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You Tell Us: Oakland’s elephants in the room

on April 18, 2011

I am sick and tired of the downhill momentum that the city of Oakland has undergone for so very long. My credential:  I’ve been a citizen of Oakland, California since May 11, 1972. More specifically, I’ve resided in Deep East Oakland (D.E.O.) for 20 years; therefore, I think I know a little bit about its condition. In short, the negative aspects of the city overshadow the positive.

As I reminisce about my teenage years, which took place in the late-80’s through the mid-90’s, I recall conversing with peers about those whom we knew that had been murdered on such-and-such block in East Oakland. “Dag,” “Twomps,” “Jingletown” and “The Dirtroad” are just a few colloquial names for neighborhoods that exist throughout East Oakland.  The nicknames themselves have a miscreant ring to them. This topic of peer-murdering went from a shocking account to everyday, normal conversation, which I understand continues today, two decades later. Sadly, I can’t recall when all hope was lost, when we the citizens of Oakland began to shrug off these dire circumstances, and there was no more talk of things changing.  Instead, we made provisions: We installed dead-bolt locks and bars, we made sure to be indoors come night, and some of us purchased firearms for protection. We did what we thought was necessary in order to protect ourselves and our families. Perhaps in some small way we became a part of the problem instead of the solution.

It’s time that I take a stand, or at least take the microphone and voice what, exactly, needs to change in order for save my city. And as insane as this might sound, drug-related crimes and the heightened murder rate seem to be mere adverse reactions to a couple of real evils. It could be considered the huge elephant in the city because there’s hardly ever any talk about the bold line that separates above I-580 from below I-580 geographically, but also separates the haves from the have-nots. In essence, it is a bold line of classism. This class divide has existed ever since I could remember, and it seems to be getting more prominent by the minute.

In the past, societal ills including but not limited to armed robbery, shootings, prostitution, gambling, and drug deals were not as pervasive in the Oakland Hills as they were in the flatland. In fact, my mother insisted that even though we lived below I-580, all of our education and extracurricular activities take place above I-580. In her mind’s eye — and I am sure she was not alone — quality of life existed above I-580 as opposed to below. And because I have witnessed and experienced some of the most horrible events below I-580, I pretty much adopted the same sentiment. It’s really quite a shame that every single day your main objective is to flee from the very place where you sleep night after night.

The real dilemma is why or how such segregation even exists in the 21st Century, especially in a city whose county is often touted for its diversity and multi-cultural richness. Case-in-point: The bold line of classism needs to be erased. There is no reasonable explanation why streets are safer, more aesthetically pleasing, and more developed just a few streets above. And to the rebuttal that before D.E.O. can be restored, the crime there needs to be cleaned up, my answer is this: Give the disenfranchised residents of Oakland a dwelling to be proud of and I guarantee you that the crime rate will, at the very least, be lowered, which is a better outcome than it rising — right?

The other evil that contributes to the City of Oakland’s demise is the lackadaisical attitude that many of its citizens have adopted, which seems to be another elephant in the city, because this is rarely admitted. Why blame the disenfranchised, right?  Mind you, I empathize because I know firsthand what it’s like to feel powerless, to feel like you haven’t what it takes to fight the bad guys, who run amok, leaving their filthy residue for the rest of us to politely step over and for our children to unknowingly play in.

A vivid, horrible memory I have growing up in D.E.O. is witnessing a woman in her thirties being brutally beaten and car-jacked. Once again this crime occurred in broad daylight on a heavy-trafficked street. I was no more than 10 to 15 feet away as the two assailants demanded her car keys, then pounded on her like she was a heavyweight, boxing champion. I remember staring into one of the attacker’s eyes, hoping that I, a fifteen-year-old, could hypnotize him into consciousness. I remember looking around to see if others were also witnessing this travesty. They were; however, most tried to appear as if they were the not least bit fazed. To this day I still wonder whether or not the woman survived. I also wonder whether or not we, the witnesses, could have done something to help her fend off the thugs.

One could very well argue that incidents such as this one occurs every day in hoods all across America. As a result, we have reached an appalling level of apathy. However, I would have to contend that no matter how wide-spread or how desensitized folks have become, an injustice remains an affliction that needs to be confronted. Therefore, in order for a desired outcome to be realized, the citizens of Oakland will need to cure themselves of apathy. We will have to stop making provisions and skirting around elephants. In fact, I would go as far as to say that we need to start being confrontational. We will need to get in the faces of those involved in wrongdoing, not only as far as the law is concerned but also in terms of neighborly respect.

Last but certainly not least, the concerned citizens of Oakland will need to, as we say in the hood, “Have each other’s backs.” For starters, we’ll need to lead and be a part of peaceful demonstrations, show up for Oakland clean-up, and shop at the mom-and-pop stores below I-580 as well as above. Additionally, those of us who reside in D.E.O. will need to be accounted for at the Oakland City Hall meetings, and when it makes sense, support those well-intended elects. Case-in-point: The citizens of Oakland need to take responsibility for the place they call home. And to those who feel as though they don’t have the time or energy to invest, I say this: It takes more of an investment to step over, go around or simply pretend the elephants don’t exist.

