An Unsual Tour Of Art in East Oakland

Entrance to the 23rd Yards

23rd Ave. East Oakland

 

 

The 23rd Yard in East Oakland graciously opened its doors to Cynthia Gorney and her husband Bill Sokol on Sunday June 1st, 2014.

 

Bill is a big time labor lawyer in the Bay Area, and his wife is a top reporter for National Geographic, both of them also work as professors. She’s professionally inquisitive and he’s naturally adventurous. When they called me to ride out, they were on a random bike ride to Cam Huong; the Chinatown restaurant with the top notch $3.00 Vietnamese sandwiches– one of MANY personal favorite destinations in Oakland.

I was with my boys, not too far from there… So, we mounted up & mobbed out.

We met them on 9th and Webster, biked to 14th Ave. in a dash and ended up near the Burger King in the San Antonio District. That’s where the tour started.

Solano Way Alleyway.

That’s where I pointed out the first “TDK” tag. Spray painted on a wall was a yellow race car, and written in black paint were those three letters. Cynthia, or CG as I call her, was familiar with the story of “TDK”; she was in the audience during the screening of my thesis film, The Dream Kontinues. She urged me to tell Bill what “TDK” means…

“Those Damn Kids”.

 

The eyes behind Bill’s thin glasses frames lit up as he let out a wholesome laugh. He was evidently enjoying this.

 

Yoda.  (A new piece in the Solano Way. Alley) Left to right: Rich, Bill, CG, G and Offie.

Yoda.
(A new piece in the Solano Way. Alley)

And then we took photos.

We biked under the shoes on power-lines,  hit 19th ave, busted that left, and headed down East 12th st.

CG, Bill, and a couple of my homies: Feelthy Rich, G and Offie. A bunch of random folks rolling on spokes.

Someone out of the crew said it looked like they (CG & Bill) had four security guards with ‘em as they toured the hood. Maybe.

I had to admit, it was something out of the ordinary to be biking with older white people through the “Murda Dubbs” in East Oakland.

I met CG during my first year of grad school, she was my journalism professor. She taught me stuff about the English language that my K-8th grade experience in Oakland Public Schools didn’t teach me, nor my high school years at a college prep school in Danville.

Way before I met CG, I was introduced to her husband. Back when I was just learning how to turn a camera on, I met thee Bill Sokol. I was a student at Youth Radio, and he was the company’s lawyer. One day, I got an assignment to film him yap away about free legal advice. I showed off my mighty camera-turning-on-ability on that day!

I’d bet my degree that neither of them imagined: one day I’d be taking them on a mini-tour through East Oakland– I know I didn’t see it coming.

When we got to the Safe Storage facility on 29th Ave. CG kindly asked an employee if we could access the legendary “Oakland Wall Of Fame”, which was behind the storage facility’s security gates. The nice young lady behind the desk granted permission to our band of biking Baby Boomers & Brothas– and we walked into my thesis film.

The Wall of Fame

The Oakland Wall of Fame

 

The Dream Kontinues, is a 20-minute documentary film about a graffiti artist (a writer) named Mike “Dream” Francisco, his contribution to the art world and how his crew still paints to this day. Dream and his crew ,”TDK”, used to paint on the walls of East Oakland’s 23rd Yard. I mean, they’d hit everywhere: all around Oakland, SF, Berkeley, and even moving busses all around the Bay Area. They were Those Damn Kids. And they lived up to the name.

 

But, the place where they earned their name, that was the 23rd Yards of East Oakland.

 

The 23rd Yard.

The 23rd Yard.

It has always been an industrial side of town, with a whole bunch of train tracks and loading docks for the surrounding factories.

After a couple of decades of artistic vandals staking their claim, it’s grown into a museum. An outdoor art gallery. A half-mile stretch of self expression, brought to you by generations of Krylon-paint-can-toting juvenile delinquents… Some of whom grew to be artists. Really, really good artists.

The “Oakland Wall of Fame” is dedicated to one of those really-really good artists. His name was Mike Francisco; they called him “Dream”. He used to paint in the 23rd Yard back in the day. In the late 80′s he did a couple of pieces that put the Yard on the map– including this one piece called The Best of Both Worlds.

As we walked and talked, Bill pulled me aside and told me that his son used to write graffiti– and he used to depend on pops to hide the spray paint from the fuzz… aka CG.

I told the married couple, and my homies what I heard in interviews from Dream’s family and friends. About his run-ins with the law, his growth from hustla’ to artist and how he played an essential role in founding the TDK crew– a collective of artists who still write to this day.

Those Damn Kids

Those Damn Kids

 

The letters TDK are now on walls in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cuba and of course- East Oakland. What once started as “Those Damn Kids”, morphed into “Tax Dollars Kill”, “The Dark Knights”, “The Damn Kings”, and slew of alternative acronyms.

Mike “Dream” Francisco was murdered in 2000, in what has been reported a robbery. He was 30 years of age. Aside from a long lasting art legacy and crew of writers, he also left behind a son, Akil.

Akil & lil John, Dream's son & brother.

