Why Oakland Is Not Paradise


I didn’t get to busk today. I had to sort out yet another crime-related problem. You see, in the ten years since we’ve become homeowners, we’ve been burglarized twice. The first time, I came home and caught the guy in the house. I wrested my laptop from his hands while screaming curses at the top of my lungs, and was very lucky to only be hit across the face in the process. Honestly, I didn’t notice. The police had to tell me I had blood running down my hand where he’d tried to claw my fingers away from the laptop, and my partner later noticed the bruise on the side of my face. I’d wondered how my glasses ended up across the yard…

My neighbors were no help whatsoever. One ran into her house and slammed the door. Another was home, and later told me he had heard something, but didn’t feel he could come outside to see what was going on. The third watched from across the street as I staggered out onto my porch, then turned around and walked into his house. No one called the police.

We got an alarm after that. It didn’t help. The next set of burglars ripped it out of the wall. Our neighbors were once again home, and did nothing. The police came twelve hours later, after repeated calls. We barred the windows completely after that and we take our electronics with us when we leave. Not that we have much left. We were never able to replace our laptops or the video cameras my partner was hoping to someday make a living with, times being what they are.

The cats set the alarm off last month. The police were called, and never came. We got home three hours later and had the alarm company cancel the police call. I filed a complaint against the police department and my partner talked to the neighbors. Once again, some people had been home and no one had even bothered to check, let alone call the police. Filing a complaint was all we could do, really.

Yesterday I received a bill for a false alarm. Today, I called the officer in charge of our complaint and was completely stonewalled, as I had been when I filed the complaint. They respond to calls according to a priority system and property crimes are lower priority, et cetera, et cetera. And he had no way to deal with the bill, that was something I’d have to take up with the city of Oakland.

It took an hour or so, but I found the right clerical at last, and she was very helpful. My second call had been to the alarm company to get the documentation of what had happened. All I need do is send it to her and the bill will be canceled. Between the file I made of everything I’d done, all the phone calls I had to make, and the navigation of various systems, I’m out two hours and a day of busking. I saved myself almost $100 in fines. The anger and frustration is gravy, and the fear of leaving my house unguarded every day is something I’ve lived with for the last couple of years.

The damage to Oakland is multiplied by all the other homeowners who are in the same position I am, and it is completely unnecessary. In our neighborhood, one house is probably causing most of this. Every house has an alarm on this block, and several of us have been robbed, some more than once. After the first burglary, I saw the man who assaulted me. He saw me too, the way he ducked down on his porch proved that. I did my best to just walk along as if I hadn’t seen him, but as soon as I got around the corner I called the police. After all, they had his fingerprints. I was now able to give them his address. They asked me what I wanted them to do about it. And then they stonewalled me. The neighbors at the time knew of him, they called him “skinny guy.” None of them, even those who had been robbed by him, were willing to talk to the police.

This is a microcosm of the problems that face us all today. We all know what needs to be done, we just don’t want to do it. As neighbors, we need to pay attention to what goes on. We need to check on each other and call the police when necessary. We need to act as if this is home, and as if our actions matter.

The apartment building next door had a robbery averted about four years ago. We heard the break-in and asked, loudly, over the fence, what was going on. The burglar ran. We called the police. It was simple, and it’s what neighbors do, right?

Our actions matter. Just because we can’t solve the whole problem is no reason not to do what we can. Just because we don’t have the power to change things we know are wrong is no reason not to speak up. I can’t clean the whole beach, but I pick up trash all the time. Not all of it, just some, but I leave it a better place than it was when I got there. That’s all I have to do, I only have two small hands. That’s all any of us have to do. Is what we are about to do part of the problem, or part of the solution? That’s the only question we have to ask.

I got an apologetic call back from the police officer who stonewalled me this morning. He said that the bill was their mistake and he would have it cancelled. I didn’t mention the fact that he’d told me of his powerlessness to do just that this morning. I thanked him and I am quietly planning the next step. Until we can get out of Oakland we will continue to do whatever we can to make it a better place. It isn’t about any individual police officer, it’s about a system that does not respond to the needs of their citizens. It’s about a city government that cuts services and at the same time institutes more fees and fines on their citizens. $25 a year for an alarm permit. An $84 fine for a false alarm. A $25 appeal fee to protest such a fine. And it goes on. Every crime not investigated, every neighbor who turns a blind eye when someone is hurt, when someone dumps another sofa on the corner or throws another bag of trash out of a moving car makes Oakland a poorer place.

