OAKLAND -- East Oakland has become synonymous with crime and violence. For most people, certainly for those who don't live there, the name may conjure images of police tape and crime scenes, or the faces of those killed over the past year and featured annually in our homicide map.
While the level of violence and crime in specific areas of East Oakland are disturbing and undeniable, there is more to this huge swath of town that runs from the hills to the flats and is home to the wealthy, middle class and even the destitute.
Given the intensity of violent crime in certain parts of this community, my editors and I felt it was time to undertake a project we hope will provide readers with a more nuanced, face-to-face sense of what daily life is like for the people living in East Oakland neighborhoods beset by high rates of crime.
To do this, starting tomorrow, I will spend the next 30 days living with residents of an East Oakland neighborhood. To chronicle this journey, I will report via a Tumblr blog (http://oaklandhotspot.tumblr.com) about life in this particular neighborhood. I will do my very best to post at least once a day and hopefully more. Stories will also appear in print and on this newspaper's website.
I will be living and covering a stretch of ground bordered roughly by International Boulevard to the south, Foothill Boulevard to the north and between 50th and 73rd avenues.
Between 2009 and 2011, an area roughly coinciding with this stretch was listed as "Hotspot #3" by the Oakland Police Department because of the number of shooting incidents. The area continues to be a designated hotspot.
Dotted with a combination of middle class homes, low-income housing blocks, several parks and small businesses, it is bisected by Oakland's infamous "track," where prostitutes and sex-trafficked women can be seen night and day.
According to crime data from 2012, which you can view in a graphic on our newspaper's website (www.insidebayarea.com/oakland-homicides), numerous homicides took place in two very distinct clumps inside those boundaries -- one cluster around the Havenscourt area and another to the immediate north and south of Foothill. At least 13 homicides occurred in this area over a 20-month period between 2011 and 2012. Some of the blocks in this community are solidly middle class, where residents obviously strive to cultivate a sense of peace. Other parts are blighted and worn down.
The bulk of the area is covered by two police beats. At least 155 people were "assaulted with a firearm" between October 2011 and February of this year, and probably many more who didn't bother to call the police or file a report. The number of robberies has skyrocketed in the past year and totaled more than 400 between January 2011 and March 2012.
Last October, Oakland implemented a nationally recognized violence prevention strategy known as Project Ceasefire, which aims to curtail shootings by using a combination of enticements and punishments to force violent offenders to stop shooting. Part of our aim with this reporting project involves trying to determine whether Ceasefire is actually working and whether new Oakland Police Department strategies, such as having one captain oversee several beats, are having an effect.
I hope you will join me during this project, engaging with me and with my neighborhood as much as you'd like.
Nate Milheim, the owner of the home where I will be staying, for example, told me that he witnessed a man get shot and killed in the street outside his house. His three small children were home at the time. And yet he and his family are still there, trying to make their neighborhood better.
Jon Burns first moved into the area around 50th and Foothill in East Oakland more than a year ago. The 24-year old Georgia native had come to Oakland to participate in a religious program volunteering in inner city communities. He worked at a homeless shelter for a while. When Burns began exploring the neighborhood, local residents often made fun of him. "Hey," they'd shout out, "Berkeley's that way, Alameda's that way."
Burns stuck it out, and with time people became more accepting.
"A big influence in my life was the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King," says Burns, who is white. "So anything I can do to make a personal testament toward racial reconciliation, I'm going to do that. It's important."
Recently, Burns became friends with Ron Nunez, who runs The Urban Church, a ministry that caters to youth in the area. Burns and Nunez are collaborating to devise programs they hope will expand the influence of the church in the community and perhaps bridge some of the gaps that have arisen over the years between residents and police.
Last week, the two friends struck out on a street-level survey to gauge the feelings of people in the neighborhood where I'll be living. "People want peace," said Nunez, "But they just don't know what it looks like. People here don't want charity; they want to be in power so they can flourish and grow. And we want to help them figure that out."
Please feel free to send me your suggestions, questions, tips, thoughts and musings. And, certainly, if you live in this area, get in touch. Show me around. Take me on a tour of your life, and I'll do my best to translate it for everybody else. I look forward to meeting you.