Akil & lil John, Dream’s son & brother.

The art on the walls near the tracks still stands. Persevered for people like CG, Bill and my crew to see. And even though some of  the tags, pieces and murals get  painted over, they never get erased. The paint is still on the wall, it’s just buried. Waiting for someone to discover the story behind it… And tell a friend or two.

DMX, Zimmerman & The Value of Life.

Who killed Abraham Lincoln? John Wilkes Booth. 

Who killed John  Kennedy? Lee Harvey Oswald. 

Who killed Trayvon Martin? George Michael Zimmerman.  

Image

 

Why am I mad about George Zimmerman gaining celebrity status? I mean, don’t we celebrate murderers– all the time?

As my portion of the world turned to face the sun this morning, I read the news and felt as if I had been slapped in the face: DMX vs. George Zimmerman in a celebrity boxing match.

“Celebrity”: That’s what the twitter accounts of News Breaker, The Griot (NBC’s effort to appease African-Americans), and CNN (supposedly the standard setting news company… supposedly) called the forthcoming fight.   

I got mad: Mad at the media, mad at social media, mad at America. 

Like, this shit is cool? A guy shoots a kid, gets away with it– and now he’s a celebrity. I mean, come on… It’s Black History Month: we’re supposed to be celebrating our ancestors and forefathers. I don’t celebrate murderers!

Well… Actually, I do. And I’d argue that the majority of Americans do too.

From famed Wild-West gun slingers to renown rappers who claimed Westside– murderers are celebrated in America’s popular culture.

“Yeah, I’ve killed somebody,” said a friend, during a casual conversation not too long ago.

The living room got dead silent. There were only a handful of us in the room– but mannnn, you could hear our collective interest growing. We wanted to know that story. My friend, a former Marine, told a bit of his tale of traveling the world, and spreading Democracy with bullets; the American way.

We didn’t “celebrate” the fact that my friend killed someone (and neither did he). But for that brief moment, while we indulged in his story, he was the coolest dude in the room. Hands down.  

“Murder was the case that they gave me,” once said a young Snoop Dogg. And when Calvin “Snoop Dogg” Broadus beat that murder case, his popularity grew. And continued to grow. Is Snoop Dogg a murderer? Well, he beat the case. I mean– I don’t know if he actually killed anyone. I wasn’t there.

The fact is: a “gang member” (as the LA Times Article initially identified him), a man by the name of Philip Woldemariam is dead… and Snoop Dogg/Lion/Zilla is still making music. And he’s still a celebrity. 

Speaking of celebrity rappers getting out of jail after beating a murder charge: Lil Boosie is set to come home soon! He’s currently serving an 8-year bid on a drug case. But while in the pen, Lil Boosie was facing a 1st degree murder charge. Torrence “Lil Boosie” Hatchet was accused of ordering Michael “Marlo Mike” Louding to be his hired triggerman. Well, Marlo Mike is now sentenced to life in prison without parole. Lil Boosie’s name is gaining a greater celebrity status as I write this … and Terry Boyd, a young Black man, is dead. But, #FreeBoosie tho.   

I’m not saying Boosie or Snoop shouldn’t be stars for their talents– I just think it’s ILL that killing someone can earn you respect. 

On the other side of the “famous because I killed” coin, are people like this guy named Watani Stiner.

I think Stiner has an awesome story. It’s a tale of the struggle for freedom, a shooting on UCLA’s campus and a father’s sacrifice for his family. I’ve interviewed Stiner before; I was only allowed to bring in paper and pencil. I’d love to interview Stiner on film/ audio/ oh hell, if I had a nice photo of him it’d be worth a thousand words. I think the world would love to hear about how he is serving a life sentence for the murder of two former Black Panther leaders, how he escaped prison, and then turned himself back in– for his family. But, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation prohibits the media from conducting interviews with specific inmates, out of fear that the interview will cast that incarcerated individual into a world of stardom.

First name: Eye. Last name: Ronic. (Ironic).    

The amount of money the prisons are making off of Black men is astounding– but that’s a totally different story.

The crux of this story: “Tell me what’s a Black life worth?”- Tupac.

Look man, even if World Star Hip Hop gets exclusive broadcast rights, TMZ photographers catch first-row photos of the carnage, and they attach a GoPro to DMX’s forehead– so we can see a 1st person perspective of what some people might call justice. I wouldn’t watch it. I just don’t want to see that shit. 

On the other hand, I don’t want to see a petition signed to end this fight– I’d rather see people valuing life.

That’s what we’re fighting against. As young Black men, we’re fighting to show the world that our lives are valuable.  

… But first we have to value our own lives. 

Side note:  …  I wouldn’t mind seeing George Zimmerman fight Johannes-Mehserle

Oh, and here is a top ten list of celebrities who’ve killed someone. (Don King is on there, who knew?) 

Peace.

OG Told Me: a Write-up in my old High School’s Magazine

Athenian, my old high school, published an article on me and my OG Told Me project!!

