Sights & Sounds of East Oakland: Evergreen Cemetery holds the stories of a neighborhood
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Evergreen Cemetery is famous for its service to the community of East Oakland. For example, Huey P. Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party was cremated here.
About 400 victims of the infamous Jonestown Massacre are buried here — most of them children. The Hells Angels are even rumored to have a specially marked off section at Evergreen, riding together in eternity. Even the original Buckwheat has a place with a picture of his days of being a part of the legendary Our Gang episodes.
At Evergreen Cemetery, residents are regular locals and also major chapters in the book of American history. I can imagine Huey P. Newton’s voice from the grave patiently mixed in over the slow modern operatic moans of tires braking, vehicles religiously dipping, cars performing shapely donuts during another underground sideshow in East Oakland. Black circular tire prints on the streets read like ghetto tarot cards of strategically neglected places, pointing to the same mistreated roads that are red hot with violence. Steaming like Newton’s voice, still young and simmering in the air here.
Evergreen Cemetery has a sacred vantage point in East Oakland, where the hills start to drive above the flatlands of Foothill Boulevard; where the sudden lights of the Coliseum below can be seen flashing at the sky in bright expansive rhythms; somewhere slightly further down from MacArthur Boulevard but higher above Bancroft Avenue, deep in the East near the prestigious grounds of Mills College yet remarkably near the killing fields of Seminary Avenue; overlooking Eastmont Mall near where my barber cuts my hair to this day and where we debate whether he should remain a part of this town’s story or cash in from selling his house to the reality of Oakland’s changing demographic.
At Evergreen my gaze holds steady from the top of the hill where the dirt of the land meets a paved road on a highly sloped grave site. I’m somewhere in silent awareness (8 minutes or 1.9 miles) above a Blue and Gold drenched crowd madly rooting for the Golden State Warriors at the Oakland Coliseum.
From a hidden hill
Why am I at a graveyard in East Oakland right now?
This cemetery is close to where my barber lives. He cuts hair from a home that he recently inherited from his aunt. And rather than sit in my car like a dead duck waiting for a possible drive-by killer hunting, or a policeman with a mistaken identity charge that I happen to fit, I use my knowledge of “the East” to choose a vantage point to wait things out and where things can be seen clearly from all sides: the Evergreen Cemetery.
Here, I can imagine former lives of the most fortuned and many stories of ruthless demise. I yearn to know more about the occupants while I take in the leveled panoramic views from a forgotten hillside. Shit. I can even remember one summer as a teen having to practice a play here at this very same cemetery for lack of a rehearsal space. Oakland has always been fearless and creative, even amongst chronic epidemics resulting from drugs, guns, and death.
The Oakland Police say the murder rate in Oakland is currently lower than years before, but it’s still high enough for me to be extra vigilant and cautious. Like the sneaky hillsides of Evergreen’s graveyard, the creative side of East Oakland cannot be seen from the vantage point of one perspective. If you believe this to not be true, then you do not know Oakland. The creativity of East Oakland, West Oakland, and even North Oakland can be found in how we seem to find a way to live and breathe every day, in the things we do to survive, the deadly risks we take just to do normal things like practice plays, go to public schools, or even just receive a haircut. This is our special creative gift — like waiting for our barber in a graveyard — how we magically stay alive, how we create peace in war, and how we stay in the everyday business of life — living and breathing the sure unforgivingness of an East Oakland street.
It is only when you sit back and gaze over Oakland that you can see the entirety of Oakland’s true story, from a hidden hill that you must know a few different and amazing people from all places in each direction to really survive it all. It is our exchange of services, like the one I make with my barber, that our everyday truth and our cherished brand of creativity is based on.The only question we ask ourselves about our own “creative survival” is how much will Oakland change in the future and where will it stay the same?
My barber, J.B., usually meets me on his porch behind several locked gates with the biggest smile and a hefty Oakland A’s green joint. He offers a toke and laughs, knowing I get paranoid panic attacks if I engage. I shamelessly decline, still regretting the last time I said yes.
“Oh man come on, just once,” he laughs, already knowing my fate.
I usually hit it once just to be kind, fulfilling the obligation of a good guest as if he only offered a glass of red wine. And also to make him laugh.
