What’s the current state of cultural coverage in the Town? That was the topic of conversation at our most recent Culture Makers event on March 23 at the New Parkway Theater. Three well-known local journalists joined me on stage for the discussion: Oakland Voices editor Momo Chang, KQED show host and correspondent Pendarvis Harshaw, and Liam O’Donoghue of the podcast East Bay Yesterday.
We had fun covering a wide range of topics and were treated to some great musical interludes courtesy of Orchestra Gold. Audience members had lots of questions for our panelists too, the most we’ve received since launching the quarterly event last spring. Some were posed to the entire panel while others were directed at one person. We didn’t get to them all at the event, so our guests were gracious enough to answer them in the days since, and we’re presenting their answers below in a Q&A format.
But first, a couple of easy answers: One audience member wanted to know where Tacos El Último Baile is located. The now brick-and-mortar taco shop by Dominic Prado, which Momo Chang wrote about when it was a pop-up at The Legionnaire Saloon, can be found at 3340 E 12th Street. And someone else asked about a book that Liam and I referenced during the panel conversation. That book is Deep Oakland (Heyday Books) by Andrew Alden, which goes on sale May 2.
Enjoy, and we hope to see you at our next Culture Makers on Thursday, June 15, when we’ll be talking to Oakland youth who are changing the future of Oakland. More on that soon.
Questions for all three panelists
How does Oakland differentiate itself culturally from its Bay neighbors, and how can we promote and support those differences?
Pen: Starting with microclimates and geography, each pocket of the Bay is different. And even within those localities, each neighborhood and block has its unique twist. The most important thing is to recognize the stories of these places—the history of them, their current state, and the future.
Momo: Oakland is a little bit of town, a little bit of country, to me. There are rich cultural hubs, arts, food, flatlands and hills, and a lot of diversity in general. There’s a country style to Oakland, meaning it’s not as fast-paced as a big city–although I feel it’s changed in recent years, where people are struggling more than ever to keep up in the face of gentrification. Historically, a lot of African Americans from the South migrated here during WWII, people who have contributed a lot to the culture of Oakland.
Oakland has an activist history different from the rest of the Bay Area. The Black Panther Party was founded here, Fred Korematsu was born here, and so on. And that legacy definitely continues today in many ways.
One way to support the uniqueness of Oakland is to support Oakland-specific programs, arts, journalism, and storytelling.
Liam: I’ve heard Oakland referred to as “the heart of the Bay” many times. It’s true not only because of our central location but also because Oakland still offers the best reflection of this region’s diversity. As far as supporting this unique mix of cultures, we need policies like rent control and more education funding to ensure that longtime residents can stay here and raise the next generation.
What is your favorite historic place in Oakland?
Pen: Dimond Park
Momo: I don’t have a specific favorite place, but generally, I’d say that Lake Merritt has a fascinating history, as well as Chinatown.
One of my favorite history-related stories we published at Oakland Voices is about a church in East Oakland designed by Julia Morgan. The piece is written by our alumna Marabet Morales Sikahall. It’s lovely, and it delves into some history.
Liam: I can’t imagine Oakland without Lake Merritt. I’ve walked around the lake countless times, enjoyed so many picnics with friends there, and it really feels like the place where everybody comes together. I’m currently reading a local history book called Deep Oakland by Andrew Alden, which describes the transformations Lake Merritt has gone through over the millennia. His vivid descriptions are helping me visualize what it would have looked like when Ohlone people gathered near its shores to catch the abundance of fish and waterfowl that thrived in its marshy waters.
What’s a story you wish would get covered, but you don’t want to be the one to write it?
Pen: Good question… There are some unsolved homicides out there that I think are solvable, but it would take some uneasy conversations. And in that same vein, the fact that so many homicides go “unsolved” is a story in itself. And that says a lot about people’s relationship with cops in Oakland and beyond.
Momo: There are so many stories that go untold, and they are usually stories that take a lot of time, patience, and other resources. There should be a whole series about sex trafficking in Oakland—which is a national story, really, because it takes place across the country. Another story is about talking to people who are unhoused. For both, I’d like to see solutions-driven storytelling and ideas. There is some good coverage of unhoused populations by local journalists, so I’m not saying these issues never get coverage, but they deserve more coverage. Another one is interviewing people behind bars—what led them to prison and what can be done differently. Last but not least, interviewing a bipper (auto burglar).
