Several months ago, I took a class at the Writing Salon in Berkeley, and one of the in-class exercises was to write about a place, with both a positive spin and a negative spin.
I chose to write about Broadway & 14th, in downtown Oakland, where I exit and return to the 1 or 1R bus 5 days a week. Here’s what I came up with:
1. The sidewalks and gutters are full of cigarette butts, empty soda bottles, pages ripped from newspapers, and fries spilled out from a McDonald’s bag. Though I try not to breathe through my nose, the smells of urine and exhaust fumes are inescapable. An old man in tattered clothes yells complaints to no one in particular. The tall buildings cast a dark shadow over what would otherwise be a sunny morning.
2. The corner’s bustling, as a man in a new suit helps a young mother with a stroller get off the bus. Two young men trade jokes and laugh out loud, stepping aside to allow me to pass by and sharing their smiles with me. Though a cool wind blows through the air, beams of sunshine warm me. The grand buildings of the late 19th and early 20th century watch over the city calmly.
Both of the descriptions above accurately depict my perceptions of Broadway & 14th, as my perspective shifts from day to day, based on mood, weather, etc.
The problem is that many outsider perceptions of Oakland center solely or mostly around my first description. Often, when traveling throughout the state or country, I get strange looks when I say I live in Oakland. People wonder if I hear gunshots every night. Last time my sister visited me in downtown, she – an ex-Oakland resident who recently moved back to the suburbs in LA – couldn’t help talking about how she didn’t miss the trash on the streets.
There are certainly negative aspects of Oakland, but there are many beautiful aspects too. And really, most of it’s just perception and perspective.