Guest Blogger: Monte McLain’s “Top 10 Reasons Why I Love Oakland”

As part of my commitment to a couple of book projects, this spring I am taking a personal blogging hiatus and have invited some folks to blog in my stead. It is my intention help share some new voices and perspectives with a larger audience and keep my blog active during my break. Today I welcome Rev. Monte McClain [BLOG | TWITTER], a Presbyterian Pastor in Oakland, CA. Monte has been a good friend, a committed member of the Oakland Community and an all-around good guy. Welcome!

Oakland is the infamous ugly step-sister city to the Cinderella post-card perfection of San Francisco.  Novella Carpeter [blog], one of the most recently famous Oaklanders because of her urban foodie efforts and recent book [Farm City], coined this fairytalesque metaphor for my favorite city.  In 2011 the Town (as opposed to the “City” as we Nor Cal-ers call San Francisco) was made famous by the indecisiveness of our mayor Jean Quan and the destructive thuggery of our non-native majority occupiers confronted with violence by our friendly neighborhood police department.  While the Oakland all too often only gets a bad rap, it’s much like Brooklyn is to Manhattan: the place the Cultural Creatives and Bobos call home while they do their thing.

10.  The YMCA
9.  The Weather
8.  The Views
7.  The Parks
6.  It’s a Foodie Shrine
5.  It’s an Urban Farming Mecca
4.  Failing Successful Public Education
3.  Urban Grit: Lake Merritt
2.  Urban Graffiti Art & Politics: Oaklandish & The Grand Lake Theater Marquee
1. The People

Here is a little more info about the Top 10 . . .

10.  The YMCA

Of everything I’ve experienced in Oakland I think that the Downtown Oakland YMCA on Broadway is perhaps the best image and metaphor of Oakland. Diverse people gathered together to work out and seek greater health, have fun, build community and invest in the community of Oakland. You see every body type from overly thick to marathon-runner thin, every shade of skin color, babies to octogenarians, yoga disciples to body builders, swim lesson kids to very large bodied adults wanting to soak in a jacuzzi. Activities range from spin classes to dance classes, from groups meeting for dinner to night-out kid-friendly activities for parents desperate to have a night off. And the membership costs are on a sliding scale, ensuring that everyone has access that they can afford, and then those that are able can chose to financially empower others to be a part of the community too. It’s Oakland at its best.

9.  The Weather

While Oakland didn’t make the 10 best weather-ed cities in America on Farmer’s Almanac , it is commonly considered, in our Town, to be the city with the most moderate weather in the USA.  Temperatures range from the 40s to the 80s.  And while San Francisco is inundated with near freezing fog in August each year, I’m always able to grow beautiful, large heirloom tomatoes in my garden.  No humidity.  No freezing.  No need for an air-conditioner, and I know some families that have never spent the money to fix their broken furnaces, seeing no need to do so.

 8.  The Views

I was as at the Oakland Zoo recently and reminded of the amazing views of Oakland that I take for granted every day. Where else can you drive through an inner-city context and then be in a Redwood forest within 15 minutes without taking a freeway or leaving the city? I love the diversity of Oakland: people, food, shopping, body types, music, art…and the topography, geography and views. Here are my top 8:

 8.1. Inner-city to Redwood Forest back to the Urban Jungle: Start at 880 & 35th Avenue. Drive up 35th over and past the 580 as it becomes Redwood Road. At the top of the hill, turn left on Skyline, stay left at the fork onto Joaquin Miller Road and continue down. At 580 it becomes Lincoln Ave., later it’s Champion Street (at MacArthur) there turn right onto MacArthur then left onto Fruitvale and follow it back to the 880. Great driving view of the city.

8.2. View of the Hills and the whole bay are from the Sky Ride at Oakland Zoo (worth the $2.50 on a clear day).

8.3. View of the city from the rooftop of the Oakland Kaiser Parking Lot (free if you leave within 30 minutes)

8.4. View of it all while circling Lake Merritt

8.5. View of the rooftops of the urban jungle, including church spires, looking towards the hills from the Elliptical Machine Room at the YMCA on Broadway

8.6. View anywhere within Middle Harbor Shoreline Park

8.7. From the Mormon Temple parking lot (both SF and Oakland downtowns line up together)

8.8. At the top of Hiller Drive above the Claremont

 7.  The Parks

This piggy backs on the views, but is indeed distinct.  In my neighorhood, or hood, the local park has a beautiful ball diamond nearly always in use in the spring and summer.  The playground area is nice, albeit the sand is punctuated with used condemns, cigarette buds and your occasional needle.  There’s a reason we don’t take our children there very often, even though it’s the only place we can walk on foot.  But from that city park to the regional parks there are amazing places to go.  Urban renewal parks based in the historical past (like Peralta Hacienda) to handicap accessible brand spankin’ new playgrounds in the redwood forest (like Redwood Regional Park) to a great place to find a nanny – even if you’re not looking for one (Avenue Terrace Playground, in local speak “Jordan Park”), all the way to Lakeside Park at Lake Merrit where you can always find a pick-up soccer game on a field covered in Geese poo.  The parks are the places where everyone in Oakland mixes together, in spaces that represent the breadth, wealth and poverty of our great urban salad bowl mixing pot.

