Posts Tagged 'Oakland'



Hipsters Vs. Homeys: Oakland YouTube Travel Guides

“Oh hell no,” the text read. “Hipster douches filming Oakland travel video outside the shop.”

This was my best friend, writing from her post behind the counter of Tattoo 13. For years, she and the fellas have maintained a comical running commentary on the goings on of the now-trendy Temescal neighborhood, knowing every event, incident and wily character within a 10-block radius. Of course, she’d be the first person I’d hear about such shenanigans from.

It actually turned out pretty good, with the bit filmed in front of the shop capturing hipster sentiment with striking accuracy. Amid the recent annoyance over the woefully narrow Cool Hunting’s Oakland Word-of-Mouth Guide, I was inspired to dig the “hipster douche” video back up, and discovered some other YouTube gems along the way. And I hate to say it, I think the douches did it best. Or at least the most forthrightly.

Cool Hunting promotes independent art and design, featuring video guides on artists, cultural events, how-tos and destinations. The most recent installment visits independent businesses and local artists in Oakland, interviewing “the people who call it home.” They hit some great, popular local spots, but there’s a problem—the video only visits a very narrow section of the population, and the city. Businesses featured are almost exclusively in the North Oakland/Temescal and Downtown/Uptown areas, and, um, all the people interviewed are white. There’s a lot more white people in Oakland these days, but not that many.

Perhaps in an attempt to be inclusive, the video includes a couple shots of non-white, non-artist folks. They exist as passing, silent figures, riding bikes and making sandwiches—almost as though on another plane. I think it’s rather telling; I’m sure there’s people who’ve moved to Oakland that interact solely with the arts/”yuppie” communities, who experience the rest of the city only in tangent, realities that intersect on sidewalks and in cheap cafes, but no where else. I’m stoked to see my city getting recognition, but sad to see the guide left out so much of the city, what makes Oakland Oakland.

On the complete other side of spectrum, I stumbled across Thizz Nation’s neighborhood guides during my YouTube quest for the “hipster douche” video. Amid Mac Dre’s ever-generous contributions to Bay Area culture (I’m not really being sarcastic here), his Thizz Nation & On Point Productions created Treal TV Series, video guides that feature notorious Bay Area neighborhoods that birthed prominent figures in the rap community. (If you’re wondering what “thizz” is, check out old high school buddy Rachel Swan’s East Bay Express article from a few years back.) Installments include North, West and East Oakland.

I’m convinced these will someday be used as important specimens in some cultural anthropological study of Oakland. These guides do a little more to reveal the history and culture of certain neighborhoods, as rugged as they may be. But of course, they are also terribly narrow, and could leave one with the impression that Oakland is filled with nothing but 20-something, hard-as-shit black guys. Murder Dubs was one of the better ones:

A stab at a more balanced portrayal is made in the endearing “Oakland B Mine” video. A trailer for a short film that will be showing on a 30-foot screen at the Oakland Airport’s baggage claim, “Oakland B Mine” is pretty damn sweet. I never thought of my city being the backdrop for an artsy dialogue-less love story, but hey, I can roll with that. The trailer features some shots of everyone’s favorite farmers market (okay, my favorite farmers market), and the bad-ass old folks that do Tai Chi by the Lake Merritt BART station in the morning. While definitely more balanced and definitely the most well-done, one could still walk away from this one with the idea that Oakland is filled with nothing but good-looking, casually well-dressed hiply ethnic types. Which is fairly accurate, but still incomplete.

Which leaves the douches. While still narrow and incomplete, their video does something the others all don’t: makes fun of itself. It doesn’t just make fun of hipsters and gentrifying yuppies, it makes fun of cheesy travel guides and the abhorrent “staycation” phenomenon. But most importantly, the video gets at some of the very real issues inherent to living in Oakland, the preposterous dysfunction that manifests in sideshows, prostitution and, yes, the smells emanating from the Lake. And while the underlying message is that Oakland is “crappy,” the video captures the kind of delusional exoticism so many fall spell to.

Leave it to the hipsters…

Thanks for Nothing / Everything

I celebrated this Thanksgiving at two long-standing Oakland events: Thanks for Nothing, the legendary potluck of punk debauchery, and my family’s annual Day-After-Thanksgiving party, legendary in its own right. Both events were a little less epic this year, with an intimacy that reminded me of what’s good about Thanksgiving and about family—as untraditional as they may come.