Poor isn’t about money, not really. I was taught the difference between being short of money and being poor. I was also taught that good taste costs no more. it’s about learning to cook, about making things last and buying only what you need. It’s about reaching for the stars even when you’re living in a tagged trash can of a neighborhood. It’s about feeding your head, spending that bus ride with a library book instead of sprawling across two seats and scowling at everyone who passes. Our house may be filled with secondhand furniture but it’s also filled with a well read library. We may not be able to afford to eat out much, but the house smells of a well made stew that will provide us with lunches for the week and the chicken whose bones provided the stock is waiting to be roasted for dinner. We are wealthy, and it’s a wealth everyone can have–and should.

We’ll be leaving Oakland as soon as we are able. It’s sad, really. Our first home together was six blocks from where we live now and we’ve moved all around the East Bay since. Oakland is beautiful, a place of fine old houses and with an urban forest as diverse as the people who live within it. Lake Merritt is a jewel and the estuary that feeds it is one of the finest city birdwatching sites I’ve ever seen. But in nearly thirty years it hasn’t changed one bit, except possibly for the worse. I’m tired, and I’m not willing to invest any more of my life in this place. But I wish it well, it deserves better. All it needs are people who care, and are willing to get involved with what goes on around them. 

We Each Have Two Small Hands

It rained yesterday. Chance of rain again next week. The salmon wait, the trees are not growing green tips this year. The land lies dry beneath the winter sun. I walked to the bus yesterday morning and a neighbor was washing down the sidewalk in front of his house. Drawing from the dry well.

We did this. We can undo it. Park the car, sweep the sidewalk, walk to the store. Plant a lettuce box, look up at the stars. Let the song of creation sing through you. Your every action changes the world. Is it part of the problem, or part of the solution? Your every action matters, especially now.

Yesterday I walked home from the bus and smelled a freshly manured front yard, a newly planted cypress next to the fence. As I passed the corner of East 22nd St., I thanked the sleeping gingko for its gift of fallen leaves. Some fell on the waiting earth, on their journey to become new soil.

We go out in the hills and do magic, then we go back to the trailhead and get into our solitary cars. We rejoice that we “called the rain” if it rains, and then get on with our lives. Magic alone won’t do it. “Wish in one hand and piss in the other,” as my mother used to say, “and see which one gets fuller faster.”

There are, however, plenty of things that can be done, and are in fact being done. I’ll start close to my home in the United States and work out. Your circle will be different, it is important that you find its shape, know your place in the world.

The Arbor Day Foundation has an excellent volunteer page. I used it to find an opportunity near me, as a matter of fact. I had some pretty specific requirements, which they managed to meet. I work supervising volunteers myself, which means that Saturday workdays are out. I also don’t own a car any more, so the opportunity has to be bikeable. They delivered. The ride will be two miles uphill, but the ride down at the end of the day should be magnificent. It will also introduce me to another wild area that’s bikeable from my house. Working in tune with the planet can be both fun and useful. My bicycle has given me great legs, after all. What are your requirements? This site might just be able to meet them.

In Wales, the Anglesey Druid Order is restoring Cae Braint. This former nature attraction is becoming a true nature reserve that will benefit wildlife, the local community, and provide a sacred home for the Order.

In India, one of the most ambitious planting programs of all is happening. Project Green Hands aims to reforest Tamil Nadu. To date, 1.5 million volunteers have planted, and are caring for, over 17 million saplings. MILLIONS. That is the true power of our two small hands.

You can volunteer for these programs and many others. You can donate money to them. And that is only the beginning. We, collectively, have grown to be the power in this world. We are responsible for the state the world is in. Such a blessing that is! Unlike the Ice Ages, and the mass extinctions of the past, we have the power to change what is going on. If we change ourselves, we literally change the world. Our problems are largely problems of awareness.

