Reading about the O: Books

4 Jan

I recently finished the third book I read last year about Oakland, and it got me thinking about just how much I read about Oakland and how lucky we are that there are so many alternatives available to the Tribune and TV news. So I thought I’d reflect on all that I read about Oakland in 2007, starting with the books. Check back in a few days for a review of my favorite Oakland blogs.


Oakland: The Story of a City, by Beth Bagwell

If you’re going to read just one book about Oakland, this is it. Bagwell traces Oakland’s history from it’s Native American origin through the 1950s (and a bit beyond). She thoroughly delves into city politics, not shying away from covering the corrupt power-plays that made this city what it is today. Almost no detail is left out, with topics including the environmental landscape, schooling, economics, racial issues, transportation, and development.

This book was part of my inspiration to start this blog, and I think it should be required reading for anyone who cares about Oakland. Actually, I think I might re-read it again soon to refresh my memory on Oakland’s history now that I have a better understanding of the city’s current socio-political sructure.

The Second Gold Rush: Oakland and the East Bay in World War II, by Marilynn S. Johnson

The Second Gold Rush, which I just finished, is a nice follow-up to Bagwell’s book. Since Johnson hones in on a shorter time period, she’s able to delve into great detail about Oakland and the greater East Bay before, during, and after World War II. Particularly interesting to me was what I learned about housing during this time. Apparently, as the war began, there was such a shortage of housing in the East Bay that the federal government ran ads asking residents to rent out rooms in their houses to migrant workers, as a way of expressing their patriotism and support for the war. After the war, the housing situation was even worse, as temporary public housing was destroyed and never replaced, forcing thousands of African Americans out of their housing, without providing them with sufficient alternatives.

There are also some fun highlights about city life during the war that could serve as an inspiration for what’s to come, like this quote from a woman about the bustling of downtown: “My husband and I often walk the downtown streets after dinner just for the pure joy of the movement all about us.” I know I look forward to a day when I can think of downtown in that way.

And there are of course tidbits that are pretty frightening and make me feel pretty good about the current state of affairs in our city, like the scapegoating of women…

One old timer claimed that the upsurge of barroom brawls and violence was due to the presence of women. “The police records are full of brawls, stabbings, he result of drunken jealousy. And all these things because women frequent the saloons of today.” Local officials also tended to blame women for the increase in rape and sexual assault cases… Some people even claimed that women accepting pick-ups were abetting the crime wave and should be punished along with male offenders. Public officials responded to women’s “promiscuity” by controlling their access to bars and other public spaces [by denying access to unaccompanied women].

Unfortunately, I’m not sure how easy this book is to find. I stumbled upon it in the East Bay section on the top floor of Moe’s, which is wear I buy most of my books, but I’m sure it can also be found online.

Blues City: A Walk in Oakland, by Ishmael Reed

This is a quick read that follows Reed as he walks through Oakland, visiting several landmarks and participating in cultural events. Unlike the other two books, Reed looks at Oakland not only through a historical lens, but also touches on current themes. Reed’s writing style is conversational, yet engaging, as he paints a beautiful, though sometimes harsh, picture of the city.

Like Bagwell and Johnson, Reed doesn’t shy away from difficult issues, especially in the chapter titled “The Killing Comes to My Neighborhood… Again,” where he writes:

It dawned on me why Oakland really is Blues City. The killing that was breaking out all over town, even threatening people’s safety in the tony Oakland hills, had come to my neighborhood again. I had talked to the victim hundreds of times… He was a handsom, elderly black man who usually stood in the driveway next to his room when he wasn’t walking through the neighborhood… He had been murdered by his son, just as he had murdered one of his sons…

Despite this acknowledgment of a dark reality, Reed also acknowledges the inspirational aspects of Oakland, especially when reminiscing about the past. He tells stories and sometimes interviews varied figures that served important roles in Oakland’s history, including Blues musicians, members of the Black Panthers, writers, artists, and activists.

Though I don’t always agree with Reed’s political views, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and learned a lot about the culture of Oakland and about some very interesting cultural contributers that I’m sure I would not have learned about elsewhere.


I know there are other great books about Oakland out there, and I hope to read many more. Any come to mind that you think Oaklanders should check out?

5 Responses to “Reading about the O: Books”

  1. m January 4, 2008 at 2:08 am #

    I love the rice room by ben fong torres, not *about* Oakland per se, but takes place in Oakland in the past. It is a good book all around, I really enjoyed it and liked the local setting aspect very much too.

  2. Georgia January 5, 2008 at 9:21 am #

    American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland by Robert O. Self.

  3. Serena January 7, 2008 at 11:26 am #

    I love Jerry Thompson and Duane Deterville’s “Black Artists in Oakland” from Arcadia Press.
    Also you can check my book out from the library, “GrassRoutes Travel guide to Oakland: The Soul of the City Next Door,” I am currently working on the 2nd edition. Erica Mailman has a couple interesting books, Oakland Neighborhoods and Oakland Hills that I’d highly recommend.

  4. Becks January 7, 2008 at 11:42 am #

    Thanks for all of the suggestions. Serena – I’ve looked through your book a couple of times at various local stores and plan to pick it up one day.

    Looks like I have a lot more reading to do 🙂

  5. Angela January 24, 2008 at 1:49 pm #

    “No There There: Race, Class and Community in Oakland” is a great addition to a collection of Oakland history books and a fuller understanding of the city past and present bc contains details, themes and events absent in others.

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