Anyone in the East Bay who’s ever donned liberty spikes and a studded anything has gone to Thanks for Nothing. And possibly passed out at it. Now in its 18th year, the Thanksgiving potluck is an Oakland punk tradition, a place for all the family-less kids in black to come together, at picnic tables under jimmied lights, and create their own family.

Of course, by “kids” I mean “punks” and not kids at all, anymore. These are the die-hards, wearing smile wrinkles and old band shirts—the folks that, once the scene-ness melts away, once all the other folks have grown out of what was just a phase, are still there, purely for the love of it. Punk may be mostly dead, but it’s not all-the-way dead; it just lives in the hearts of a small handful. And, on Thanksgiving, in an East Oakland backyard.

Thanks for Nothing has taken on a larger-than-life status; the woman that puts in on is convinced that even if she were out of town one year, people would still show up. They didn’t pump it too much this year—no flyers or MySpace posts, just word-of-mouth—and the result was a smaller, friendlier crowd, that was also a bit tamer. The event historically gets increasingly raucous as the evening progresses; as the steam from the turkey table cools and the toddlers konk out, staggering, slurring sing-alongs ensue (among other things). This year, the pot food table was nearly empty and the jar of homemade Bailey’s went fast, but the Jell-O shots were plentiful, tossed around in a haphazard game of catch that somehow didn’t end in neon goo being splattered across someone’s head.

Despite the uber-punk name, this year’s Thanks for Nothing felt more about community than anything else. Family, as most travelers know, isn’t really about blood lines; it’s got little to do with genes or ethnicity or even, as we learn on the road, nationality. Family’s about people that share similar values and perspectives coming together and sharing, growing together. (And at Thanks for Nothing, singing along to Cock Sparrer together.) It sounds more one-love than punk, more Berkeley than Oakland, but sometimes it takes unexpected manifestations to drive a point home.

But most of my “family” growing up wasn’t about blood lines—a lot of Californians’ aren’t. My parents moved my toddler brother and my infant self to California with only one blood relative within 2,000 miles. Once my uncle passed away, it was really just the four of us for holidays. Plus an ever-growing band of fellow Bay Area orphans. It seemed that my dad’s first couple of years in the fire department, he kept having to work Thanksgiving (turkey at the fire house!). So we started having all our family friends over the day after, when we’d sit back and talk and laugh and eat for hours. We invited everyone, and it became a kind of neighborhood affair. A tradition was born, and yesterday, carried into its 22nd year.

Like Thanks for Nothing, we don’t really need to invite people anymore; everyone just knows to show up. Charles deep-fries two turkeys in the driveway, Karen and Jamal make the marshmellow sweet potatoes, Nhu and Jacobo bring the bread pudding, my brother makes the famous firehouse Caesar (I used to make the vegan entree, but those days are long gone…). My parents’ small bungalow overflows; there’s an incessant wait for the one bathroom and a warm glow from the fireplace. It’s consistently one of my favorite days of the year.

The event was smaller this year, just under 60 people, and I had a couple bittersweet moments, missing people who used to come—people who’ve moved, who we’ve lost touch with, but mostly people who’ve passed away. But at the same time, there were folks there that I’ve grown up with, that I’ve known my whole life, that are the aunts and uncles and cousins I otherwise wouldn’t have really had, so many miles and states away.

Family is one of the most important things to me, as traditional or untraditional as mine may be regarded. Of course, much has been written about the “demise” of the American family, and holidays like Thanksgiving hold a particular weight for those from untraditional or un-intact families. But I’d argue that the American family isn’t crumbling, just reshaping; seeing as though this guy got a book deal out of the concept, I don’t think I’m alone. And as travelers know, the traditions of a family are some of the best glimpses you’ll get into a culture—whether it’s making stuffing with your play-cousin, or pounding Jell-O shots with punks. It may not be a Norman Rockwell painting, but it’s as close as some of us get.

The French Won’t Save You: Recklessness, Fear and Safety Abroad

Military chillin in central Bogota

Military, chillin in central Bogota

We’d taken refuge from the soggy Bogota afternoon in the hostel’s dank kitchen, sat drinking coffee and swapping tales. Only my third trip out of the country, I sat quietly, listening to the boys one-up each other. No one could beat the Swede in zip-off pants.

He sat smugly, like a guru, doling out morsels of his tales in titillating tidbits. He’d dyed his hair brown, donned dark contacts, and backpacked through Iran, Iraq, Pakistan. He’d ridden buses rarely, walked mostly, and had almost been killed (purportedly) by an anti-American lynch mob. Sparks of awe and admiration flew from the enthralled eyes of other travelers.

