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West Oakland, Lower Bottoms, Part 2: The World We Live In

Our listening tour of West Oakland’s Lower Bottoms continues as we meet the volunteers at a local food pantry, a street ball legend known as ‘the greatest player never to make the NBA,’ a transplant from Compton who’s become a wilderness survival instructor, a former Tesla engineer who’s developing an affordable co-housing living space, a US Army veteran determined to help others get their military benefits, and a pastor who relies on the power of prayer to effect social change.

Special thanks this episode to field producer Ariana Proehl, KQED, and The National Endowment for the Arts.


Multiple Voices: From WYPR and PRX in collaboration with KQED, it’s Out of the Blocks: one neighborhood, everybody’s story.

That parish across the street was started to serve the Irish immigrants working on the railroad.

The hills back over that way on the other side of Lake Merritt was farmland.

…and then came the Portuguese, and then came the Italians.

A lot of people came here because this was the first place that all of the nationalities just about landed, here in the West Oakland area.

It was a good neighborhood and people cared for each other.

This was the elite area.

And then when the war was over, the middle class and other people moved out of the neighborhood, leaving what some have called an “abandoned class of people.”

The have and the have nots is what we’re dealing with. Are you telling me that peoples that are in power are not aware that this portion of the city is deprived and, you know, some of them sleeping on the street? It doesn’t make much sense to me, but this is the world we live in.

From producers Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick, with field producer Ariana Proehl, Out of the Blocks: West Oakland, Lower Bottoms—right after this.

LaMel Smith: Hi, my name’s LaMel Smith. I am the West Oakland Food Pantry Manager for Prescott-Joseph Center. Right now, we’re preparing to distribute fifty thousand pounds of fresh produce, dairy, and meat to the individuals in the community that are in need. Today, we’re having fresh grapes, pears, cantaloupe, potatoes, kale, we’ve got onions here. You see a couple of our volunteers here, preparing the food.

Dennis Stewart: When you volunteer and you helping for free, God’ll start blessing you in all types of ways: your family, friends…

Aaron Henkin: You volunteer here regularly at the food pantry?

DS: All the time. Wonderful, wonderful. And I go to church here.

AH: What’s your name?

DS: Stewart. Dennis Stewart.

AH: You guys are getting set up. You already have folks lining up. They know when…?

DS: Oh, my God. There’s about two hundred people. This is the beginning of the line, and all the people in line is beautiful people. You see these people right here? Family and friends.

AH: How are you guys today?

Annette: We’re blessed.

AH: How long… You’re right in the front of the line!

A: Six o’clock in the morning!

AH: You’ve been here since six o’clock in the morning? What’s your name?

A: Annette.

AH: What’s daily life like for you? What’s going on in your life these days?

A: Well, it’s trying to survive. That’s it. Well, going back and forth to the doctor. And everything counts. I’m disabled, so… And on SSI, you can’t get too much anyway.

LS: We serve over six hundred people weekly. Fortunately, we’ve been collaborating with the Alameda community food bank. Over 95% of the things that we give out come from them.

Washington Burns: There was a big need for food, so we went downtown, talked to the head of social services and he gave $50,000 to start the food bank.

LS: We have a wonderful gentleman named Dr. Burns and his other staff that are grant-writers who are talking to different big organizations that are in a position to donate finances so that we can keep this thing running.

WB: I am Washington Burns, executive director of the Prescott-Joseph Center. I’m gonna have to raise the funds. The pantry costs about $65,000 a year and we raise about two-thirds of that. LaMel is a pastor. He does an outstanding job and the Alameda County Food Bank, where we get most of our food from, really respects him. They give him more and more produce to give to the people and that’s one of the things that’s really lacking down here. There were mom and pop liquor stores or grocery stores that sold more liquor and candy than food, real food. There were no major grocery stores down here, and so he has managed to get enough produce to make a big impact on the community is what I’m trying to say.

LS: There’s no greater thing than to be a servant and while working here for the last decade, I met several individuals who have been a blessing unto my life. For instance, the volunteers that I work with.

Marilyn Atkinson: My name is Marilyn Atkinson. I’m a member of this church and this gives you an opportunity to see just the heart of people. Rarely do you find anybody that will even want to take more than they need, and that says a lot about the humanness about this whole project. Because you can see, there’s lots of stuff for them, so there’s no reason for anybody to go hungry, and everybody’s welcome.

LS: We’re here because no one would be. The have and the have nots is what we’re dealing with. Are you telling me that the rest of the Oakland community or the peoples that are in power are not aware that this portion of the city is deprived and poor and living in tents and some of them living on the street? It doesn’t make much sense to me, but this is the world we live in.

Demetrius Mitchell: My name is Demetrius Mitchell and we are in Campbell Village, also known as the Bottoms, also known as the end of the world, also known as the last thing you see on this side of Oakland.

