Column: Undercurrents: Promoters Capitalize on the Sideshow Culture J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday October 21, 2005

To appreciate the possibilities of a legalized sideshow in Oakland, you have to put aside the preconceptions that have been built upon the five-year history of the illegal street sideshow movement. Instead, you must go back to the way things were before the Oakland Police Department chased the sideshows out of the parking lots and into the streets. 

In the 1990s and before, the sideshows were late-night outdoor gatherings of African-American young adults in East Oakland parking lots-first at Eastmont Mall, and later at Pac ‘n Save on Hegenberger, on the way to the airport. These young people were not interested in breaking the law or running from police or terrorizing the community-what they wanted was a safe space, in their own neighborhoods, where they could gather to show off their “tight” cars, play music, and socialize. 

The “showing off their cars” part sometimes involved doing “donuts” (an East Oakland car sport that goes back decades, long before the sideshows). But “donuts” were a relatively small part of the original sideshows, which were more leisurely, picnic-like events than the 15-minute street corner affairs we’ve come to know. More often the “showing off their cars” thing in the original, parking lot sideshows involved fixing up cars with special rims or wheels or paintjobs, stereos in the trunk, home theaters in the dashboard, two-toned shag carpeting on the seats and floors and ceiling, and the like-the kind of thing you see on the “Pimp Your Ride” show. These parking lot sideshows were traditional courtship rituals, what you find in every human culture and most animal societies, where the males try to outdo themselves in showing off their prowess and talents to appreciative young females. In the animal world, male peacocks display the largest, gaudiest, brightest tailfeathers. In the original, parking lot sideshows, young men vied for female attention by displaying the largest, gaudiest, brightest cars. It was a natural, normal, rite of passage and it bothered almost no-one, not the owners of the parking lots, nor the people in the neighborhoods where it took place. And they were a welcome antidote to the horrific violence taking place at the time on Oakland’s streets. 

Award-winning Oakland documentary filmmaker Yakpazua Zazaboi once described coming over from Daly City in 1993 and encountering the Eastmont Mall sideshows for the first time: “It was just black folks and cars everywhere. It filled up the whole lot, all down there by Taco Bell and where the old McDonald’s used to be. People was walking around just talking. Having fun. And the thing that made me fall in love with it was the fact that here we are in Oakland, but was from the other side of the bay that was supposedly feuding with Oakland at that time, but people weren’t tripping off any of that. They weren’t looking at us as if we were a threat. They was more like a welcoming thing, like, ‘Man, you see us, now get out the car and be with us.’” 

After Oakland police shut down the parking lot sideshows and pushed them into Oakland’s streets, setting up the wild, frantic, illegal affairs we so often see on newsclips, Zazaboi and some of his friends spent several years trying to win official support for a legal, sanctioned sideshow venue in the city of Oakland. Their idea was to hold a legalized sideshow in some enclosed arena where people would pay a small fee to enter, hip hop music would be played all over the area, food and beverages would be sold, and auto accessory vendors would pay a fee to operate booths. One entire location would be set aside for people to park novelty cars and show off their accessories. Another area would be a fenced-off arena, safe from spectators, where stunt drivers could do car tricks, among them the traditional “donuts” and other auto maneuvers that we see so much on the evening news. As Zazaboi described it several years ago, the events would be something like an “auto fair” or an “auto rodeo,” generating tax money for Oakland and promoting entrepreneurship among African-American Oakland youth who had been long marginalized by their native city. But attempts to hold those legalized sideshows were consistently blocked by top Oakland city officials. 

Zazaboi’s major fear, however, has not that the legalized sideshows would never take place in Oakland, but that the idea would be taken over by some outside promoter who would steal the idea, come into Oakland and reap all the profits, giving nothing back to either the community or the people who created the original venues 

Earlier this month, that’s exactly what happened. Not in Oakland, but nearby, at the Alameda County Fairgounds in Pleasanton. 

There, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, a Southern California-based group of promoters called Vision Entertainment held what they call both “Hot Import Daze” and “Hot Import Nights,” which is a legalized sideshow in everything but name. 

Who is Vision entertainment? I don’t know, but you can see their website yourself at www.hotimportdaze.com/. (be sure to turn down the volume when you do). A promotional paragraph on the website explains what they’re doing: “Now in its ninth year, Hot Import Nights (HIN) is positioned at the forefront of the sport compact car culture. Hot Import Nights is the leading lifestyle car show featuring hundreds of thousands of attendees, hundreds of the nations top show cars, hundreds of exhibitors, and the nation’s top DJ’s, artists, models and musicians. Consisting of more than 20 events throughout the United States, Hot Import Nights has taken the import scene to new heights, attracting record numbers in cities across the nation and setting a new standard for car shows.” 

At the Pleasanton event, the HID-HIN promoters blocked out areas across the Alameda County Fairgrounds yard where car owners competed in contests to show off their engines and accessories. Vendor booths were everywhere, presumably paying a fee to the promoters for the privilege of access to the hundreds of consumers passing by. In the outdoor arena that was temporarily renamed the “urban stage,” hip hop and break dancers and deejays also competed for prizes. On another stage, young women in bikinis strutted in what looked like a scene from a spring break video. In an area of the parking lot, concrete barriers had been erected in a circle, and a group of Japanese national (not Japanese American) stunt drivers were showing off maneuvers called “sliding,” many of them very similar-but far inferior-to the “siding” and the “donuts” that you see on East Oakland streets. 

From boom boxes all across the fairgrounds, the sounds of black hip hop entertainers blasted forth-Ludacris to Naz to Nelly. But these recorded artists comprised almost the entire black presence at the event. There were crowds of young white folks, Latinos, and Asian-Americans among the hundreds-perhaps thousands-I witnessed as I walked through the crowd (paying $20 a head to enter the fairgrounds gates), but only a small handful of African-Americans here and there. I don’t know how the “Hot Import Daze-Nights” Alameda County event was advertised. Unlike the days of the 1950’s segregation, no-one put up a sign saying “No Colored Allowed.” But modern marketing is compartmentalized, targeted to the nth degree by what events you leaflet and what radio stations you advertise on, and so either the Alameda County event organizers chose not to target African-Americans in Alameda County, or else the targeting was so bad that most young African-American car and hip hop enthusiasts chose not to attend. 

In any event, let us not dwell on the negative. Instead, let us focus on the fact that the Hot Import Daze-Nights promoters showed that a legalized sideshow is not only possible in the area, but can be highly successful. After this, what reason can Oakland city officials give for denying their promotion by Oakland entrepreneurs inside the city? 

We’ll wait. We’ll see.