One of the boys in his rapt audience turned to me, suddenly aware of my presence. He quizzed me on my basics: where was I from, how long was I traveling, did I speak Spanish. “What’s your itinerary?” was his final question. I bit my lip as he looked me over, sizing me up for what I was: an early-twenties American girl, not terribly well-traveled, with a mediocre accent and a minimal vocabulary. I recited my basic plan: Bogota, Medellin, Cartegena, Santa Marta and La Ciudad Perdida.

“Hmph,” he snorted. “Typical.” And with that, he turned his attention back to the blond god before him.

Fast forward several years and a couple thousand miles to this afternoon, as I rattled down the uneven pavement of Interstate 880, windows down and blasting NPR (yo, turn it up so it bumps). I’d just caught the beginning of a story on France’s proposal to charge tourists for rescues from risky spots while abroad. The hotly debated bill came about several months ago, prompted by a much-publicized rescue of French citizens who were captured by Somali pirates while pleasure-yachting around the Indian Ocean. Reportedly, public outrage at the travelers’ perceived irresponsibility was intense enough to inspire a bill that would require tourists rescued from dangerous situations abroad to repay rescue costs (aid workers and journalists excluded). A coordinating author from Lonely Planet was on hand to discuss the proposal and its implications, a discussion that centered around issues of travel safety, and real versus perceived dangers abroad.

Here’s something most independent travelers, including myself, rarely check before going abroad: the Department of State’s Current Travel Warnings. When you grow up amid a culture of fear mongering, it’s easy to get desensitized. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you think, the world’s sooo dangerous and I’ll get kidnapped and killed the moment I leave the US. Fear is one of three reasons discussed in Nomadic Matt’s article, Why American Don’t Travel Overseas. Once certain travelers step outside the country and see the rest of the world isn’t the depraved war zone it’s often portrayed to be, they get cocky. And brazen. And sometimes stupid.

Take that to the extreme: extreme tourism. I haven’t heard this term in awhile, but it was tossed around the hostel table in Bogota that afternoon. It refers to a type of off-the-beaten-path thrill-seeking travel that prides itself in brushes with danger. Real danger. As in, I’m-gonna-walk-through-Baghdad-just-to-prove-I-can danger. Implicit in this type of travel, I would argue, are entitlement and bragging rights.

Fresh stencil in Bogota

Fresh stencil in Bogota

Which begs the question: should risk-taking travelers enjoy the luxury of being rescued, at the expense of their countrymen? The French don’t seem to think so. Nor do the Germans. The United States—well, we don’t really need to worry about it, since so few of us travel to begin with. Reportedly vague and insufficient, the French bill also opens the door to a lot of loaded issues—namely, who decides what countries and regions are dangerous, and whether travelers are behaving recklessly?

I’ve been to three gasp-evoking places often deemed too dangerous for travelers (let alone a solo white girl): Caracas, Mexico City, the entire country of Colombia. I didn’t go to any of these places because they were considered dangerous, but despite them being considered dangerous. One I ended up in circumstantially, but the other two I sought out—I’d heard too many good things from other travelers. I did my research. Street sense and good luck got me through unscathed. But there’s certainly people who would have regarded my traveling in these places as reckless, stupid and asking for trouble.

I remember thinking Colombia was a lot like Oakland. Which isn’t true: armed military don’t roll through city streets, and you can’t smoke cigarettes inside shopping malls (not even Eastmont). But both places have a sort of infamy to them, a danger that either lures or deters. As in Oakland, many parts of Colombia feel totally safe; as in Oakland, other parts of Colombia continue to feed the unsafe reputation. To stay safe in Colombia, I did everything I already do in Oakland: don’t go out at night alone, stick to main streets in safe neighborhoods, don’t ride buses at night, check my back like a motherfuck.

The Swedish guy in the Colombian hostel reminded of suburban kids that move into Oakland warehouses (snark alert). They proudly tell you they live in the Lower Bottoms, Murder Dubs, Dirty 30s, Ghost Town. “The thugs aren’t that bad, really,” they tell you. Then, knowingly, as though they’re imparting some great gem of karmic street ethics upon you—“If you don’t bother them, they don’t bother you.” Then they mugged/assaulted/held at gunpoint, and they leave, go back to their suburbs bruised and bitter and hating the town they so recklessly glamorized.

There’s a certain romance with violence and danger that people who have no real experience with violence and danger have. It’s exciting, enlivening, visceral and real. It’s the wild-eyed rapture of Futurists (which for all of their sexism, fascism and idiocy still created some good art). It’s as easy to write off as the uninformed fear that keeps some folks away from Oakland, away from traveling, and comfortably cocooned in familiarity.

