i love oakland

double rainbow outside my oakland window

Just after the new year, Jerry Kolber contacted me to ask if I wanted to write a guest post over on the One City blog. I have deeply ambivalent feelings about this. I have ambivalent feelings about this because One City has been criticized by people whose opinions I deeply respect. So, part of me feels like a sell out. On the other hand, I have to respect the fact that the editors of that blog are reaching out to a ne’er-do-well such as myself which suggests that they’re willing to entertain alternative viewpoints, an idea I want to support.

I wrestled with the piece that I ended up submitting to Mr. Kolber. And I’m not 100% satisfied with it, truth be told. Part of me wanted to write a massive take-down critique of the whole thing, a snarky, sarcastic “everyone’s wrong but me” sort of post complaining about my usual irks (privilege, diversity, commercialism, the “Buddhism isn’t a religion” crap). But lately I’ve found myself feeling less irritable. Or, more to the point, I find myself tiring of complaining in those terms about issues that I’ve been complaining about for over six years in this space. If my readers really want to know why I think Buddhism is a religion, I’ve covered that territory. And I’m tired of being a critic for the sole purpose of being a critic. There are, at present, other bloggers out there who are better, wittier, and possibly hotter than me. Let them have that lime-light.

So, in the end, while I’m not 100% satisfied, with the piece, I’ve got to keep it in perspective and remember that it’s (a) only a blog piece and (b) does fulfill my primary aim, one that I doubt I’ll grow tired of any time too soon, i.e., reminding everyone that there really is diversity within the broader (American) Buddhist community, that this is a good and necessary thing, an idea that I’ll defend till I’m blue in the face.

But in the interest of space (I got the impression from Mr. Kolber that shorter was better) there was something I ultimately cut out of that piece that I really wanted to leave in. I cut it out because it was only tangentially related, not directly and obviously related, to my main point. And every attempt I made to make it more directly related seemed forced. And I loath (my own) forced writing. What I really wanted to include was the following: I love Oakland.

In that piece, I wrote about riding my bike past a couple of Buddhist communities on my way to work. But before I even get to Berkeley, I ride through Oakland, a city I’ve lived in now for over seven years. Whereas our neighbor across the bay, San Francisco, gets all the press, Oakland’s got nearly half a million people living in it, so it has all the perks and drawbacks of any big city. Cultural and arts centers, historic gems ignored by tourists and locals alike, crime and neglect. And at the end of the day, Oaklanders are nothing if not honest. We know our city’s got troubles; but it’s got so much to offer all at once that we’re not going to give up hope.

My route to work skirts “the bad part of town,” or at least one of the bad parts: the western flats. It’s a part of town marked by the neglect of City Hall, a part of town that was run over by BART tracks and freeways half a century ago, where there are more liquor stores than grocery stores. It is a world apart from the massive single-family homes on tree-lined streets in the Oakland hills. But as I pass by Hoover Elementary School, the crossing guard’s whistle blaring to stop traffic, the school kids walking hand-in-hand with their mothers and fathers, I know that this is my city. This is my home.

The other night, my wife and I went to a recently opened restaurant in a converted boat house, right on the edge of Lake Merritt. It was a cold night, and a heavy mist hung in the air, but that didn’t stop the gondola driver from trying to entice folks out onto the water. (That’s right. We have gondolas on the lake.) And Lake Merritt is, more or less, at a crossroads of the city, easy to get to from downtown, from the hills, from the south and east parts of town. And the folks there that night reflected the diversity of this town.

I wanted to write about Oakland in my One City piece not just because I love this place; I wanted to write about it because of that phrase “One City.” It kinds bugs me. Don’t get me wrong. I love the idea of “one city” (if I understand it correctly, having never read Ethan Nichtern’s book). I love the idea of talking about how interconnected, how interdependent we all are. I’m a big believer in that. But Oakland doesn’t feel like “one city” to me. It feels like a dozen cities, all overlapping with fuzzy and ill-defined borders except the city limits of Oakland itself, like some insane Venn diagram of cultures and beliefs and backgrounds and histories.

