When someone asks me what Oakland is like, I never know what to say. It depends, I want to respond. Which part of Oakland? What time of day? Who are you talking to?
I know many Oaklands and I love them all, despise some, consider others sacred. When I was little, Oakland was more personal, full of people who I saw every day, whose voices mapped the city more than any street signs could. I got birthday presents from people at the local bar, the bakery, the grocery store. I met my piano teacher because my dad stopped us on our walk home from school to help her push her cart of things up a steep hill.
When I was a child, my ideas of my city were determined by the vantage point of small feet on a sidewalk and the depth of potholes in the road. When everywhere you go is a walk away, the world feels smaller, like it can fit inside your hand, like it is yours and yours alone. Even now, I can picture Oakland from only three feet off the ground, how everything appeared big and small at the same time, how everything I needed I could find in a ten-block radius.
When I got old enough to take the bus or BART (our train system) alone, the city morphed as the housing boom started. Downtown Oakland became a mecca for new storefronts and overpriced coffee, as some of my favorite restaurants and cafes closed. I spent much of my time sitting next to strangers, writing poems on BART as the train whipped through the tunnel and emerged in East Oakland, where I found reflections of myself in Fruitvale Village murals as I waited for the bus that would take me closer to home. It was a solace in a changing city.
In East Oakland, I can still pay cash at my favorite burrito place tucked into a strip mall, can still walk into the Walgreens by my house and know exactly where to find the toothbrushes, but there is new in East too. There is intrusion and displacement and all the things every city has become as intimate with as their train maps, but for me it holds more familiarity than anywhere else in the city. It is still, for the most part, unchanged. If not for the people who linger on the corners of every intersection or the cashiers at the corner stores I stopped in on the way home from school, then for the way the neighborhood sings: car horns, mariachi music, sideshows, high schoolers and their Soundcloud tracks.
Sometime around high school, Lake Merritt became the heart of the city. The lake is about three-and-a-half miles long, set in the center of the city, where the edges of Downtown, East Oakland, Lakeshore, and Grand Avenue converge. When I was a child, the lake was where we went to see the birds or to go to the playground, but we didn’t lounge there. We didn’t really linger anywhere but our hole-in-the-wall restaurants, cafes, and corner stores, places you could not find on any list but which, if you knew they were there, unfolded and took you in like your grandmother’s sun-scarred arms.
Now, Lake Merritt is where people lay across the grass on sunny weekends, walk their dogs and get their runs in, smoke weed and laugh, dance Capoeira and go to the farmer’s market. If you want to see many parts of Oakland culminate in the same place, go to Lake Merritt on a Sunday—only after 11 a.m., we sleep in here—and wait for the crowds to gather, the music to start, and the motorcycle riders to pop wheelies in the street.
Now, I have a car and an apartment of my own, in a part of the city I’ve never stepped foot in, let alone lived in before. The city is different, but in a city that has been rapidly changing since I was born, I am used to the constancy of change. What is harder to adjust to is how big the world seems, how the city feels more vast when I am able to traverse all of it by car in twenty minutes. I love Oakland and I always will, but I love it differently now. I understand Oakland, her sorrows, her histories, the things I wish I could reverse about her but can’t, and even though sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, I know she understands me too.
Leila Mottley is the 2018 Youth Poet Laureate of Oakland and founder of Lift Every Voice, a youth-led art advocacy workshop series about youth incarceration. Her debut novel, Nightcrawling, is out June 7.