Born and raised in Oakland, California, Anna “Nurlyn” Nelson-Stith is a Muslim-American and a proud mother of three daughters. She’s an Administrative Support Professional who enjoys working for non-profit organizations that serve children and their families. Currently, she’s a Senior at Holy Names University where she expects to obtain a B.A., Business Administration, Communications emphasis; Media Arts minor. Anna believes wholeheartedly that positivity breeds positivity.


You Tell Us is Oakland North’s community Op-Ed page, featuring opinion pieces submitted by readers on Oakland-related topics. Have something to say? Send essays of 500-1,000 words to We’d love to hear from you!

All essays reflect the opinions of their authors, and not of the Oakland North staff or the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Oakland North reserves the right to edit submissions for length, clarity and spelling/grammar. You Tell Us submissions must be written in civil and non-offensive language. We do not publish hate speech, libelous material, unsubstantiated allegations or rumors, or personal attacks on individuals or groups.


  1. Ravi on April 19, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Very thoughtful and well-written essay. I think you are quite right about the elephants.

    Too few in the public arena have the insight and courage to say what you do.

  2. Navigator on April 20, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    You’re speaking of a certain segment of the Oakland communitty and generalizing about the entire city. I don’t agree that Oakland as a city is heading “downhill.” Oakland has improved tremendously in the last ten years. Even neighborhoods below 580 have improved a great deal. Neighborhoods like Fruitvale, Jingletown, and Eastlake are much more vibrant now then they were just ten years ago. There is one segment of Oakland which drags Oakland’s progress down. The thugs doing the killing and robbing in certain low income nieghborhoods of East Oakland and West Oakland cast a negative light over the city and impeed more rapid progress. It’s mostly a problem in the poor African American neighborhoods of Oakland. Generalizing about the entire city of Oakland and its diverse neighborhoods doesn’t help the city at all. You need to be more specific when you talk about these issues. Who is committing these heinous crimes and where are they occurring? Also, why is there a no snitch policy in the Black community? Why are criminals tolerated?

  3. Theresa Hartwell on April 20, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Your thoughts you share in this article are beyond profound. The sad thing is that I am a current youth of Oakland and the conversation of murdered peers has had to increase. I know the people of Oakland feel defeated by the overwhelming amount of violence and they have given up. Someone has to fix this problem, I do not believe it can get much worse.

  4. len raphael on April 21, 2011 at 8:24 am

    Amazing that there are still people such as yourself who believe that the best solution to poverty is mainly to give poor people free high quality housing. Not a reference to any of the lessons of the last 46 years of public housing in the US and Europe.

    Or maybe an analysis of the successes and failures of just the Oakland Housing Authority which has tried your solution. Result is fantastically expensive average quality housing or a relatively small number of people.

    But regardless of the above, increased governnment subsidies for housing are coming to an end, for both poor people via subsidies/grants/tax credits and for middle income people thru income tax deductions for home ownership.

    Then you might say something like if we ended corp tax breaks and eliminated our armed forces there would be enough for everyone to have everything they wanted. A. that isn’t gonna happen. And B. to the extent it does happen most voters want the money to go for subsidizing medical and social security, not housing for poor people.

    You have to come to come up with a Plan B because your best shot at Plan A ended about 2 decades ago.

    For starters how about just figuring out short and mid term ways to reduce street crime here so that businesses will stop leaving Oakland for cheaper, safer burbs and neighboring cities.

    -len raphael,temescal

  5. Theresa on April 21, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Anna you keep writing! Everyone will not agree with what you have to say even if its an optimistic idea such as this. And that is what’s wrong with this world, people who are well off want to keep marginalizing the poor(for whatever reason) some people work really hard and cannot get out of the confining box of poverty. There was no need for stating your response opinion so negatively.

  6. Anna on April 21, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    Your essay shed a very real light on what has been going on in Oakland for years. The fact that it was written from the pov from someone who has actually lived in the chaos and not just some outsider looking in made it very easy for me to relate too. I too grew up in a rougher Oakland neighborhood. What I took from your essay is not you trying to solve an issue that has been accumulating for years, but you trying to explain what your own personal experiences have been and what your thoughts about them are. Everyone is going to have a different outlook depending on where they are standing. My outlook is very similar to yours since we have similar backgrounds. Pride in Oakland has been increasing in recent years, but I agree that it still has some progress to make, as many things in life do. Overall I loved your outlook on things and hope to read more from you on the topic 🙂

    • len raphael on April 23, 2011 at 11:59 pm

      Theresa, I’m not the one marginalizing poor people. It is the entire world economy that marginalizes uneducated poor people.

      The job situation for poor undereducated Oakland residents has been awful since the late 60’s, except for a brief uptick during the dot com period. Because of world economic forces and trends, yes it will get much much worse and unlikely to ever improve.

      Feel free to to put your energy into political actions such as marching on Sacramento, demanding higher taxes, etc. but you have to have a backup plan other than demanding more government funding because there will be many many other sectors and groups all insisting on getting funding in a period that will see the decline in overall USA national income.