Liam: I’ve always been curious about the filming of “Space is the Place,” Sun Ra’s trippy sci-fi movie that was filmed in Oakland in the early 1970s. I’ve seen a few behind-the-scenes photos and heard some anecdotes about the making of this influential Afrofuturist film, but there’s got to be memories out there that haven’t been shared publicly yet. Sun Ra departed this planet back in 1993, but I saw his band, The Arkestra, perform the “Space is the Place” soundtrack a few years ago, and the experience was mind-blowing. I’d love to hear more about the origins of this project.
How’s Oakland’s film industry doing?
Pen: Great! I love seeing folks on camera, behind the scenes, in small films, major motion pictures, and even soundtracks. I wish more would be filmed in Oakland, and I REALLY wish the skilled drivers from sideshows would be featured in the car commercials that are filmed in Northern California, but overall, the film industry is doing fine. Could be doing better, threats to camera people are a setback, and the lack of tax breaks is another. But despite that, the creatives are going to create. And they’re doing just fine.
Momo: On the one hand, you have some great, high-profile people in the film industry, like Ryan Coogler, Daveed Diggs, and Rafael Casal, all of who have found success on a national level. There are also many creatives, independents, and struggling artists such as documentary filmmakers. As someone who has known and worked with many documentary filmmakers, it is hard to be fully focused, full-time, on making documentaries in the Bay Area. So I would say, there’s a lot of diversity within the film world in Oakland. There is also a lot of youth who produce media, there are people who have found success on Instagram, and so on. They all use the medium of video or film to tell stories.
Liam: I’m not too plugged into the local film community, but (breaking news!) I’m planning to do a live Q&A with Boots Riley at Crybaby this summer, so I’ll see what he thinks. His 2018 film Sorry to Bother You really captured Oakland’s surreal energy and I can’t wait to see how his new TV series, I’m a Virgo, represents The Town. I saw a bunch of fake SWAT trucks staged on San Pablo when they were filming last year, so I expect the show to be pretty wild.
What has been your absolute favorite story you’ve written so far, and why?
Pen: Probably the day I went biking with Marshawn Lynch and about 1,000 young folks or the story about seeing someone fishing in Lake Merritt. Both stories are slices of life that speak to much larger issues.
Momo: One of my favorite stories I worked on is about postpartum traditions, which was published in Hyphen. I had just had my second child about a year prior and had observed these traditions that focus on nurturing new mothers. It was special to experience my own journey with my mom. For the story, I had a chance to gather recipes from different people and cook some of these recipes (for the photo shoot!). Later, because of this article, I was involved with a group that published a collection of postpartum recipes through Eastwind Books.
Liam: My favorite story is always the one I’m currently working on. Episode 100 of East Bay Yesterday will be about the transfer of nearly five acres of land in Joaquin Miller Park to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, so that’s what I’m excited about right now.
What advice would you give to aspiring storytellers and journalists?
Pen: DO IT! As soon as you get the idea, do it! Even if it’s half-baked, DO IT! There are so many benefits to doing it, the top one being: you inspire someone else to do what they’ve been thinking about. And we can all move forward from there.
Momo: I agree. Just do it. If you are an aspiring writer, I would suggest writing something every day to get into the habit – whether it’s an Instagram caption, a tweet, or something on LinkedIn.
Also, make a list of your favorite storytellers, and engage with them at events or, more likely, on social media. When I first started, I reached out to a few writers I looked up to, and they were very kind to offer me their time. I pay it forward now. I would also suggest, if you do that and if you’re able to, to offer compensation or a small token of appreciation–even just buying them coffee.
Join a professional journalism organization. There are local chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, and more.
Look for internships, training programs, and anything else that might provide more guidance and a sense of community. Oakland Voices is one example, and we are currently taking applications for our next academy (the deadline is April 2). These opportunities will give you a chance to learn, practice, and get work samples out into the world.
And if you’re further along in your journalism career, there is the Maynard 200 Fellowship, a program of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, which Oakland Voices is a program of as well. Maynard 200 is for people who already have some journalism experience and is designed to expand the diversity pipeline of journalists.
Liam: If you cover stories that you really care about, doing the reporting and writing won’t feel like work. The energy you get from learning the subjects you’re covering and your excitement about sharing that information with the world will push you to do your best.
What are some signs that the Oakland art scene is regaining its footing post-pandemic?