6.  It’s a Foodie Shrine

While the City across the Bay is known for food as a near Paris-equal in Northern California, it’s actually in Oakland that most new hipster foodie chefs are setting up restaurants, mainly because it’s cheaper.  From crazy good mac-n-cheese at a place that was sued by McDonalds because they wanted to use the name “Little Mac” [Homeroom] to the numerous emergences of foodie spots born from the tsunami of Alice Waters‘ nearby Chez Panisse to the numerous culturally diverse places like the proliferation of Ethiopian Restaurants and the Soul Food restaurants that have a near constant line out the door, to the nearly worshipped fried chicken sandwiches consumed on ironing boards at Bakesale Betty – Oakland should be known more as a place to eat than as the middle-sized city with the most consistently high murder rate.

5.  It’s an Urban Farming Mecca

This piggy backs on the Foodie bit (see Novella Carpenter’s Novel “Farm City”).  Raising backyards chickens or expanding your own backyard bee hive is not an oddity, but almost like a peer pressure given for parts of Oakland.  On a walk this morning in a neighborhood where the average house price is over $850,000 I saw a beautiful home-built chicken coop alongside a driveway filled with a fabulous Lexus.  In fact chikens are no big deal, now to be a real legit Oakland urban farmer you need to be keeping pigs, rabbits and goats, and be into slaughtering and preparing them for homemade feasts with good friends.  An irony when so many go so hungry on our streets, it’s a testament to a certain resilience, in particular as the most famous farms are in the worst hoods.

4.  Failing Successful Public Education

When it comes to Oakland there’s a lot of say about education. The power of Oakland Unified School District was just returned to the city after exiting receivership and a take over (sometimes hostile) by the State of California. When you talk with people leaving Oakland, or thinking about making that choice, it’s almost always around schools and/or crime. I’ve blogged a lot on it, torn from the challenges of education our children in public schools in the city, excited and at times overwhelmed by the inequity and systemic stuck-ness.

And it’s not just OUSD that educates our children. We’ve been part of a cooperative preschool community for several years. As we leave that space and community I’m reminded that it does take “a village to raise a child.” That we’ve been blessed to have our two children loved and known by other kids and families, and for our family to love and know other children and families. The diversity (cultural, class, financial, educational) of our city is amazing and shows up in our kids. It’s also a huge challenge to those that work in education. How to you meet, respond to, let alone simply articulate the myriad needs that exist.

I’ve been repeatedly amazed by the passion of those who work in education in Oakland, life-long commitments (in many cases to the city that they grew up in) of educators to empowering the citizens of Oakland. Heroes for me, who recognize the sickness and stuck-ness of the system yet refuse to be complacent, hopeless or apathetic. They form a great cloud of witnesses I think of when I lose hope. Their example lifts me up to push on to finish the race we all are running together as a city community: Gary and Caroline Yee, Di-Di, Gail Murphy, Brook Pessin, Mel Stenger, Misato Araki, Mary Grace McGhee, Amelia Bailey, and Doug Feague. We should be hearing more about such heroes as a city. Katy Murphy at the Oakland Tribune does this to some extent on her blog: The Education Report

3.  Urban Grit: Lake Merritt

It wouldn’t be Oakland without Lake Merritt. It stinks and still we go. It’s been covered with signs, walls, construction stuff for months yet still the sidewalks and lake banks are filled with frolickers, runners, walker-pushers and tai chi doers. Located in the middle of the city it’s a perfect living metaphor for the beautiful complexity that Oakland is: crime, skylines, the hills, parks, the new cathedral, urban decay that shows us not so much that beauty is in the beholder, but that each thing is beautiful.

This is a lake located on the edge of downtown and connected to the bay: probably the most iconic image of Oakland.  Each day begins with numerous boot campers working out around the lake at the east end and on the stairs as the sun rises, and ends with folks enjoying breath-taking views of the city at sunset (usually admiring the fog located across the bay in our more famous sister city). Is it any wonder that the Lake has been taken over by the immigrant Canadian Geese and their excrement? Maybe that too is an appropriate metaphor for the challenges that face our city: beauty that invites and which in the invitation creates the problems that keep the city from becoming the beauty it’s destined to be.

