Sideshows are a mainstay of news in Oakland. Here are a couple of recent headlines: “Video shows illegal Oakland sideshow with cars on fire” and “Oakland sideshows draw 500 vehicles.” One recent incident saw 80 vehicles seized by the police. At another, someone commandeered a big rig truck to spin donuts in the road. Everyone knows sideshows happen in Oakland. What’s less widely understood is where they happen—and the impact on Oaklanders who live near sideshow hotspots.

Oakland is credited with inventing these rebellious stunt-driving exhibitions, which have been happening here since the 1980s and show no sign of slowing, even while city leaders pursue new laws to deter people from participating. At a typical sideshow, drivers take over intersections for a period of minutes or hours, skidding in dizzying circles and whipping their cars from side to side, often while passengers dangle out sunroofs, windows, and open doors. Onlookers crowd around racing cars, cheering them on.

Some Oaklanders defend sideshows as a form of youthful culture, perhaps needing a more constructive and legal outlet. Others see them as a dangerous nuisance, particularly because some feature gunfire, vandalism, and violence—and because some intersections and neighborhoods see sideshows over and over again.

To help understand the impact of these events, especially where they happen most often, The Oaklandside obtained from the city nearly four years of data about sideshows. We mapped the locations most frequently taken over and spoke to nearby residents to learn how they feel about them.

The map above displays the exact locations where sideshows were reported to the police from Jan. 1, 2019, through November 2022. There were 2,297 reports of sideshows over this period of time. Instead of mapping each sideshow report as its own event, we mapped the number of days one or more sideshows were reported at a location. We also merged some of the locations where sideshows were reported to have happened.

If a sideshow was reported to have happened at a specific address that was within a few hundred feet of an intersection where there were other reports of sideshows, we treated them all as the same location, usually marking this as the intersection.

For a full explanation of our methods, see the box at the end of this story.

Sideshows overwhelmingly take place on major roads in Oakland’s flatlands, but the top hotspot may surprise you

Many circular tire skid marks taking up the entire width of a double-laned, tree-lined road.
Despite the addition of bollards and hard centerlines in the roadway in 2021, the intersection of Keller Avenue and Skyline Boulevard remains a popular sideshow spot. Credit: Florence Middleton

The intersection most frequently taken over by sideshows also has a great view of the city: Keller Avenue and Skyline Boulevard. This crossroad in the East Oakland hills saw 55 days with at least one sideshow between early 2019 and late 2022. Neighbors speculate that the view and the intersection’s remoteness probably explain its popularity.

All the other hotspots are almost entirely located in deep East Oakland, West Oakland near the port, and Fruitvale.

MacArthur Boulevard and 106th Avenue saw 50 days of sideshows, a level of activity made obvious by the looping tire skid marks left all over the pavement. Rivaling MacArthur Boulevard in terms of activity was Maritime Street near the Port of Oakland. The intersection of Maritime and Admiral Toney Way saw 46 days of sideshow activity over the nearly four-year period we reviewed.

One other hotspot is the nearly half-mile stretch of 42nd Avenue between International Boulevard and I-880 in Fruitvale. This span of road sees a massive number of sideshows. It’s so popular with sideshows enthusiasts that the police have given it a nickname: “The Pit.” 

In the shadow of the I-880 overpass and a railroad bridge, The Pit is a massive intersection where sideshows have been known to draw hundreds of spectators who block the area with parked cars while hotrods spin donuts and revelers blast off fireworks and sometimes gunshots for hours at a time. There were 30 days of sideshow activity reported where 42nd Avenue, also known as California State Route 185, passes under I-880.

In total, sideshows happened in 712 intersections and other places in Oakland in the time period we reviewed, including 265 locations where there was sideshow activity on two or more days. These reports included everything from massive street takeovers involving hundreds of cars and thousands of onlookers to smaller exhibitions with just a few cars spinning donuts. 

Based on conversations with people who live and work near these intersections, the number of sideshows has very likely been underreported by a factor of two or three. Many people in Oakland do not call OPD to report sideshows because they’ve become desensitized or because they don’t want to talk to authorities.