New Guard Meets Old Guard, Pendarvis Harshaw ’05

An elderly man leans on a rail at a track meet, left hand on his hip, gazing at the sky. His expression says he has experience and he knows what’s up. He is Tommie Smith who gave a black-leathered glove fisted salute from the winner’s circle at the 1968 Olympics. “If you keep living, you have to keep changing with times, ” he says.

page-21-b-screen-shot-2013-08-13-at-3-40-17-pm

Another Man, in graying dreadlocks, smiles as he looks down at a photograph from the 60s. He points to a young, lanky kid in the photo and says, that’s me.” He is Ronald Freeman and was once a member of the Black Panther Party. “Just look around,” he says. “Figure out how to impact the situation and make it better.”

Two men sit on a sidewalk and crack jokes over a game of chess. Their bare, muscled arms are poised over the game pieces as they concentrate on their next move. They are “David Ruffin” and “Philly Fred”, fixtures on the street in Washington, DC’s Uptown. David says, “Follow your heart. Stay close to your mother.”

all of these remarkable photos and words of wisdom are featured on a photo-journalistic website called OG Told Me ( ogtoldme.com ), created by Pendarvis Harshaw ’05. “It’s an ode to the elder men in the community who gave me tidbits of wisdom as I moved through society as a child,” he says. “They taught me what to do and what not to do. Sometimes It’d be a neighborhood big shot standing in front of his car. Sometimes it’d be a homeless person at a bus stop.”

The OG project is a replica of what Pendarvis did growing up, now told with a camera and a blog site instead of a pen and notebook. ( OG is a term for elders and means original gangster, but now has multiple meanings: old guy, old guard, original griot (storyteller). He travels around Oakland, asking elders the question: given your life experience, if you had the chance to talk to (young*) people, what would you say? “In a world where so many die young, you have to be doing something right in order to live that long,” he explains.

Pendarvis is currently a gradate student at UC Berkeley studying documentary filmmaking, and is also a free-lance journalist. “I’m drawn to journalism and the art of storytelling because poetry is the basis for all good writing,” he remarks. ” I

choose to focus on the overlap of education and violence/ justice because that’s where I think I can make an immediate impact.”

When asked what Athenian experience has influenced his life the most, he says,” Mannnnnn … that trip to Death Valley! I think about that so often! Greatest lesson ever learned has to be the lesson of the Hero’s Journey. Experience it through hiking across the hottest place in the Western Hemisphere, only to return home– a complete Hero’s journey.”

And his words of wisdom to others? “Pack light,” he says. “That’s all I tell myself.”

 

 

Find a hole. Go through it.

It’s about finding a hole, and going through it.

I realized that when I was on the freeway. Standing on Interstate 880. With about 200 other people.

Image

I promise I didn’t plan on being there.

I just wanted to finish my article, eat the burrito I had purchased at noon and then go watch the Home Run Derby.

I knew Cespedes would show out on the baseball field that night. I just knew it. The plan was to make a beeline to a TV. It was 6pm. I had a couple of minutes before the Derby started.

I had just finished recording a story on Trayvon Martin for a local NPR affiliate, a radio station named KQED. On top of that, other news outlets filmed me recording. San Francisco’s CBS outlet and NBC Bay Area were there. They initially came to do a story on how Youth Radio’s facility on the corner of 17th and Broadway had been damaged during the protests the night before, but both outlets did stories with slightly different angles.

After I did the interviews with both crews, I made my move.

I walked on to Broadway, and saw a bunch of people marching toward the police station. My journalistic instincts took over. Within seconds I was marching along, camera in hand, choosing which angle would give me the best photo.

Image

I followed the march down to the police station. They stopped and rallied at the station for all of five minutes– enough time to backup traffic coming off of the freeway.  And when the protesters stopped the traffic, they took advantage:  they walked on to the freeway. And I followed. ( I’m a journalist, what do you expect?)

Image

It was a successful protest. It disrupted the flow of the post work traffic. It made people take notice. It made the helicopters reroute to get a good shot.

But I was there first.

On the freeway! Burrito in my backpack. Missing the home run derby. Taking photos.

The excitement of being on the freeway was crazy. All I tweeted was “this shit is crazy.”

In the midst of my color commentary on the situation, “this shit is crazy” summed it all up.

Image

Image

And then the cops came…

I was reporting. I had been reporting all day. But when the cops came, I knew there would be no way to separate myself from any of the other people on that freeway.

So, I looked to evacuate. Expeditiously .

Everyone moved. It was an exodus!

I ran towards the next exit, just as everyone else did. From Broadway toward Jackson St.  And then we realized we were trapped. There were cop cars coming up the Jackson St. ramp, and cops on feet blocking the Broadway exit.

There was a small gap between the off ramp off and the freeway. The dirt hill with the steep grade was a risk to slide down, but I went for it. And people followed.

Image

After jumping the gap, we slid down the hill.

Image

Image

Image

Image

And that’s all it’s about.

Finding a hole. And going through it.

So others can follow your lead.

Image

After I took a couple more photos, got away from the crowd.

I found a place where I could sit down, enjoy my burrito while the Home Run Derby was on. At a local bar, you know– a hole in the wall.