Pen: When one spot closes, another opens. Oakland is a resilient city. Yes, the pandemic hit hard, especially in the arts. And at the same time, downtown was turned into an open-air museum. SO MUCH ART WAS ON THE BOARDED-UP WALLS! That exemplifies The Town’s M.O. Even when there’s nothing going on, we’re going to make something shake.
Momo: I personally very rarely go to in-person events ever since the pandemic started. But it feels like a lot of people have moved on to the post-pandemic world. Anecdotally, it seems like there are so many great arts events happening all the time!
Liam: I can tell the art scene is thriving because I get FOMO every weekend from the events I miss. I try to check out as much art and music as possible, but it’s impossible to see everything! One exciting aspect of the DIY scene is all the independent projects bringing people together again after the pandemic. I recently wrote about how small record shops like Cone Shape Top are hosting tons of eclectic low/no cost functions and how Oakland-based Lower Grand Radio is helping to spread the word about spaces and events like this.
What is something you think people from here frequently get wrong about Oakland? How do you correct these narratives?
Pen: East Oakland is south (southeast)! Lol. There’s a lot. The most important thing to know is that Oakland means something different to everyone who has experienced it. To me, it was an incubator. To others, it’s been a prison or a business venture. So I don’t think there is a right or wrong, just more need to accept that it’s unique for everyone who has called it home.
Momo: Most people who have never lived here or been here think of it as a crime-ridden place that’s dangerous and a scary place to live. Why would so many people move to Oakland if it was so bad? There’s obviously much more to this story.
One of the things I’ve strived to do is to tell a fuller story of the neighborhoods and communities here, whether that’s groups in Chinatown addressing climate change or ways to address gun violence through art, or just celebrating the young people of Oakland.
At my work, the mission behind Oakland Voices is to change the narrative of Oakland through journalism and storytelling. Oakland Voices does this by training residents from Oakland to tell stories about their neighborhoods, stories that are historically not represented in media.
Journalism is still a very elite field and has a diversity problem, and is driven by economics. “If it bleeds, it leads” is still true today in our clickbait culture. This is a huge problem. Unfortunately, a lot of times, the only interaction anyone has with “Oakland” is through a simplified, viral news story about crime.
Liam: This is a bit obscure, but I saw a meme going viral on Instagram yesterday about how “Bruce Lee got his start in Oakland.” While it’s true that Bruce Lee spent several very pivotal years here early in his career, he first began teaching martial arts in Seattle. My friend Charles Russo wrote an incredible book about Bruce Lee’s origins, and I interviewed him about the Oakland years in this episode, which is one of my favorites. The true stories about Bruce Lee are even more fascinating than the rumors and legends, of which there are many.
What about Oakland makes you feel alive?
Pen: The weather—specifically, the sunsets. Watching the sun go down from the hillside or from a park near the Bay, or even while biking down E.12th at the right time of day. Sometimes, when it’s clear, you can see Mt. Tam from 14th and Broadway. Or you can see Alcatraz from the top of Alcatraz St. (I know, that’s technically Berkeley, but whatever). I love that, the weather. And no matter how much the town changes, the weather will still be the same—totally unpredictable.
Momo: The youth, their outlook, their futures. Our youths lived through some really dire times during the pandemic. We need to support and uplift them and give them opportunities to build community and a sense of belonging, purpose, and hope.
Despite all of this, they really bring hope and joy. An example I mentioned at the event last week was attending the high school basketball championship games in Sacramento. Seeing the discipline and top-notch playing by the Oakland Tech girls and Oakland High boys basketball teams was stunning. The level of confidence to walk in as defending champions (for the girls) and continue that legacy is admirable.
Another thing that makes me feel alive is the arts and culture, and food scene. There are certainly issues, but it’s an exciting place for art, history, and activism.
I also love being able to hike in the hills, swim in the public pools, and learn about the biodiversity of Lake Merritt—even though the fish die-off from last year was really sad.
Last but not least is the fact that Oakland is a place where you will encounter people from all different backgrounds, and I believe that brings people together.
Liam: Dodging potholes on my bike!
Questions for Pendarvis Harshaw
What are your sentiments or hopes for Oakland in its current chaotic state?
Oakland has always been in some state of chaos. That’s just the nature of the town. My hope, my real hope, is that the people who suffered from the lack of investment in schools, redlining, over-policing, etc. get to reap some of the benefits of the new investment in the town. How cool would it be to see someone who spent 30 years in prison over drug charges get out and get a job in tech and own land in East Oakland?
