Election Section

Column: Undercurrents: East Oakland Park Opens Up to Free Concerts By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday August 12, 2005

They held two open-air, free music concerts at Arroyo Viejo Park near 77th and Bancroft in Oakland this month, and if your first thought was “Why didn’t I hear about any violence?” that tells more about the public perception of the East Oakland flatlands than it does about the reality. 

Given a leaflet announcing the concerts and asked if she was going to come, a woman out at the Portfest said “East Oakland? I’ll pray on it.” God must have listened, since not a one of us got shot. But that’s the way it is out here in the far flats, friends, mostly all the time. 

Arroyo Park is much the same as I remember it from almost a half a century ago, when I used to bicycle up in the morning and spend my summer days there. There’s the same asphalt courts where I worked for hours on my jump shot (got the shot; never did figure out the jump), and the adjacent McConnell Field where I never learned to hit the curveball, but where I did see Joe Morgan play high school baseball before any of us knew he was going to be Joe Morgan. Down the left field line is the same furry pine tree where the blackbirds used to nest, and where a foul ball into the branches would end the game, as a swarm of them would swoop down like dive bombers, aiming for our heads and clearing the field. Across the great expanse of lawn—still one of the most well-kept in the Bay Area—is the daylighted creek for which the park is named, and where we caught many guppies and salamanders and got our jeans and tennis shoes sopping wet, and the stone amphitheater where we put on shows with the paper maché puppets we made in Arroyo’s summer programs. Do they still have those? After Harry Edwards fumbled through Parks and Rec, who knows what he left in his wake? 

Anyhow, for two successive Sundays in late July and early August, sports took a back seat to music entertainment at Arroyo Park, as mostly black families spread out blankets and set up lawn chairs and umbrellas and canopies, ate barbecue and drank red soda water (a Texas thing, sure-enough), and listened to the old school R&B sounds of Rose Royce one week, and Oakland’s own Lenny Williams the next. Well, not just listened, exactly. One thing you should be warned about, in case you know nothing about black folk, is that when five or six middle-aged African-Americans are gathered together somewhere near music, four of them, at least, will break out in the Electric Slide. 

Others just danced by themselves. Or if they couldn’t get up and dance, drop their heads and put up one hand and wave it back and forth, like the old folks do in church. Many just sang along to familiar songs, recalling good times or lost loves. And in some six hours of events over the two days, the only argument I heard was over whether Randy Moss is going to make a difference with the Raiders. 

Most of the reason is that East Oakland is not nearly as violent a place as you’ve been led to believe. Given the chance, most of us choose to enjoy ourselves and just get along. But part of the reason for the lack of problem was the way security was handled. 

Part of the security was in the hands of members of Minister Louis Farrakhan’s local mosque of the Nation of Islam (not the group that was headed by the late Dr. Yusuf Bey, in case that matters to you). NOI security. Unlike too many Oakland cops, who too often create problems in black crowd situations by their attitudes and demeanor, NOI security is usually successful because it’s both no-nonsense and respectful to the community it is there to serve. 

As for the Oakland cops who also handled security during the Sunday concerts? Well, I don’t know who picked the police for the detail, or who gave out the orders of the day, but whoever it was, they certainly deserve praise as well. The Oakland cops at the Arroyo concerts were both easy-going and professional, acting as if all of us were of part of the same community, as if both we belonged and they belonged, as well. They walked among the crowd in two’s and three’s, chatting amongst themselves and acting as if they didn’t expect trouble, but were only present on the off-chance that some might occur. Some members of the Oakland Black Police Officers Association volunteered to work the Arroyo events in street clothes. 

If only Oakland cops always acted like this at predominantly black events. But maybe these were different cops, or maybe it was a different commander. I don’t know. 

The Arroyo concerts themselves were managed by Oakland’s resident hip hop entertainer-business leader, Dwayne Wiggins, and were sponsored and organized by Oakland District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks, paid for entirely out of her district budget. Brooks says that publicity was almost entirely through leafleting and mouth-to-mouth, partly because she didn’t want a huge, unmanageable crowd, and partly because she wanted these to be community affairs, drawn from the surrounding neighborhood of the park, giving her constituents something special back for all the tax money they put into the city. It’s the kind of thing you often see in the Grand Avenue area, or in Chinatown, or the Fruitvale. It’s good to see it out in the flats. 

Part of the reason for the success of the concerts is that they have called on old school acts that attract a more mellow, predominantly middle age crowd. Midnight Star is scheduled to perform on Aug. 21, and Dwayne Wiggins on Sept. 11, both starting at 3 p.m., in case you want to pray on it yourself, and come out (food vendors are on-hand in case you want to buy instead of bringing your own). Many of the concert-goers are parents who are bringing out their young children (activities for them are off to the side, away from the bandstand). That makes for a relaxed, family atmosphere. That would be more difficult to maintain if the events were geared toward a more young adult crowd. But that’s something Brooks continues to work on with such things as plans for a safe and legal alternative to the sideshows (with an emphasis on “safe” and “legal”). 

For now, both residents of the East Oakland flatlands and residents all over Oakland ought to be happy about the Arroyo Viejo free music concerts. When you see a rising tide of public participation in areas of the city where folks have normally been left out, it’s a tide that is certain to lift all of Oakland’s boats. Despite what the big developers and their good friends in City Hall may think, the road to Oakland’s well-being does not pass down Broadway. It passes through our neighborhoods, where all of us live. Oakland’s problem is not so much getting other people to like us, but getting us to feel better about ourselves. The sooner we understand that, the sooner we can turn this city around and head it in the right direction. Meanwhile, I’m going to get me another bottle of that red soda water. It’s the Texas in me.