I’m just going to say it because there’s no other way to describe it: e pluribus unum.

So if that’s what’s meant by “one city,” I can get behind that. But if by “one” you mean one homogenous city with everyone acting the same and thinking the same, no thanks.

At any rate, that’s some of the stuff I left out of the One City post.

4 thoughts on “i love oakland

  1. The gondolas must be past my time. How wonderful! I remember I once gave a performance at an Oakland High School (sometime in the last century) and signs in the school were written in more languages that I can remember (five? six? seven?). One thing I love about Oakland is not just that it’s diverse, but it wears this diversity on its sleeve. I’m back to the internet for who knows how long! I look forward to reading your post!

  2. Your post there was really enjoyable. Much more diplomatic than what could have been (or has been) written. I’m happy to see your perspective reach a larger audience. I deeply respect your opinions as well.

    As for ambivalence that’s something I feel about One City as well although somewhat less than before. That is because Jerry has really made some effort, both in constructive dialogue with opposing viewpoints and this equal platform he is providing for different viewpoints.

    When there is an opportunity to fairly address discrepancies and broaden the public discourse to become more inclusive I say go for it. And I don’t think Jerry is just paying lip service to the idea in order to appear more “liberal” or that he’s fronting to make One City look better. That’s the leap of faith I’m taking personally. (And I use the word faith deliberately)

    The notion of “sell-out” isn’t applicable IMHO. There comes a point when old beliefs and points of criticism, upon receipt of new information and perspectives gained, need revision. To stand on principle is admirable but if the principle is in the process of becoming outmoded in a specific circumstance then re-assessment is called for.

    [In other quarters though, I just don’t see it-cough cough Tricycle]

    With the One City blog there seems to be an ideal that is at present far from being realized due to certain entrenched ideas. This is likely not even a conscious thing. But as consciousness broadens changes start to happen.

    There appears to be a desire there, here, in many quarters for people to become agents of consciousness broadening. That is in both public social consciousness and private personal consciousness.

    Anyone who attempts a serious Buddhist practice has this in mind-the seed of bodhicitta. To nurture that within and to join with others is the only way a critical mass can be achieved.

    But as you have so aptly stated not as a homogeneous mass. Stepford Buddhism is already alive and well unfortunately.

  3. here’s what think of your One city post, which I’m coming at, as you well know, not from the perspective of a practicing buddhist [does this make me a religio-philosophical voyeur?? horrors] but from an acedemic/writerly/rhetorical one. This also speaks to some of the concerns about criticism (as a genre/approach) that you’ve written about in other posts.

    In *good* critique there is a line to be walked between taking a firm line against approaches you disagree with, and making a real effort to engage with them on their own terms, so as to open a dialogue. You do this, in my opinion, very well.

    But you should have left in the part about Oakland. I hella heart oakland.

  4. I think my ambivalence comes from the dueling sides of my own personality. My rabble-rouser side wants to poke people with sticks. My harmonious side wants everyone to get along. I actually wrote all of this last week and have had some distance from it. In that distance I’m coming to understand my own motivations better. I really do take seriously the notion of interconnectedness, the idea that we’re all in this together. If I take that seriously, I have to take seriously that that includes even those who my inner rabble-rouser wants to poke with sticks. Ultimately, everyone’s voices need to be heard, and whereas we often get only one voice from the usual suspects, I am encouraged by outreach by folks like Jerry. If I take all this seriously, responding to that outreach by being less than diplomatic seems somewhat counter-intuitive.

    On that note, I certainly don’t see that piece as being the definitive statement on the subject — but, then again, I don’t view anything I’ve ever written for a blog, my own or someone else’s, to be the definitive statement on anything — but I do hope that it opens the door for further conversation and other people’s voices.

    Thanks much for your all your comments.

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