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Hey Area: Where is East Oakland? It’s more than geography

Jeneé Darden
Where does East Oakland begin and end?

For the past year, KALW has focused in on East Oakland. We've hosted live community events and took our collaborative journalism project Hey Area there to answer your questions about East Oakland. One of the most popular questions we’ve received is: What are the boundaries of East Oakland? KALW’s Oakland reporter Jeneé Darden went searching for the answer. Watch the award-winning Where Is East Oakland documentary here

What are the boundaries of East Oakland? As someone originally from East Oakland, I’m curious to know. Before I head east, I start near the center of the city—Lake Merritt.

Even on a weekday afternoon, the scene is buzzing at the lake. From a bird’s eye view, you can see court buildings and the Oakland Museum overlooking the glistening water. A man pushes his ice cream cart, people are taking a lunch break stroll. When I ask Oakland residents where East Oakland is, everyone I spoke to agreed the easternmost line is the border of San Leandro. But as to where it begins, some say it starts at Park Blvd. then goes east. Another woman told me East Oakland starts at Fruitvale Ave. near Highway 580. The most common answer is one I’ve heard over the years growing up in Oakland.

“The other side of the lake as we like to call it,” says Demetrius, an Oakland native. “Meaning once you hit the tennis courts, that’s the other side of the lake."

Oakland history lesson

For a more official answer, I head downtown, by Oakland City Hall, to meet Betty Marvin, the city’s historic preservation planner. Her canary yellow top pops in the conference room. She flips through one of the many maps she has spread across the table for me.

Miss Betty gives me a history lesson. She says the east end of Oakland is pretty new. The city incorporated in 1852. Some communities in the east joined the city more than 50 years later.

Miss Betty says, “The farther part of East Oakland became part of Oakland in 1909.”

As for those settlements closer to Lake? Marvin says, “Going back to early, early uses of the phrase ‘East Oakland,’ like 1890s newspaper ads, it seems pretty consistently to mean east of Lake Merritt.” 

I notice one map on the table that the city uses to determine community development grants. West Oakland and North Oakland are marked. There’s even a Central East Oakland. But East Oakland is not designated on the map. Miss Betty says the city doesn’t have an official position on what exactly constitutes East Oakland. It’s the residents who create the dividing lines. Some of that is about property values.

“Neighborhood names are just sliding down toward the bay in an effort to class it up a little,” she says. “I'm more familiar with that in western and north parts of Oakland where prices have risen faster. And the pressure to suddenly call what used to be the Golden Gate neighborhood, [is now] lower Rockridge.”

Miss Betty says when the demographics shift, so do the boundaries.

“Even the psychological connotations of the name East Oakland may change in the future,” she explains.  “People may be more eager to be known as being in East Oakland or they may really want to shed it and get rid of whatever the stereotypes are at that time.”

Culture of resilience

The words “East Oakland” do come with stereotypes. Like regions in other major cities, East Oakland has its good and bad. For those of us who are from here and live here, East Oakland with all of its complexities is home. That’s why this question of where exactly is East Oakland is more than just a geography question. It’s about culture.

"I define the culture of East Oakland as a culture of resilience," says artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez.

I’m in the Fruitvale neighborhood at her home. We’re about two and a half miles east of the lake. She takes me back to the East Oakland I remember in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

“I grew up at a time when Oakland was violent and harsh and poor because of inequality,” Favianna recalls. The crack cocaine epidemic was alive here. We had a huge gang problem. I mean, literally, people would be getting jumped across the street from my house. We had police brutality. That's always been a problem with The Town. But we also had MC Hammer, graffiti and businesses that were thriving.”

Favianna’s home is full of her vibrant, colorful paintings. She developed her art skills growing up in East Oakland. Her lessons came from the classroom and everyday people in the community.

“My mom hired a chola to teach me how to draw lowriders,” she says.  She was like, ‘I can tell you love art. I'm gonna hire Gina to teach you how to draw lowriders.’ Then I would go after school to a mask making class or a screen printing class at the library. And so I knew as a kid there were people here, services and a community that cared about me.”

Favianna is proud of her Fruitvale roots and recognizes the neighborhood as being part of East Oakland. But not everyone east of the lake considers themselves part of East Oakland.

I step into Nama Japanese Cuisine restaurant in the Dimond District. A family is sharing cucumber sushi rolls. John Kim is the owner. The Dimond is a more expensive area of Oakland, that doesn’t have the same levels of crime or poverty as nearby neighborhoods, like the Fruitvale, which is just about 2 miles south. Kim says the Dimond District is not East Oakland.

“It’s not exactly East Oakland, but somewhere between East Oakland and I guess main Oakland.” 

Hmmmm? He says East Oakland starts six blocks east of us. That’s in the Laurel District. This part of the city definitely looks different from when I was growing up. I see street construction. The grocery store I used to go with my grandmother is now a gym, but the Ace Hardware store is still here. Property values have gone up, which is great for homeowners. However,  some long-time residents are struggling to pay rising rents. Homeless people are camped out under the freeway.

Love for a sometimes tough city

A little further east, in the Melrose neighborhood, Rev. Harry Williams prays over the male congregants at Victory Outreach Church.

“It’s a struggle and a challenge to be a man of God in these times. But oh God, standing before me I see warriors! I see men of valor!

Rev. Harry, as he prefers to be called, is not the pastor of this church. His church is outside, in the streets. He calls himself a "hood preacher " because unlike pastors of some of the bigger Oakland churches, he lives in the community that he serves. And he engages with everyone, from grannies to gangsters.