AH: You say you’re in Wikipedia? I’m gonna look you up. Let me see what Wikipedia says. “Demetrius ‘Hook’ Mitchell is a former streetball player from Oakland, California. He was well-known among San Francisco Bay Area basketball players in the late 1980s, but in spite of his considerable talents, he did not reach the NBA. Among the NBA players who grew up with Mitchell, and now speak of his talent with admiration, Brian Shaw, Antonio Davis, All-Stars Jason Kidd and Gary Payton. Many have suggested he had the ability to become one of the greatest NBA stars of all time.” So, help me understand, then, what happened.

DM: I mean, it may have been the people. I hung around the wrong people, maybe. That could have been it. But how could you not hang around with people you’ve been around your whole life? Maybe I didn’t pursue education as hard as I could. When I grew up, I didn’t meet my father until I was sixteen years old. So, that’s where everybody try to say drugs played a big ol’ part in me not going to the NBA because six of my best friends, basketball friends at the time—Brian Shaw, Gary Payton, Greg Foster, Antonio Davis, and Jason Kidd—they all went to the NBA. So, in 2000, when the All-Star game was in Oakland, I was serving a five-year sentence for robbery. Since my friends made it to the NBA, none of them ain’t came and touched me or seen me. I mean, I ain’t had a problem with that. Some of them made a considerable amount of money. Twenty-something million dollars, a couple of them. That’s good. I mean, I hope that they use and spend their money wisely. 

AH: Tell me about what, like, an average day of life is like for you these days. What do you do with yourself these days?

DM: Just like today, I went to work early and got off early. I mean, I only work three or four hours a day.

AH: What are you doing for work these days?

DM: Loading boxes onto trucks. I mean, I look back and I really wish I would’ve had an opportunity to go to somebody’s training camp to try to make a team. I never had that opportunity. I really wish I would’ve had that opportunity. I don’t know if it was because… Some people get breaks, some people don’t. So, don’t take nothing for granted. That’s the truth, right here.

Dalton Samuel[?]: We are in Oakland, California at the Shoreline Fishing Pier and I am about to fish. 

AH: What are you aiming to fish for today?

D. Samuel: Halibut. Always halibut. Halibut and a good fight with a bat ray. Dalton Samuel, from Los Angeles, California. Born and raised in Compton. Yeah, so I came and just thought about changing it up and had a friend who had an apartment out here. Then, applied for a job at Whole Foods Market in Berkeley. They gave me the job and that’s how I ended up in the Bay Area. Then, eventually, this lady came out of nowhere and it was like, while I was working at Whole Foods. She came out of nowhere, she was like, “Yo, do you wanna go to, like, an outdoor school? Like, we’ll pay you to go to an outdoor school,” like, out of nowhere, dude. Yeah, the program, it was called OEI: Outdoor Educators Institute. It was a cohort of nine of us inner city folk. They paid us a stipend and had us working with outdoor groups like BAWT, Bay Area Wilderness Training, Outward Bound, just a bunch of different things… Backpacking, leadership training, yeah… And I can always have a job outdoors now, just because of that one, excuse me, moment. Just pretty wild. Right now, I work for Trackers Earth in Berkeley, and it’s an outdoor school. So, basically, like, what we do is take children—sometimes adults—out and we teach them hardened out skills like how to build shelters, how to do primitive fishing, how to make a fishing pole out of sticks, making cordage out of reeds or something. Whatever it is, you know? Just being able to survive outdoors. It’s really important. You know, my family didn’t have anything, you know? Like, nothing. I’m a first-generation college graduation. I’m the first person to actually move out of Los Angeles. You know, so it was kind of big to me to be able to come out here and actually see something different on my own and kind of, like, realize that I’m the one that can change the trajectory of my family. 

AH: You keep in touch with your family in Los Angeles? They must be proud of you.

D. Samuel: Oh, I love my family so much. Every day that I’m up here I do think of them. That’s my anchor, you know? Even though I live here, I’m definitely Compton. About a couple weeks ago, I caught a forty-pound bat ray, a couple of halibuts, guitarfish… It’s like a fish that has, like, a little arrow head. You know, fishing, like… That’s the other thing about fishing. That was my grandpa’s favorite pastimes. He’s bedridden now but, you know, I went in and found his tackle box and, you know, I was like, “Yo, Pa, I’m about to put your stuff to use, you know? We about to go catch some fish.” So, every time I catch a fish, you know, I call him and tell him about it and he goes, “Oh, boy, you jivin’!” [laughs] Yeah. It’s good stuff. My grandma… I can’t do no wrong in her eyes, so, yeah… Family is everything to me. 

Multiple Voices: It’s Out of the Blocks: West Oakland. One neighborhood, everybody’s story. 