We each have two small hands, what will you do with yours today?

We are the awareness shining out of Gaia’s eyes.

Wild in the City

Even in the heart of the city there’s wildlife. I’m blessed to live near a bird sanctuary so for me this is even truer than it is for most, but look around you. I’ll bet you find your wild place. I’ve lived in cities most of my life and I’ve always found somewhere to go.

Start with the cracks in the pavement or the parking strips. Even if we humans haven’t planted something there, the planet has done so. Are there squirrels running along the power lines in your neighborhood? They do so in mine. Surely there are pigeons, crows, blackbirds, wrens? We generally don’t notice them because we aren’t looking for them. Do you have a neighborhood park? We don’t seem to realize that we share this planet with other creatures. The hardiest of them make their home in the city, just as we do. Raccoons are adaptable and smart and live everywhere.

In my neck of the woods, things are changing, as they always do. Every tree along the estuary beside E. 10th St. has now been cut. The aspens were only the beginning. It will be interesting to see what the end result is. The walking and bicycle paths will be extended, and all the culverts from Lake Merritt to the highway will be gone. Change isn’t easy, this Saturday there wasn’t a bird to be seen around the estuary or on the campus. Last week I watched triads of egrets walk in the shallows. White pelicans fished farther out and the campus was covered with geese. The quiet this week felt a bit ominous, but when the construction is over the birds will be back.

As usual, all the temporary traffic detouring was focused on the automobile, with the sidewalks unblocked as an afterthought. One day of using the traffic lane was more than enough for me, and I found that my Saturday detour to see the remaining aspens was actually the beginning of a workable temporary route. I can ride directly through the campus, along the estuary to the footbridge, and up the hill on the other side. Of course both paths are blocked at the sidewalk, but I can push my bike up a steeper dirt path between the redwoods and come out in the circle drive in front of the childcare center. From there I only have to deal with the school construction, with the “temporary” diagonal parking and the two blocks of narrowed lanes. That’s not particularly pleasant, but I’ve been dealing with it for over a year now, and the temporary vehicle lane across the estuary has made it so unpleasant for cars that the traffic is considerably lessened.

I have hope, though. Half of what appears to be a bike path has been built from Lake Merritt to E. 10th. I suspect the blocked paths will be the continuation for bike paths on both sides. If so, when they’re done it will be possible to ride along the far side of the estuary to the edge of the lake. Right now that area is wild and enticing, and I can’t get to it… The corridor from the end of the built path to the side streets I currently take home is not exactly pleasant or safe, but I’ll bet I can piece together another route that is, and the project could always surprise me with other improvements. There are already many more riders in that corridor than there were when I moved to this area. Saturday was lovely, though. It’s always the most pleasant ride of the week.

I went and saw the aspens again last Saturday afternoon. I walked through the grove till I came to the right tree. I stood with it awhile and looked closely at the clones walking down from it to the water. They were indeed clones, one was growing straight out of an exposed root. Even shaved away to the heartwood it was growing a shoot. I can see why these trees are so difficult to eradicate. Why did we plant them if we didn’t want them there? I circled around it. Odd, I was mimicking what I’d just read in My Side of the Mountain. I didn’t know it was home, I just knew I had to see the other side.

I found just what Sam Gribley did, in a way. A perfect arch of aspen shoots, growing between the double trunk of this doubled tree. It was of course full of spider webs. They shine silver around the dead branches of shoots from years past like jewelry on the feet of the trees. Brother to the birch, indeed, green leafed, silver trunked beauty who smells sweet in the height of summer and is first to venture into disturbed or fallow ground.

After a moment’s hesitation I sat down between the trees. Yes, I might get bugs, but it was worth it. I spent a few moments weaving branches, dead and alive, around each other. The space between the trees arched around me. I could see another grove of much younger aspens across from me, next to the school garden, framed in dancing green leaves. All I would need would be something to line the space I sat on and this would be perfect.

This Saturday was just as good. My spot awaited me, the campus was even emptier than usual, and I sat in that sweet smelling green cave and let it separate me from the work week. There truly are wild places in the heart of any city. All we have to do is notice when we’re in them.