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An Oakland noise complaint prompts a celebration

Leila Day
Joyful Noise street party celebration

In the past few months, one particular issue has become a flashpoint around gentrification in Oakland: noise.  

In September, police were called to an altercation around a drum circle at Lake Merritt. Just a few weeks later, news broke about a black church in West Oakland, warned by the city that their choir practice might constitute a “public nuisance.” These incidents and others have ignited fiery debates about gentrification, racial profiling, and bias.

Making joyful noise

On a Saturday morning, a stretch of Adeline street in West Oakland is blocked off for what organizers call a “Make a Joyful Noise” celebration.

A stage sits in the middle of the street, kids laugh in a bouncy house, and free hotdogs cook on the grill. It’s an event put together by Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in response to the recent noise complaint about evening choir practice.

“Basically we rehearse on Wednesday night from 7 to 9 p.m. – and we’ve been doing that for a long time,” says Pastor Thomas Harris III. He’s been at the church for more than 20 years and is one of the organizers of the event. On August 31, 2015, Harris was shocked to get a warning from the city threatening more than $3,000 in fines for “excessive noise". The “public nuisance” complaint had come from a neighbor.

“Perhaps during the evening it might have shook someone the wrong way or something like that,” says Harris.

So, this local church that’s had choir practice for years was being told to keep quiet. Harris says this complaint comes at a time when people fear that the traditionally black neighborhood is changing too fast.

"There used to be a time that ... it was nothing to knock on your neighbor’s door," Harris says. "I think there’s a lack of love, lack of compassion, lack of caring for each other.”

And it wasn’t just the church that’s received noise complaints lately.

Members of the drum and dance group Sambafunk! are also here today. They wear red and white outfits that sparkle as they march in a line down Adeline street.


In September, members of this group were gathered at Lake Merritt for a drum circle to celebrate the lunar eclipse when a man confronted them, asking them to shut it down. Drummer Jason Ulibarri was at the park that evening.

“I’ve been drumming on the lake for about 11 years and I’m kind of newcomer,” he says.

The interaction between the black and Latino drummers and the white man who confronted them led to an altercation. Police were called in and citations were handed out. Social media reaction was strong and swift, with many arguing this was yet another negative sign of Oakland’s gentrification – the quieting down of the arts and culture that make the city so vibrant.

Jason Ulibarri says, “In the bigger picture, the music is just an indicator of the other kinds of culture that Oakland has that’s being pushed out.”

This fear of culture being pushed out is what brought so many people here today. For some, these recent complaints are a warning sign of attempts to change the culture of the neighborhood. Pastor Amos Brown of the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco spoke at the event about what he sees as different standards around cultural celebrations.   

He took the stage to say, “I fought for gay rights around the world but they don’t tell them to shut up, they don’t even have their clothes on, some of them downtown. I said don’t you ever come to this black church and tell us to shut up, we are going to sing and shout!”

And shout they did. You could hear the noise from around the block where Chris Adams lives. He was at home with his door open.

“Sometimes you are going to hear what other people are doing and if it’s something as overwhelmingly positive as that, I’ve got no problem,” says Adams.

Adams moved to the neighborhood  a month ago from San Francisco. He says he couldn’t afford the rent there anymore.

Just around the corner is another neighbor, Michelle, who didn't want to use her full name, says the noise, “I can do without it.”

The church is directly behind her house. “I think they should try their best to quiet it down a little more,” she says.

Michelle says she hasn’t talked about this with her neighbors, but she doesn’t think she’s alone in her issues with the noise.

“I see both sides,” she says. “I don’t know if my neighbors complained about it. You need to be considerate of the noise.”  

Crossing the street is Jodi Monahan, heading toward the noise.

“You hear neighbors gentrifying the area expecting it to be quiet like the Oakland hills and that’s just wrong,” says Monahan, who thinks the noise complaints are racially motivated and directly connected to gentrification.

“I think what’s happening in this city is horrifying. People are getting squeezed out lower and middle income people can’t afford to live in their neighborhoods. I mean a church? Make a joyful sound! Glory to the Lord. We all do it!”

Later in the event, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff publicly apologized for what she said was the city’s mistake. She said the letter should have never been sent. And even Oakland’s Chief of Police, Sean Whent, felt the need to support the joyful noise today.

“I think if we are talking about church noise on Sunday, I think it’s a wonderful thing,” says Whent. “We get very few complaints about churches – most are loud parties and things like that.”

The city of Oakland has publicly stated that they have no plans to restrict drumming in the park during reasonable hours; and the letter Pleasant Grove Baptist church received was rescinded, so no fine will be paid. Inside the church, Reverend Harris says there are no hard feelings.

“We've got to learn how to live together,” he says. “I think Oakland is changing and the faces are changing and it’s different. Things change people change but we got to learn how to live together.

Outside, the street is full of noise, enjoyable to some and annoying to others. But today, a complaint that has divided neighbors has turned into an invitation to make some noise.


Crosscurrents Oakland
Leila Day is a Senior Producer at Pineapple Street Media and is the Executive Producer and co-host of The Stoop Podcast, stories about the black diaspora. Her work has been featured on NPR, 99% Invisible, the BBC as well as other outlets. Before The Stoop, she was an editor at Al Jazeera's podcast network and worked on creating and editing award winning narrative driven journalism. She began her career in journalism at KALW where she worked as a health care and criminal justice reporter. During that time she contributed as an editor, taught audio storytelling to inmates at San Quentin, and helped develop curriculum for training upcoming reporters.