AH: You find yourself now living next door to a rooster. 

Oliver Burke: Yeah. 

AH: What kind of neighbor is that?

OB: The rooster? It’s a nice neighbor. It only chimes in occasionally and it reminds me of growing up in Jamaica, where we had chickens here and there. So, it’s actually pretty comforting. [laughs] My name is Oliver Burke. As of last Friday, I just closed on a property that’s on the southeast corner of 12th and Willow, and the lot is 20 by 100 feet and there is a tiny house on it that’s 8 by 25 by 11 feet high, and I bought it off a woman who is now establishing her life on the east coast and she wanted to sell it to someone in the neighborhood, and she also was concerned with selling it to someone of color. I am a black Jamaican. When I said I was Jamaican to her, she’s like, “White Jamaican, black Jamaican?” I was like, “I’m a black Jamaican.” So, anyway, she preferred that rather than selling to a developer and I already had a lot in the hills in Oakland that I was planning on developing, but I bought this to take it off of the speculative market to develop low-income or affordable housing here, and I want it to be an affordable, permaculture, cohousing living space. 

AH: You say there’s a tiny house in the middle of the lot. It is tiny, and it’s almost like it’s on wheels. But you’re working on this place. It seems like you want this to be here. 

OB: I want it to be here temporarily, and then—once it’s all fixed up—instead of building my little cabin up in the hills, I could move this up there while the construction goes for the affordable permaculture cohousing.

AH: What are the first steps? What is on your to-do list? It must be quite a to-do list at this point.

OB: One is getting rid of the mold in the tiny house because construction was imperfect on it and there were many leaks and that created mold, and so getting rid of that so I can work on the inside.

AH: You have some homemade scaffolding on the side of the tiny house. I saw you on the roof yesterday working on your solar panels. Let’s have a look inside, see what you’ve got going on. 

OB: So, inside here, one of the first things is I sprayed a little vinegar on the mold. That’s… you can see that there. And right now, yeah, all you see inside is the little tub that the owner had here, a couple of my battery powered gardening tools and a table saw.

AH: Tell me a little bit more about yourself professionally. Tesla. You worked at Tesla. What kind of work do you do?

OB: I came in there as a battery technician, and then I became an engineer for the group that designed the electromagnetics of all our RND motors. And they had a series of layoffs and I got caught up in the one in mid-January, and then I wanted to buy a house.

AH: Are you… I guess, like, your status right now is unemployed or are you in between or looking for other work at the moment?

OB: I’m not looking for other work at the moment. This is my main thing, it’s to build a house for myself either here or up in the hills and it’s very satisfying and because of the benefit of Tesla stock that they offered to new employees, I’m okay for the moment. I am now here getting to live out my values and that is a very satisfying experience as some of you may know.

Diane Williamson: My name is Diane Williamson. We are at 1485 8th Street. Being a veteran—I’m a veteran, U.S. Army, hoorah—I wanted to start a nonprofit for veterans because my experience as a veteran, getting my benefits was very challenging, very traumatic. So, once I finally got my disability and everything set up, I didn’t want this to happen again to any other vet, because I have found that there’s a lot of other vets that do not know what they’re due. So, my thing is education and this is called Veterans Community Media Network. When I got out of high school, you know, June, everybody gets out of high school in June. That September I went to a four-year school in Eerie, Pennsylvania. Graphic design—I learned to draw, I loved to draw. I didn’t do what I was supposed to do in school. I had a ball, but not the educational ball. I partied myself right out of school. I will say that now and I am laughing now because that’s really what I had done. You know, the loans that you take out and my mother is just like… [groans] So, that summer of ’75 is when I had to come home and I just went and it was literally on a whim. I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I knew I didn’t want to go back to school, I didn’t think about working, I said, “I don’t know, I’ll go down to the army or something.” So, I went down there on a whim and threw my right hand up, vowing to defend the U.S., whatever it is. So, after I did it, it’s like, “Oh my God.” So, at some point, I had to come home. Everybody’s sitting at the dinner table. “Hey, guess what I did today!” What? “I signed up for the service.” Clink, clink, clink! Glasses, forks—“What?!” It was all this, “What did you do?” I signed up. I was a specialist and my MOS is nuclear weapons maintenance specialist. I was in New Jersey. There was a small depot in New Jersey. It was hard though, because I was one of only two women in the bay and it’s a boy’s club, military, in every sense. And I’m talking about the ‘70s, so you had to go in there being a badass from the giddy-up or you will wash out, literally just wouldn’t be able to take it. So, I did that for three years, three and a half years, and I got out and by this time, I had my daughter, I was way out of the service, single parent, and I was homeless in 2003. But what led me to end up being homeless was a series of events that happened back when I was in the service, and I will say this: I was assaulted by my commanding officer, which led to PTSD and they call that MST: Military Sexual Trauma. I don’t mind saying it because I always feel that if I talk about it, there could be someone who could relate, particularly obviously, the women. So, this thing had happened to me while I was in the service and it was never reported because I was afraid of retribution. During the time in 2003 that I was homeless and then I transferred to a vets’ housing organization, that incident came up again in a cognitive therapy session that we had, and I’m saying that it came up like bile. Now, I had suppressed this for over thirty years, and when that happened that was the part in which the counselors at the vet center that I was at began working on my disability. They cleared the room, and it was themselves and myself in the room, and they’re like, “Oh my God, Diane. What happened?” Once it was known what had happened and I had a chance to talk about it, they started the paperwork and that was traumatic in itself because I had to keep bringing up this story. You know, you have to keep telling it. But it took 8 years for them and three denials of my claim to get it through. So, by the time that I got the okay from the VA that this happened, it was 2012. That’s why I started the Veterans Community Media Network just as a sense so I can tell vets what I went through, what it takes, what it took to get through.

