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Sights & Sounds of East Oakland: Art after foreclosure

Photo courtesy of Oakland Voices
Aquiela Lewis and Adonis Birch collaborate on a song

This is my grandmother’s story as much as it is mine. I lived with her, Attaway, on 2657 67th Avenue from August 2006 to May 2012 and enjoyed every minute of it. But a series of events killed my joy.

My Grandmommy became a victim of predatory lending, the mortgage ballooned and on January 25, 2012 she lost her home of over 40 years to foreclosure. It was devastating to her because this was the home she bought with my Gramps in 1968 with a loan, 50 cent pieces and silver dollars. Now, my Grandmommy lives far away in Stockton in a senior facility.

The foreclosure was devastating to me because I felt like I should have done more to help her fight it. Or, maybe if I’d had a job we could have kept the house. I don’t know how to forgive myself and get past it, so recently I went back for the first time in a long time to face what had happened.

The block is sunny, as always. Dogs bark, people work on their gardens. My Grandmommy’s former neighbor is still here, a few doors down. Her name is Jessie Brown, but Grandmommy always called her Ms. Brown, so when she lets me in, I call her that too.

Ms. Brown was like the team captain of the neighborhood. She organized block parties during the National Night Out and with her leadership, all the neighbors learned to watch out for each other.

“Practically everybody on the street call me Mama Brown,” she says. “Even the gangsters. We got a few gangsters around but they even check on me.”

But, more and more people are leaving — because of foreclosure, or just to cash in and move somewhere more peaceful. She says the neighborhood isn’t like a family the way it used to be.

“Im in the process now of trying to get the new people to know one another.” Gentrification might be coming slowly to East Oakland. But, the bigger picture for Ms. Brown is that over the years she’s lived here, she’s watched the neighborhood become more dangerous, more desperate, less connected.

“I’m an alterationist, my business is in the back of my house,” Ms. Brown tells me. “When I moved here, I could leave that front door open. I didn’t have any bars on it like you see now. I could work until twelve, one o’clock at night. Now, I have to lock the gate when I’m going to the garbage can.”

Hearing that was hard for me. It’s hard not to blame myself for not helping to keep the neighborhood together. I’ve always dealt with hardships through my poetry. Since my Grandmommy’s foreclosure, I’ve been writing and performing a lot.

A city that’s forgotten them I see the leftovers only a handful of leftovers Gun shells in the ground are creating another art piece Murals decorate empty walls vacant buildings storefronts and homes tell the story Where have the people gone? Who’s gonna save them when the ghosts live here now Who’s occupying the place making space because we’ve been uprooted Dragged Pushed And pulled

I’m not the only one to tackle the effects of displacement through art. Other artists I know and admire have done this too. Davin Thompson aka Do D.A.T. has a similar story. His mother’s house was also foreclosed.  

“It feels like having the rug pulled out from under you,” says Do D.A.T. “Moving out of my home it was like reliving your life and packing up someone else’s life at the same time. And, me being an artist, I have the talent to talk about it and put it in perspective.”

I know what he means. Foreclosure made me feel like I had to start my life over again. Do D.A.T says these stories of urban change get told a lot — even stories about people like him. But rarely do we hear the stories told by people like him.

“I won't front — I wasn't in the trap, I wasn't in the hood like that. But I still got eyes, I got partners that live that life. I can see. Not only can I see, I can think.”

But, what about people who aren’t artists and don’t have that?

“I feel like everybody has an outlet,” says Do D.A.T. “Sometimes it's not the healthiest outlet, but, it'll find a way out.”

Mr. Birch is another rapper out of East Oakland. His mother also lost her home to foreclosure. Mr. Birch thinks housing displacement starts with a different kind of displacement — feeling displaced or excluded from society, period. It starts with not having things that it seems like everybody else does, like two parents, functional schools, a future. And that’s what makes it easy to sell the small things that we actually do have.

“You have  a whole bunch of people sitting in their grandmother’s home selling dope, not knowing that grandma worked this hard for this house ” he says. “We're not keeping it together for our future children. We're not owning anything. We're losing things and giving it away just because it's cheaper.”

I write about this too. I wonder how our grandparents, great grandparents and ancestors would view the situation today.


I wasn’t around to see the tears The blood being spilt Guns blazing Hoses gushing But I see their faces gazing somewhere Thinking about way back when I could put my fingers in the dents and trace where it all began Tears rushing creating rivers Their faces tell story lines It’s seeped in the blood lines Complacency and empty homes and in communities fragmented Lost hope No hope

It still hurts. But now, I finally have the courage to face my fears, forgive myself and let the healing continue by sharing my spoken word, until displacement doesn’t happen again.

This story originally aired in May of 2016.