“You’re looking at my pulpit right here,” he says as he points to the concrete on the corner of 46th Ave. and E12th. His congregation is all around us. Across the street from us are homeless tents. We’re steps away from what’s known as The Track—a strip on International Blvd. notorious for high sex trafficking. But we’re also in a neighborhood with family homes and schools.

Rev. Harry looks around and says, “The culture of East Oakland is vibrant. It's beautiful, it’s glorious. There's a lot of joy and diversity here. It's a place where there's so much swag, incredible music, and an incredible vibe of brotherhood and sisterhood on the one hand. On the other hand, it can be an incredibly violent place. A place where there's tremendous apathy, especially among the people who really should care about the poor people that live here.”

Culture and change

One block up from the corner of Rev. Harry’s pulpit is a warehouse. The side entrance is across from a lumber yard, near railroad tracks. It looks unassuming, but inside are live/work studios with all sorts of artists.

Gina Goldblatt sublets a small area of this studio. I ask her how much is an entire unit.

“I just saw some of the studios up for rent on Craigslist listed for just under $3,000 a month,” she says.

Gina uses this space to practice a form of acrobatics called silks. She hangs and spins on fabric that looks like two silk ribbons hanging from the ceiling. She says the highest she’s ever gone is 25 feet. Even though there’s a mat under her, I nervously watch her dance in the air.

After her practice, Gina takes me to the loft where she lives, two miles north of here in the Allendale neighborhood. Many of the residents there are people of color. Gina is white and grew up in a New York suburb. After graduating from Mills College and living in North Oakland, she moved to East Oakland three years ago. She works multiple jobs to pay the rent, while she sees newer residents moving in with more money. She says the energy is changing in the neighborhood.

“You can feel this tension of different incomes, different lifestyles, different approaches to just being in a neighborhood,” she says. “I found that people that have lived here for a while, they’re like ‘This is my neighborhood.’ They say hello to you. Even if you’re not friends, you acknowledge each other. And a lot of people really new to the neighborhood just have a different air about them. It’s more of what I’m used to from New York where you mind your own business.”

Gina’s home also serves as a feminist and womanist writing center called Liminal. Her literary events draw a diverse crowd. But she also wants to use Liminal as a bridge for old and new Oakland to communicate.

She says, “I am willing to hold space for people to have dialogue...looking at intersections of race, of sexuality, of class. You know all of the sh*t that people are uncomfortable talking about, but that inevitably comes out whenever you write your own story.”

Deep East Oakland

The question remains about the boundaries of East Oakland, but there’s a term that’s become more common for an area of East Oakland. It’s called Deep East Oakland.

“Deep East Oakland, where that boundary is, is debatable,” says Candice Elder.  “But [it’s] anything after High Street to San Leandro border.”

Candice Elder is the founder and executive director of East Oakland Collective. The grassroots organization does racial and economic equity work in Deep East Oakland. She’s an East Oakland native. Candice is right that people debate the boundaries. But for her organization, she says what makes up the Deep East boils down to resources. West of High St. Elder says you see more small businesses, cafes, and restaurants. Google opened a STEM lab in the Fruitvale. The farther or deeper you go into East Oakland, community access to resources declines.

She says, “Drive down International Blvd. all the way to the San Leandro border. You see the businesses start changing. You see more vacant lots and businesses. You'll see the street infrastructure is not kept up.”

That may change.

“East Oakland is starting to become gentrified,” Candice says. “Now it’s like the hot spot, the place to live. You know where property still might be a little bit affordable compared to other neighborhoods and cities. You will see an influx of people actually coming into East Oakland. Before they were scared of East Oakland. Now everyone wants to be in East Oakland.  

Candice says the Deep East is where you will still find the largest population of African-Americans who have not been displaced.

“That's part of the reason why the East Oakland Collective was founded; to get ahead of that curve, get ahead of gentrification and stop the further displacement of black people. And also preserve the culture and the rich history of Deep East Oakland and greater East Oakland.”

Look up from the flatlands of Deep East Oakland and you can see the Oakland Hills. East Oakland is usually associated with the flatlands, not the upper-class population in the Oakland Hills. Back in downtown, Betty Marvin and I look at a map. I ask her if the hills are part of East Oakland.

“They're the absolutely farthest east,” she says.

Wow! Isn’t that something? Geographically, Miss Betty says the hills are the deepest East.

Final answer?

I learn something new, but that still doesn’t solve the big question.“What are the boundaries of East Oakland?”

I play a drum roll sound in my head as I wait for her to speak. Miss Betty says the answer is:

"Well, there are no wrong answers."

And there you have it. This is not the response I expected. I’m sticking to the east of Lake Merritt. If East Oakland’s boundaries are defined by who lives in the community along with the social, economic issues going on at the time, instead of the actual physical areas—who knows where the boundaries will be pushed in the future

Got a question for Hey Area? Ask it below.


Jeneé Darden is an award-winning journalist, author, public speaker and proud Oakland native. She is the executive producer and host of the weekly arts segment Sights & Sounds as well as the series Sights + Sounds Magazine. Jeneé also covers East Oakland for KALW. Jeneé has reported for NPR, Marketplace, KQED, KPCC, The Los Angeles Times, Ebony magazine, Refinery29 and other outlets. In 2005, she reported on the London transit bombings for Time magazine. Prior to coming to KALW, she hosted the podcast Mental Health and Wellness Radio.