But neither side is right, neither view complete. They’re just two sides of the same coin—exoticizing someone else’s world, treating it as the Other, instead of attempting (however falteringly) to meet it, understand it and experience it as it is. Can I claim to have traveled so honorably? Not really. But I can claim to have tried.

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Good times with the Colombian military

Which could all be an elaborate rationalization for why the rules don’t apply to me—why I haven’t gotten into any real trouble while traveling, and why I would surely be rescued in the event of any dire incidents. And not expected to pay for it. (Because, after all, I’m not French.) But I suspect the truth lays somewhere muddled between all this, between embassies and travelers, the frightened and the intrepid, the streets of East Oakland, the seas of Somalia and hostel kitchen tables around the world.

Dos Dias de los Muertos: Oakland Vs. SF Celebrations

DSCN3892It’s not Mexican Halloween. Or Northern Californian Halloween. It’s Dia de los Muertos, and it’s everyone’s holiday now.

You can’t escape Dia de los Muertos in the Bay Area. That’s a good thing. It’s a pretty bad-ass holiday, based in the Aztec belief of death not as a definitive end, but merely a continuation in a parallel form. Aided by elaborate graveside altars, souls of the departed return for one night (traditionally two) to kick it with the living. The celebratory approach towards death comes complete with a comically macabre aesthetic derived largely from a good ole’ revolutionary, Jose Guadalupe Posada (see: my first tattoo).

What makes the holiday fascinating to me is its endurance and evolution. Dia de los Muertos is the little holiday that could: millennia-old, it’s survived colonialism, Catholicism, and more recently, the United States. But while all these outside elements have altered the holiday, the fundamental spirit has managed to survive. Observances vary wildly, both within and outside Mexico, and serve to say a lot about their respective communities (see: my latest Matador article). Case in point? Oakland versus San Francisco celebrations.

The Bay Area’s enormous Hispanic population has two established homebases: East Oakland’s increasingly cleaned-up Fruitvale district, and San Francisco’s contentiously gentrified Mission District (claimed to be birthplace of the burrito). Both host huge Dia de los Muertos celebrations that shut down city blocks and draw thousands with marigold-adorned, incense-laced festivities. Neither celebration is traditional, in the Patzcuaro sense of the term, but neither are the same. They contrast as starkly as an SF hipster’s ironic mullet and an Oakland hyphy  kid’s synthetic dreads.

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International Blvd during the Dia de los Muertos

Oakland celebrates with a family-oriented daytime street fair on the Sunday preceding the holiday, this year November 1. While drawing a healthy cross-section of the city’s ever-diverse population, the event is mostly representative of contemporary Mexican and Latin culture in the Bay Area. Powerhouse Spanish radio stations, La Raza and La Preciosa, set up stages on opposite ends of the festival and vie for on-lookers. Local taquerias set up stands that pump out carne asada smoke, while DIY vendors push helado carts and set up raspado stands. Women hawkers cry, “Churros, Churros, Churros!” while others wrap still-steaming elotes in foil. Local businesses abut booths with corporate superpowers like Safeway, while non-profits erect altars next to those of neighborhood school kids. Dancers decked out in Aztec garb (the feather- and skull-adorned headdresses are bad-ass) break into spontaneous drum-infused performances, and there’s more men in cowboy hats and little girls in mini-skirts than you can count.

DSC_0381On November 2, San Francisco holds an evening procession that a jaded friend of mine has dubbed “Gringos Gone Wild.” True, the participants are largely not of Hispanic decent and, boy, do they get down. People dress up in calavera face paint and elaborate Tim-Burton-esque costumes that I suspect derive from Victorian Catrina dolls. A modest group of Aztec dancers leads the procession, which then follows with revelers of the purely San Franciscan variety: costumed people with politicized signs, curious interpretive dancers, bicycle-powered floats, and a whole lotta candle-clutching white folks. The procession ends at a public park filled with some seriously artistic altars—this year, an anatomical heart suspended by red nerves, a papier-mache carniceria, a parlor scene that looked like the inside of Edward Gorey’s head.

I can see how people get down on San Francisco’s Dia de Los Muertos celebration for not being authentico; I understand why others deem Oakland’s as boring and not creative enough. But isn’t that just an extension of the Oakland-SF rivalry, the cities’ differences demonstrated through the observance of another culture’s holiday?

