was much closer to my clients, and the school district didn’t feel so iffy. Moving to Palo Alto was a little cheaper than paying private school tuition. We liked a lot about Palo Alto, but there was also something off-putting about the conspicuous display of materialism during the internet bubble. That bubble burst for us in the end of 2001 and we decided to head east. We drove out across the plains to the bluffs of the Mississippi river, settling in Moline near my brother Jon and his family. The towns of Rock Island and Moline were places with significant family heritage, and we lived there in relative contentment for 7 years.

Now we’re back in Oakland. And it seems right that we would want to love our new/old hometown. But years of separation have not totally erased the memory of why we left. We’re not coming here as complete strangers. We see a town that is still struggling to find its footing. A place where there is still a big gap between those who are well off and those who don’t have enough. It’s a town with many faces and a place that refuses to be defined in simple terms. Oakland is a place with tremendous opportunity, and that opportunity exists because Oakland is a struggling city, a place with tremendous challenges.

You don’t love this place like a fifth grader loves the cute girl down the street. You love this town because it’s complex. This is a town that makes you mad. It gets you riled up because the people who are supposed to keep the town safe have frequently been part of the force that knocks the town off balance. You love this town because it needs to be loved. It needs that mature kind of love that us older folks feel for the people that we’ve lived with all our lives. I know my breath is bad in the morning, and I know I snore most of the night, but Anna still loves me. I’m barely recognizable as the handsome young man, full of promise and hope that she married. That young man was easy to love. Loving me today is hard work. But Anna does it because it needs to be done. Her love is what keeps me from turning into a cranky old man.

There are a lot of pleasant things about the town, easy reasons to love Oakland. There are great restaurants, and the weather is nearly perfect all year round. There are nice places to walk and interesting places to drink coffee. But there is also devastating poverty. There is violent crime. Our school district is struggling to give every kid in town a decent education (and the kids deserve better than just “decent”). There is hatred and mistrust. There is fear.

Loving a city means finding ways to work for justice. Finding ways to overcome racism, to overcome fear, to make peace. We need to confront our city’s problems with creativity and thoughtfulness. This city needs our love. It needs a positive, unconditional, paradigm shifting kind of love.

I’m finding it hard to love some of the things I’ve seen and read about Oakland, but this is the place I’ve chosen to live. Hating and fearing this town won’t make it better. I’ve only got one choice for being happy and fulfilled in my new life here. I’ve got to love this town.

Tuesday January 5, 2010 — Mark —