“The fact that medical marijuana finally became legal on the same day that Donald Trump was elected President does not escape me,” I comment and he grins. This is how we go from here. We’ve been friends since Peralta Elementary School days right here in Oakland where we were even Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” kids together. We’ve known each other for so long at this point that we are more like cousins now. To the point where I would risk my life to support his creativity. I would rather meet him in the struggle plate of East Oakland than find a safer space to sit and get a haircut. His spirit and smile give me fresh life in this world, and that's why I'm here. We are natives in this dwindling Oakland family of “real ones” and we support each other unabashedly like mythical Raider fans in the black hole.
I ask him if he knew that Huey P. Newton was cremated at Evergreen Cemetery down the block from him? He doesn’t. “Jonestown?” I ask, and he doesn’t know about that either. “How about the Hells Angels?”
However, he does know about a guy, a local legend that was murdered over 20 years ago, and that “even to this day, he always has fresh flowers in his grave. They say he was hella cool.”
I’m forced to watch his latest Black reality shows on a huge flat screen while he continues to break the mood and tell me a funny story about a brand new white woman in the neighborhood he saw running down the middle of Seminary Avenue like she owned the road, how she almost got hit by several cars.
“Because you know folks in the East drive!” he laughs.
From there we talk about the numerous visits and phone calls he gets from people trying to buy his aunt’s former home. How the market is surging in East Oakland and he hints at an inevitable sale. I joke that I should be his tough negotiator demanding $700,000 at least, making sure that he leaves with something okay as I now can envision another true friend, a local business owner, and another native Oaklander gone. My barber. My play cousin, J.B.
He ponders a move to either Sacramento, California or Dallas, Texas. My vote is for the property values of a Southern real estate market.
They want us gone
“Oakland is changing and they want us gone from here.”
We both agree while the electric razor calmly buzzes out my usual style: a beard with a low fade.
A lonely pool table in his spacious living room sits on soon-to-be remodeled hardwood floors watching us laugh, talk, and smile.
“Soon as I remodel these floors I’m selling,” he says.
I’m starting to feel slightly paranoid from his extra-green brand of weed again, imagining death for no reason.
I look at the plush white leather couches and listen to J.B. pulse his many spiritual insights of the intimate relationships on ratchet reality shows, while I try to remain calm and just breathe. My East Oakland barber is spiritual. In fact he is so spiritual that he does not even work on Saturdays.
“God really doesn’t want people to do work on Saturdays,” he says. It’s a day of sin. I respect his beliefs and yet every day feels like Saturday in parts of Oakland to me.
I think of Evergreen Cemetery again in a soft white leather barber’s chair to gain perspective and to remember to be thankful. I had not yet met “the world’s most famous undertaker,” Buck Kamphausen, and I had no idea I would be on a stage at nearby Castlemont High for KALW Radio baring my soul about my personal tour of Evergreen with Buck and the head of cremations, Giovanni Morgan, at that time — people I now consider friends because of how they welcomed me in and taught me more about life.
As I jumped in my car and jetted from my barber’s house in a well-groomed and relaxed state, happy to be alive, and feeling fresh with a new haircut, I saw a young man with rough dreads. He was on a troubled corner, sitting down, while outside on the very edge of the corner in a chair reading a Bible like it was his only space to find a moment of peace. Maybe he was searching for something opposite of what they show on the evening news, maybe he was galvanizing his own form of “creative survival,” maybe visualizing a ghetto heaven. All I could do was keep it moving and send a good thought through the wind. I also wondered if he knew - if he knew - who his Evergreen neighbors were? The almost 400 children memorialized nearby because of Guyana, and the Jonestown Massacre.
I hoped he could find a creative solution on how to survive East Oakland. If only he could get up off of these deadly corners for coroners, then find a hill to gather his mind and plan for a life with a peaceful view. Even his local cemetery's view will do.
But if you’re considering a final rest there one day, at Evergreen Cemetery, it’s all out of plots of land to lay, and only cremations are available on the premises these days — a place where everyday people have gone to rest in the fame of a sanctified peace, forever.
This story was produced for Sights & Sounds of East Oakland, a collaboration between KALW and Oakland Voices, a community journalism program of the East Bay Times and the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.