The unpleasant—and sometimes scary—realities of living by sideshow hotspots

Heavy traffic blocking an intersection at night. There are tire skid marks from sideshows in the street.
Cars line up on 98th Avenue near an East Oakland intersection taken over for a sideshow in 2022. Credit: Eric Louie

People who live and work near the worst sideshow intersections say they are an incredible nuisance, and some even experience fear and trauma.  

One family told us that in the 13 years they’ve lived near Keller and Skyline in Sequoyah Hills, they’ve seen car fires, explosions, and other recklessness associated with sideshows. 

“There are a lot of stolen cars that come up here,” one of the neighbors told us. They did not want to provide their name due to safety concerns. 

The neighbor said sideshows around here usually feature just one or two cars but that on a few occasions, there were hours-long street parties with cars lining up on Keller. When the police were called, it would often take OPD 3-5 hours to respond. “There were so many people one time they had to bring a SWAT team to disperse it,” said the neighbor. 

Vijoa Lucas, who manages the Anthony Chabot Equestrian Center, which is about 500 feet from the Keller-Skyline intersection, said that between 2018 and 2020, sideshows were happening “nearly every night” at Keller and Skyline. The screeching tires and revving engines would create a cacophony that would reverberate through the rolling hills and scare the horses. 

Last year, the city added hardened centerlines and plastic bollards on Skyline to try to reduce the number of sideshows there. 

“We still hear them four or five times a month,” said Lucas. She also noted that since the centerlines went in, there has been an influx of abandoned cars and illegally dumped trash surrounding the intersection, including on the hiking trails next to the road.

A woman with a hand cart crosses a street at an intersection near a freeway where there are lots of tire skid marks from sideshows that have wiped crosswalk paint off the street.
Fresh tire marks advertise how common sideshows are at 106th Avenue and Foothill Boulevard in East Oakland. Credit: Florence Middleton

At Market Street and 45th Street in North Oakland, Northside Supermarket manager Antar Korin told us he and his neighbors have talked a lot about how to stop the sideshows, but they feel helpless. They asked the city for a roundabout but were rejected because the road wasn’t wide enough to accommodate the AC Transit bus route that runs along it. Because this intersection, abutted by businesses on three of the four corners but mostly residential, is smaller than others, the noise from sideshows can be especially loud, said neighbors. 

“They’re intense. That shit is crazy,” Korin said. On a few occasions, sideshow participants have crashed their vehicles against parked cars and even through a residential fence on the east side of the street. 

“The walls on these old homes and buildings are very thin,” said Korin. “There is a lady at the corner house with a [small child]. She goes through it every time.”

Sideshows at Pearmain Street and 105th Avenue happen close to homes, filling living rooms with tire smoke. Credit: Florence Middleton

Across the street, accountant Quentin Lang said sideshow participants have climbed on top of his building to dance, stomp, and take videos. Lang placed barbed wire along the building to try and stop them. “I was told those guys were having a real good time up there,” he said. 

Muhammad Ehsan, who works at the swag shop on the other corner, laughed when we told him that, based on OPD data, there were 14 days over roughly the past four years when at least one sideshow occurred at 45th Street and Market Street. 

“I can confirm there’s been at least three sideshows [on three different days] just in the last two weeks,” he said

Two workers at an auto repair shop at 105th Avenue and Pearmain Street told us that smoke from car tires burning out while doing donuts often fills the air and seeps into nearby buildings, including businesses and homes. One of the workers, who lives in the area, told us it’s “awful” to experience. He did not provide his name because of privacy concerns.

At 73rd Avenue and International Boulevard in East Oakland, there were seven days of reported sideshows from 2019 through last November. Manuel Espinoza, who owns the Daily Fresh Roses Shop on the southwest corner of the intersection, said sideshows are commonplace, and crashes have pushed cars onto the sidewalk, nearly hitting pedestrians. But they’re just one nuisance in the neighborhood. He worries more about shoplifting and the economic downturn he believes was caused by the construction of AC Transit’s rapid bus line.   