Where can you find new and up-and-coming Oakland music? Is there a specific site or social media account to follow?
Follow the artists! Oftentimes, one artist will work with a producer and two other artists. Look them up, see what they’re working on. Follow them on social media. Go to their shows. One artist will lead you to more artists. Unfortunately, the Bay Area doesn’t get a lot of love from the major New York or LA-based hip-hop platforms. I sometimes check Thizzler, or Davey D’s show. There are people who have podcasts and blogs, like Reuben (@checktherhyme1_), Lord Rab with @novultures, L-Deez with Fame Media LLC and more. Those are great resources as well. But get it from the source. Find one artist and let them lead you to other artists. Follow and support them. That’s the best way.
What is your favorite song by (RIP)The Jacka?
TOUGH! Depends on what mode I’m in. If it’s party time, then Get Out There, Glamorous Lifestyle, Party Jumpin’ (J. Stalin’s song) or even Windows (Big Von’s song). If it’s contemplative time, it’s Blind World or Ask God. And, if I’m trying to finish some push-ups, it’s Feel This Clip—that energy is wild.
You live in Sacramento now. How’s that transition been? Are you getting involved in the community out there?
Meh… Um… I … um… I miss home. I’ve met up with folks who’ve moved out to Sac, and I’ve worked with folks who are from Sac (Shout out to the Neighborhood Program and Malcolm X Academy). There are some revolutionary things going on in Oak Park, and there’s some gentrification too. I love the arts scene, a lot more space is available for creators. Yeah, there’s lots to love in the valley. I like exploring all of the towns I haven’t spent much time in, my POV on Northern California has grown since moving here. Nature is great. Food spots stay open later in Sac than in Oakland. The summer nights are warmer. Great place to raise a kid. There’s a baseball team that’s worth watching. But I miss home. Everyday. I go back and forth so much that I know every exit on the highway. In a lot of ways, Sac is the start of the Midwest—a riverside city with big box stores and pickup trucks everywhere. Drastically different from Oakland. I sometimes feel landlocked in Sac. I miss the expansiveness of looking at the Bay, and the ocean beyond the Golden Gate. The Bay is home, always will be. And, I’m learning to love things about Sac, despite missing home.
Tell us about the Bay Area Hip-Hop archive
At KQED, we’re taking it upon ourselves to be part of the effort to highlight 50+ years’ worth of Bay Area hip-hop history. It’s our contribution to the overall celebration of what is regarded as hip-hop’s 50th birthday. So we’re doing deep dives into little-known topics, short posts highlighting where album cover images were photographed, making mixes, doing on-air interviews with KQED Forum, and more. We’ve made an interactive timeline that you just have to see for yourself. And later this year I’m going to drop a special podcast series about the year 2006—that was a wild one. In the meantime, go to: “That’s my Word: A Year-Long Exploration of Bay Area Hip-Hop History” and tell me about it! Let me know your thoughts.
Will you re-print OG Told Me?
YES! I just need to take a nap first.
Questions for Momo Chang
Are you working on a book?
I’ve had several book ideas on the back burner, for over a decade. But yes, I’d love to write a book one day!
Questions for Liam O’Donoghue
Where are you originally from?
I grew up about 10 minutes outside of Chicago and moved to the Bay shortly after college. This fall will be my 20-year anniversary of being a Californian. I knew as soon as I got here that I would never leave… and not just because I didn’t want to live through another Midwest winter!
What got you so fascinated with Oakland?
The people! Every time I meet someone who’s been in Oakland for a long time, they inevitably have astonishing stories to share. It makes my job of looking for interesting bits of history to cover so easy. I take people on boat tours of the Bay, and I always chat with folks in between tour stops. Literally, on every tour, I hear something that makes my jaw drop. (PS: My upcoming tours are sold out, but I will be announcing new dates soon via my newsletter, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.)
What pieces of Oakland history would you prioritize telling people who are new to Oakland?
It would be impossible to prioritize one single topic, but I would suggest getting familiar with Oakland history by engaging with some of the wonderful local institutions that celebrate Oakland history. For example: Spend a day at the Oakland Museum of California; explore the Oakland History Center on the top floor of the main library; take a walking tour or watch a presentation by the Oakland Heritage Alliance. And, of course, scroll through the previous 99 episodes of East Bay Yesterday on your favorite podcast app to learn about whatever topics you might be interested in!