      -len raphael, temescal

  7. Anna "Nurlyn" on April 25, 2011 at 8:52 am

    @ Len: I have come to appreciate your comments as they add perspective. Whether you are in the box-of-poverty, the box-of-wealth, or any box in between, gaining a panoramic viewpoint is a challenge for us all.
    And yes, action is always better than words; however, one must know that a single thought evokes words, which in turn, evoke action.

  8. Anna "Nurlyn" on April 25, 2011 at 9:21 am

    Naturally, I have empathy for those who reside in the disadvantaged pockets of Oakland, because I am one of them. So was father, who served two terms of Vietnam and is a retired electrician. There’s also my mother-in-law, who celebrated 50 years of service as a registered nurse. Also my neighbors (most of whom I’ve known all my life), who were also esteemed individuals. Then there are the children in my neighborhood – and sadly – they would rather stay indoors than risk their safety outdoors. These are the citizens that drive me to throwing out outlandish suggestions such as, “Let’s give them an opportunity to live in a better neighborhood.” 

    Have no fear; however, since the release of this essay, I’ve come up with a dozen, feasible ways to help improve communities. I hope to be able to share some of my ideas (& efforts) with you real soon. Peace.

  9. Cadnerd on April 29, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    I don’t understand what you are saying we should do…

    • Anna Nelson on April 30, 2011 at 1:32 pm

      I love this question because it means that you are looking to take some kind of action.

      Keeping in mind that everyone’s capacity to do so varies, I believe that small efforts count as much as the larger ones. For instance, I make it a point to smile and greet, even stop and talk with my neighbors. If a see a child playing in the streets, I will immediately let the child know that I’m concern for his or her safety. Just the other week, I was walking my dog and there were a bunch of papers scattered down the block; I tried my best to pick up every single piece. Oakland’s Clean-up Day was two Saturday’s ago, and although I had class that day, I made a point to find out where the meeting places were within my zip code so that I could let my neighbors know just in case they were free to participate. These are all very small steps, but they really do help the community.

      Recall, in the essay there were also these suggestions:

      We will need to get in the faces of those involved in wrongdoing, not only as far as the law is concerned but also in terms of neighborly respect.

      Last but certainly not least, the concerned citizens of Oakland will need to, as we say in the hood, “Have each other’s backs.” For starters, we’ll need to lead and be a part of peaceful demonstrations, show up for Oakland clean-up, and shop at the mom-and-pop stores below I-580 as well as above. Additionally, those of us who reside in D.E.O. will need to be accounted for at the Oakland City Hall meetings, and when it makes sense, support those well-intended elects. Case-in-point: The citizens of Oakland need to take responsibility for the place they call home.

  10. len raphael on April 30, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    Anna, i don’t want to be dismissive of personal efforts to make the best of a bad situation. doing anything for the greater good is a good thing.

    On the other hand, political action that demands income/wealth redistribution, even if one thinks that’s a great idea, just isn’t gonna happen soon enough to help the many people suffering.

    eg. instead of organizing people to demand that city hall spend more on say anti violence programs, consider organizing voters to demand that city hall give a year’s free rent in currently vacant City buildings to solid employers who move to Oakland and agree to stay for at least 4 years.

    eg. even though it might offend your convictions about underlying causes of crime, but consider that a thriving job creating entertainment/restaurant industry is going to die on the vine if there isn’t immediate improvement in street security.

    -len raphael, temescal

    • Anna Nelson on May 1, 2011 at 8:23 pm

      We are in agreement, Len.

      My essay was a personal reflection, which thankfully, led to contemplation about what (creatively) could be done in order to, not only uplift the blightend parts of Oakland, but the entire city, like the example you provided:
      “…instead of organizing people to demand that city hall spend more on say anti violence programs, consider organizing voters to demand that city hall give a year’s free rent in currently vacant City buildings to solid employers who move to Oakland and agree to stay for at least 4 years.”

      And again, I think that it’s beneficial to get those who believe that they’re a non-factor in what happens in our community – good or bad -to think otherwise.


      • len raphael on May 6, 2011 at 12:09 am




  11. JimR on May 16, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    Nurlyn, you actually come from a long line of Bay Area thinkers; they used to call themselves “Marxist” or maybe “communist”. Being a native myself, I do not infer any of the negative stereotypes that still remain from the McCarthy era! The general disappearance of America’s middle class is right in line with the Marxist notion that the classes will bifurcate to extremes before a massive revolt changes the balance of power. The question is, will it be a massive revolt? Maybe it will be something else. I just hope it happens soon. As far as “sliding downhill” goes, I think that most of us are not headed for the Bourgeoisie.

  12. Peggy Simmons on May 24, 2011 at 12:35 am

    Thank you for this essay. I am glad to read about classism in Oakland.

    Oakland’s classism isn’t just about some people being poor and some people not being poor. The class divide mentioned in this article also means we do not understand each other. We are so divided, not just by a freeway, but culturally, that we do not understand each other enough to really come together to solve our city’s problems. This is very clear to me around the issue of gang injunctions, which further divides us.

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