Yoon Jooik, the owner of Happy Dogs, a breakfast spot at 106th and Macarthur Boulevard, told us sideshows have been happening for the entire 30 years he’s been at that location. They used to happen all the time, he said, but the installation of hardened centerlines last September seems to have deterred them somewhat. 

Sideshows have been taking over 106th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard for more than 30 years. Credit: Florence Middleton

Others who have lived near sideshow hotspots say most of the infrastructure the city has added to prevent sideshows is not working. On E. 21st Street, in East Oakland, OakDOT removed a traffic lane to reduce speeding and added buffered bike lanes. But Ryan Lester, who lived on E. 18th and 21st Avenue, said the city has “failed horribly” to prevent hazardous driving. Lester recently saw a huge sideshow in the middle of the day on E. 21st, forcing his bus to detour. 

Lester moved recently to the Grand Lake area and said his experience there is very different. 

“One of the largest intersections near my apartment, where Santa Clara Avenue, Jean Street, and Elwood Avenue all intersect, has bulbouts and a roundabout installed, which prevents exactly this kind of activity permanently,“ he said. 

“It’s like I live in a completely different city that prioritizes richer and whiter people’s lives but not people in the flatlands,” said Lester.

City efforts to prevent and deter sideshows

Extra-wide roads near the Port of Oakland which are lightly traveled at night, like Maritime Street, see lots of sideshows. Credit: Florence Middleton

The city has been trying to stop sideshows for years, and its efforts fall into basically two categories: enforcement and street design interventions.

On the enforcement front, Oakland has attempted for decades to use its police department to break up sideshows, arrest participants and organizers, and impound vehicles.

In 2002, Don Perata, then a state senator, and Wilma Chan, who served in the state Assembly, introduced a bill that would have allowed the police to impound cars for 30 days if they were seized for reckless driving. Prior to this, the police could only keep a car until its owner paid a fine.

In 2005, then-Mayor Jerry Brown launched a crackdown by proposing a “spectator ordinance” that would have made it illegal for anyone to simply watch a sideshow. “If no one was watching, there wouldn’t be a sideshow,” Brown told the media. The City Council approved the new law, but it was repealed two years later after a lawsuit challenged its constitutionality.

Since then, the city has relied on using existing laws to cite participants in sideshows for reckless driving, tow their vehicles, and make arrests. Often, OPD has teamed up with other law enforcement agencies. For example, in November 2014, OPD, the California Highway Patrol, and Alameda County Sheriff’s Office shut down a sideshow near the port, detaining over 200 participants.

A car burns in the road at night.
A car burns in the road after an East Oakland sideshow in 2022. Credit: Eric Louie

“Twenty-three people were arrested or cited, gunfire was reported, two firearms were recovered, participants threw rocks and bottles at the responding officers, and a stolen vehicle was lit on fire and destroyed,” according to a city report about the incident.

In 2015, OPD said in a report to the City Council it would need a dedicated force of 50 officers to tackle sideshows. Just four years later, the police said it would require 100 officers and that they had been relying on help from other agencies that were part of the Alameda County Sideshow Task Force, which was created in 2018 and includes police from Hayward, Union City, Fremont, San Landro, Newark, Alameda, and Oakland.

In 2019, the council once again voted to support changes to state law that would make it easier to seize vehicles and impose heavy fines and felony criminal charges on people who participate in sideshows.

Last month, the Public Safety Committee approved an ordinance making promoting or facilitating a sideshow a misdemeanor with a fine of $1,000 or six months in jail. The people who are likely to be targeted are people who promote sideshows over social media and by other means, drivers who take part in an event, and anyone that blocks streets to stop traffic. People watching sideshows will not be targeted.

Deputy City Administrator Joe Devries told KRON 4 that OPD spent $2 million on enforcement operations against sideshows in 2021. 

