A student’s love letter to Oakland


Illustration by Brittany England/The Pioneer

Elizabeth Avalos,
Staff Writer

A Cal State East Bay classmate once told me that I turned out really well for being from East Oakland. Her statement made me laugh, but it also made me question how many other people share what I understood to be a negative view of my city.

In retrospect, I was one of those people. The attachment and sentiments I share for Oakland today were not always there. As a child, I could not wait to be old enough to move away and never look back. But today, I can earnestly say that Oakland is the most beautiful, authentic, culturally rich city in the world and genuinely mean it.

Inevitably, a dangerous city shapes you much differently than a safer city would, but not always in a bad way. In fact, I would not trade my historically dangerous city for even the safest city in the world. Not today, not ever.

But before I learned to love it, I found it easy and natural to hate it. What was there to love about a city so famous for its violence, shootings, sideshows, murders and drive-bys? In the mid and late 1990s to early 2000s, my answer was nothing.

I hated feeling terrified every time my father left for work, my older siblings went out with their friends or my mother made a trip to the supermarket by herself. I could not wait to abandon “Little Iraq” and never look back.

Today, the situation in my neighborhood is no longer what it used to be. Sideshows no longer happen three blocks away from my home as frequently as they used to and the nearby bar that drunk men stumbled out of every day of the week no longer exists. But this form of fear never fully subsides. Although the pre-existing concerns have lightened, the pre-established methods of precaution have become unbreakable habits.

My mother still walks me out the front door every morning and from our front steps she analyzes every tire and window of my car to make sure nothing was done to it overnight. Whether I arrive home at 7 p.m. or 3 a.m., I always find her on the couch waiting for me to make it through the front door safely. On days when I get off work and it’s dark at 8 p.m., my father has arrived by 7:50 p.m. to pick me up and drive us home. Part of this is the unconditional love that my parents have for me, but part of it is the drug-addicts and drunks who linger near Lake Merritt, which is across the street from the city building I work in.

Despite this, my city and I have come a very long way. I understand that many people still share the negative feelings I once felt towards Oakland too. Those of us who have the honor of calling this place home get to see it from the inside out and hold a stronger sense of appreciation for all that it is, than those who look at it from the outside in.

It took me a long time, but once I learned to stop allowing the violence, the tragic news stories and the devastating homicide statistics define my city, I realized that there is much more to this place than what I had formerly allowed myself to see. I understood that regardless of the circumstances, any place can be what you decide to make of it.

Before, living in East Oakland terrified me because even if you stayed out of trouble, if you were ever at the wrong place at the wrong time, you could be caught in crossfire and the consequences could prove fatal. This became especially clear when a drive-by occurred on my block. My family was safe, but some of our car windows were shattered.

Still, as I began traveling to farther cities around the world, it became evident that the cultures, the diversity, the cuisines and the overall lifestyle that Oakland provides cannot be matched. Whether you choose to go for a ride on a gondola or have a picnic at Lake Merritt, enjoy a caramel filled churro or fruit in a cup in the Fruitvale district, appreciate the scenic views or dine at Jack London Square, enjoy the live performances and art at First Fridays, hike Redwood Regional Park or catch a Dubs game at Oracle or the New Parkway Theatre, you realize that defining Oakland by its violence and crime statistics is a grave injustice within itself.

I admit that a certain level of fear still strikes when I drive home alone at 1 a.m. after a night out with my girlfriends or when the sound of gunfire goes off closer than usual at 2 a.m. But the biggest difference between then and now is that this fear no longer overshadows all the good that Oakland is home too.

Today, even when I roam the streets of Paris, Madrid or Rome, I hella miss the place where I scored my first soccer goal and the place that all my childhood memories call home. Oakland has shaped my outlook on life and the strong family dynamic I have today. At the end of the day, no matter where life takes me, no place will ever mean more to me than the place that watched and helped me grow.