Bishop J. E. Watkins: Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Lord. Oh, Lord, I just want to thank you, Lord. You see those two garage doors, barn doors down there? That’s where the horse carriage was and this guy, when he built this, he built the upstairs for his family. This was the butcher shop when you came in here, and out back was where the smokehouse was. We’re located at 1485 8th Street. My name is Bishop J.E. Watkins. I’m the pastor of Jack London Square Chapel which utilizes this part of the building on Sundays. The building has survived since 1877. Nobody knows who the architect was. The guys who occupied this building, they sold it to another family that became political heads in California. That family sold it to Marcus Garvey, and this where he decided to do the Black Star Lines and take everybody to Africa. I think the ship barely made it, he came back, and that’s when he started having problems with the FBI and things like that. And so, they finally managed to dismantle his organization and they sent him back to Jamaica. Everybody’s used this building. Black [?] importers, Black Panthers… During World War II, the USO used it because they couldn’t go down to the white YMCA in downtown Oakland, so they would throw the parties and things like that and dances would be held here. Come on, we can go to the other side over here. 

AH: This chapel is a multi-use space. You’ve got a green screen behind the alter and it can become a TV studio.

BJEW: Yes, it can become a TV studio. Six days a week it’s a TV studio in training. We train at-risk youth, young adults, and returning veterans. We teach lighting, we teach editing, we teach script-writing, everything. 

AH: And on Sundays, you hold services in here.

BJEW: On Sundays, I hold services in here.

AH: Are the services, like… Can I find them on YouTube and stuff? Where do I see it?

BJEW: You can look under Jack London Square Chapel and then you’ll see them on YouTube.

[audio from one of the services]

BJEW: So, we moved over here in 2009. The drug dealers had it with their cover. It was about four years of being here with all the drug dealing going on, 24/7. But I wouldn’t run them off. I didn’t call the police. I called the man upstairs, and I’ll tell you, it really worked. See how quiet it is over here? We used to have shootings down here all the time. Prayer changes things. People don’t know it but I just tell them all the time. That’s what changed me, okay? Because I could’ve been out there doing the same thing. But when the Lord changed me, He changed me to the other side, so I gave my full attention to helping people. That’s my whole thing. 

Multiple Voices: You’ve been listening to Out of the Blocks, from radio producer Aaron Henkin and music producer Wendel Patrick. Special thanks to field producer Ariana Proehl and KQED. You can podcast this series and check out photos online at wypr.org/outoftheblocks. Aaron and Wendel want to thank all of us who took a leap of faith and shared our stories and our lives. For WYPR and PRX, this is West Oakland, Lower Bottoms signing off.


Aaron creates and produces original radio programs and podcasts for WYPR. His current project is The Maryland Curiosity Bureau. Aaron's neighborhood documentary series, Out of the Blocks, earned the 2018 national Edward R Murrow Award. His past work includes the long-running weekly cultural program, The Signal, and the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings series, Tapestry of the Times. Aaron's stories have aired nationally on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Wendel Patrick has been referred to as "David Foster Wallace reincarnated as a sound engineer" by Urbanite Magazine and as "wildly talented" by the Baltimore Sun. He has been referred to by XLR8R magazine as "a hip-hop producer that could easily make any fan of Squarepusher, Boards of Canada, or Madlib flip out." The alter-ego of classical and jazz pianist Kevin Gift, Wendel Patrick is rapidly making a name for himself as a producer to be recognized. His five albums, "Sound:", "Forthcoming", "JDWP", "Passage" and "Travel" were all produced without the use of samples, with Patrick playing every note of every instrument. What is perhaps most astounding and perplexing to listeners is that there are actually no instruments...he crafts all of the instruments, and every note, electronically.