Even with all these penalties and enforcement efforts, police say sideshows have only become more frequent and more dangerous.

Chris Bolton, a deputy chief who recently retired from OPD, worked on sideshow prevention efforts. He said at a town hall meeting about sideshows two years ago that the stunt driving events often destroy pavement and street markings such as crosswalks, making roads less safe for pedestrians and drivers. Gunfire and assaults are also more common nowadays, according to Bolton, including 42 shootings associated with sideshows in 2021.

‘They’re nothing like we were accustomed to in the past. The calls were growing more frequent,” he said.

The city’s second method of trying to stop sideshows, changing the layouts of streets and adding physical barriers, has had mixed results.

According to OakDOT’s website about sideshows, there is “no established best practice or evidence of effective engineering treatments to prevent this type of dangerous driving behavior.” Even if there were, it would be hard to install them in all the places needed. Almost any of the thousands of intersections in Oakland could be taken over by a sideshow. As a result, OakDOT has focused on interventions at the intersections where sideshows most frequently happen.

Tire burn marks atop a crosswalk on Maritime Street in West Oakland. Credit: Florence Middleton

So far, OakDOT has intervened at 12 locations across the city, including adding center hardlines and Bott’s Dots, which are small ceramic bumps normally used to divide driving lanes on highways. The additions began in July 2021, when the Botts Dots and the hardlines were added to the intersection of 35th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard.

The department hasn’t shared data that could show whether these interventions have been successful in lowering the number of sideshows, although residents around these locations told us they still continue. Dotts Botts will likely not continue to be added to Oakland intersections, according to traffic safety advocates who’ve spoken to Oakland transportation staff. 

The cost of these interventions was about $650,000, according to city documents

Yakpasua Zazaboi, who owns the Sidewayz Cafe at MacArthur Boulevard and Seminary Avenue, and who years ago produced a documentary about the origins of sideshows as fun and thriving hubs of hyphy culture, said it’s unfortunate the amount of money the city has spent since the Jerry Brown administration in the early 2000s to try to stop them, especially when the interventions apparently are not working.   

“We gotta try something different if we want to have something different. It’s not getting the residents the result that they want,” Zazaboi said. 

Oakland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory board member Diane Yee told The Oaklandside she’d like to see extended corner buildouts called bulbouts, which reduce the size of intersections, as well as “left turn safety” treatments that place 90-degree rubber bumps deeper into the street, such as the ones that San Francisco has added to a handful of intersections.

OakDOT Director Fred Kelley said at the big town hall meeting about sideshows two years ago that the engineering solutions they’ve looked at haven’t kept up with the problem, likening it to a whack-a-mole game. 

“You engineer solutions at one intersection at one location, and the sideshows [people] are very sophisticated, and they move to another location,” he said.

How we reported this story

Many of the 2,297 reports of sideshows in our dataset were calls from different residents complaining about the same sideshow. To cut down on the confusion and eliminate duplicate reports, we chose to count the number of days there was at least one sideshow reported at a location instead of counting each separate call to OPD. For example, if OPD received three reports of sideshows on the same day at 45th Street and Market Street, we counted this as one day of reported sideshow activity at that location.

We also merged some nearby locations together to better reflect just how much sideshow activity some areas see. For example, if a sideshow was reported to have happened at a specific address that was within a few hundred feet of an intersection where there were other reports of sideshows, we treated them all as the same location, usually marking this as the intersection.

To visualize just how much sideshow activity there is in some parts of Oakland, we varied the size of each point on the map depending on the number of days at least one sideshow was reported to have taken place there—the bigger the point, the more days there were at least one sideshow at that spot. You can hover over each location to see specific information.

It’s important to note that our map doesn’t account for every day there might have been sideshow activity at a particular location. That’s because we relied on reports to the police. If nobody called OPD about a sideshow—no matter how rowdy the rally was—it’s missing from the data and our map.

We also did not include sideshows that took place on freeways. OPD doesn’t track these since it’s the job of the California Highway Patrol.

With data editing by Ally Markovich.

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.