I’m an Oakland girl, so I’m partial to an event where I run into about a dozen people I know. And if nothing else, the Fruitvale festival is thrilling for the mere fact that Oakland manages to hold a peaceful public festival (I remember seeing stray post-Festival-At-The-Lake rioters pass by the bottom of my block as a kid—that was the end of that neighborhood event). Events like the Dia de los Muertos celebration remind me why I love my hometown—though I never really forget.

DSCN3907At the same time, the Mission procession captures so much of San Francisco’s cultural landscape. Just when you get disheartened, want to write the whole place off as over-priced and gentrified, the city comes through with something insanely creative or beautiful. Despite the changing demographics, beneath the paling population and depressing socioeconomics, San Francisco’s still a city with soul.

And at the center of both of these celebrations is the fact that they don’t derive from, well, here. They aren’t American, have been brought over by immigrants and subsequently Americanized. Some shout cultural appropriation, and, sure, these festivities are a far cry from the all-night graveside vigils I attended last year in Tzintzuntzan. But, at the core of these modern interpretations, both stay true to the fundamentally celebratory Aztec approach of the holiday. And if that’s not survival, I don’t know what is.

There’s No Place like Oakland

3318186624_396e94a2c4_mI’m falling in love with my hometown. Again.

I’ve just come home from six weeks in Iberocco (Spain, Portugal, Morocco). And more than any other homecoming from any other trip, I’ve been struck with a swooning sense of smittendom—for Oakland.

Coming home is always bittersweet. I love so much the headspace of traveling and who I am when I’m on the road—more open and willing to roll with punches, the literal potholes and uneven pavement of shoulderless highways. I love the feeling of constantly learning, constantly adjusting, figuring out buses and city streets and how to say “thank you” in whatever language (“gracias,” “obrigada” and “shokran,” in case you’re wondering). It’s always a serious bummer to board a plane and know that that will soon slip away as I settle back into the familiar, a chrysalis of complacency.

But as the jumbo jet tilted and spun and made its descent into SFO on Wednesday, I had another usual feeling encountered when coming home: awe. Even in my dehydrated, swollen-legged state of sleep deprivation, I was floored by the raw beauty of the Bay Area, its bridges and mountains and tumble of cities. You’d think I’d have gotten used to it by now, desensitized to the rugged coast and smooth blanket of ocean. But no. It still gets me. And, surrounded by eager British tourists, I had a sense of pride—yeah, this is where I’m from.

My dad picked me up, and we chatted about exciting family developments on the drive across the bridge. My brother’s gotten engaged, wedding preparations are in full effect, baby’s on the way. It was one of those perfect Indian summer days in the Bay, and the skyscrapers and billboards of Downtown San Francisco sparkled in the lazy afternoon sun. If you’ve gotta come home to anyway in the US, I’ve always thought, this is about the best place.

And then came Oakland.

We pulled off the freeway, stopped at a light next to a woman singing along to the bass-rattling radio, hyphy dancing in her gleaming-rims car. My dad looked over at me. “Good to be home?”

“You have no idea.”

I love my hometown in a fierce, unexplainable way that transcends the normal no-place-like-home adage. There’s really no where quite like Oakland—at once diverse and vibrant, crime-ridden and corrupt, filled with the tension of violence and drugs, and with a kind of kick-back coolness that gets under people’s skin, infects them with this cursed passion for the place that won’t let them leave.

There’s a reason San Francisco is called The City, and Oakland’s called The Town: it’s a city of neighborhoods, where people say hello and chat with each other. I can’t blame the encroaching tide of gentrifiers for snatching up bungalows, sipping coffee on their porches and talking about how much they love their neighborhoods, their new city, their adopted hometown. Even for the newly arrived, Oakland just feels like home.

And seeing as though I’ve never lived anywhere but Oakland, it’s truly the only place where I feel comfortable, feel like I don’t stand out like the 5’10, tattooed, throbbing sore thumb I am everywhere else. (Even in New York City, I’m constantly being stopped on the subway, the streets, in Jewish delis, and asked where I get my work done—so much for New Yorkers being unfriendly.) Somewhere amid the dreadlocks and full sleeves, the mulleted vaqueros and the clashing-prints Asian immigrants, between the Crod-clad yuppies and the Southern-accented old men, somewhere in the seams of all that, I find this funny feeling of home.

Oakland’s not an easy city to love. My first Matador article was about that, and, judging from the comments, I’m not alone in either my love for Oakland or heartbreaking frustration with it. And, while I really can’t get enough of traveling, of seeing the world and experiencing different cultures, I’m fairly certain that, fuck, Oakland’s got a grip on my heart. I’m a lifer.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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