2.  Urban Graffiti Art & Politics: Oaklandish & The Grand Lake Theater Marquee

Founded in 2000, Oaklandish is  community of artists | renegades | organizers which has got to be one of the most under-noticed political gathering powers of Oakland. Their t-shirts are everywhere, worn with great pride.

Their great website says it all, in particular with the home page that directs you to shopping and/or community.  I believe that Oaklandish does more than our Mayor and City Council to increase civic pride, empower civic activism, and generate good energy for our always-struggling city.

Here’s a blurb from their site that spells out the Oaklandish vision and purpose for both artistic creation and community organizing.

 The marquee at the historic movie theatre The Grand Lake (just off Lake Merrit) is undoubtedly the town’s un-official official political gathering point. Whether it’s driving by on Highway 580 (the sign is made for such political perspective) or walking Grand Ave, the marquee booms out an invitation to political dialog in a way that is unabashedly liberal and poignantly direct. Allen Michaan, owner since 1980, is also political in his business plan not enforing R ratings on movies by Michael Moore in order to empower teens to expand their political perspective through film.  He also offers free showings for minors when a left-leaning documentary is playing.

1. The People

The people are what are the best thing about Oakland: diverse, different, divergent, dangerous, daring, damaged and dapper.

I started blogging several years ago through an ongoing conversation in a Peer Pastors Learning Group.  Bruce Reyes-Chow encouraged me to take the plunge. I started blogging, thinking that it could expand my ministry work at the church I served by empowering deeper and wider dialog (and an actual discussion instead of a “speaking at the congregation” about the scriptures texts began in worship on Sunday mornings.  I also imagined it as a great avenue for education and participation.  Little did I know that Corn Dog, a neighbor of the church and quite possibly one of the most vibrant and least public of the residents of both the Dimond District and Oakland, would teach me much about blogging and about being an urban resident committed to justice, equity and transformation of the hood for good (as opposed to merely aiming for higher property values).

Here’s what I love about Corn Dog (and Mr. Corn Dog too!) as they are the best representations of the people of Oakland in my experience:

  • She loves Oakland.  We say that a lot.  But she really does.  She loves the dirty and the gritty, the messy and the urban-decay-stuff-we-want-to-overlook and deny.
  • She loves the people: not just the beautiful ones, but maybe even more so the  crazies.  It’s often that she buys food for folks on the street.  She knows all the street people in the Dimond (and well beyond) by first name and life-story.  She considers them to be her neighbors too, ones that she is called to love in word and deed.
  • She is a connection-maker.  She knows everyone on the street – not just the street people – she knows the business owners, employees, etc. – by name.  She doesn’t live in the hood.  She lives in her hood.
  • She is an amazing technology-using-communicator.  She creates and publishes more than you know in terms of paper and e-marketing/communication in the Dimond and greater Oakland.  She taught me a lot about blogging, writing and the connections that we can not only make but also mature online.  She also stood with me, having my back, when I got involved (not as much as she did) in the messy union-related tuff around Farmer Joe’s a couple of years ago.
  • She knows and embodies the words GENEROSITY and SOLIDARITY more than anyone I’ve ever met.  I spend my days talking about what it means to love unconditionally, inclusively, as God first loves us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  I may be a good “talker” about that. Corn Dog lives it.

Corn Dog should probably be voted Oakland Resident #1.  She should definitely win, or at least be on, Jean Quan’s Local Heroes list.  Of course even if she won she’d never show up to receive the prize or the praise.  You may not know her by name – but odds are you’ve seen her – walking her canine children through the Dimond, contemplating the giant Jesus at the Mormon Temple Center, at the monthly Dimond Peace Vigil [first Sunday of the month at 7pm at the corner of Champion and MacArthur] or riding the 57 bus.  I see her most days walking the hood and loved encountering her on her online before she changed things up.  The Corn Dogs embody the best of Oakland and the best that it can become.  It’s all about the people.

Thanks Monte for offering your post. Again, you can find Monte on his BLOG, on TWITTER or on the Facebook Page for College Avenue Presbyterian. Also, please be sure to check out the rest of the guest bloggers.

 

 

5 comments

  • DebraAvery  

    This makes me very happy. Monte, all the things you point out are the reasons I am excited to come to Oakland. Not trying to be overly gushy, but I cannot wait to discover all you’ve laid out here and even more – to serve side by side with you in this Town!

  • DebraAvery  

    This makes me very happy. Monte, all the things you point out are the reasons I am excited to come to Oakland. Not trying to be overly gushy, but I cannot wait to discover all you’ve laid out here and even more – to serve side by side with you in this Town!

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  • mark  

    Have you taken a drive down International. Lord have mercy on tat side of Oakland.

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