Let me back up. Last Saturday afternoon, I was sitting on the front steps of my old house in East Oakland. The air was scented by the blossoms of the magnolia tree in the front yard. A neighbor driving by stopped to comment on the remaining blossoms on the tree. She also has one in her front yard. The trees are messy, we agreed. "But they're so beautiful when they're in bloom," she said.
Nearby, Mr. McElroy was taking advantage of the break in the rain to cut the grass in his front yard. Mr. and Mrs. McCullough took off in their small pickup on the way to their church to drop off food for the needy. A PG&E crew was doing some work down the block.
I was trying to pin down the location of a distinctive birdcall - it always sounds like "right here" to me - when I heard the shots. It wasn't the first time we could hear gunfire from our quiet, nearly idyllic street. Hardly. It can be difficult to determine the distance; the sound is distorted as it travels up the hillside from the streets below. This was close.
After 26 years, we moved away from the neighborhood almost a year ago. On this trip back, my usual nostalgia was tempered by the sound of gunfire. "Welcome back," I thought ruefully. I didn't find out what had happened until later. By that time, the gunman, Lovelle Mixon, had killed two more officers, Sgt. Ervin Romans and Sgt. Daniel Sakai - and the story was all over the national news. Four officers shot in Oakland. The city was once again in the national spotlight as a violent, crime-ridden wasteland.
My old neighborhood could be a metaphor for Oakland and its maddening duality. On our street, with sweeping bay views, most of the homes are owner-occupied, many of them by families who've lived there more than 30 years. We look out for each other, have regular neighborhood meetings and a summer block party. We go from house to house singing Christmas carols.
Just one block down the hill the atmosphere is noticeably different. Old cars clutter the street. Several houses look rundown and neglected. A block down from there and a few blocks east, you are in what has been described as Oakland's killing fields.
Mostly the two worlds stay apart. The poverty, instability and related crime don't travel up the hill, except for the occasional house break-in. Sadly, the economic security and family stability don't move down the hill, either.
It's just one of the Oakland neighborhoods that share a geographic space but not a reality.
Of course the violence and crime bred from ignorance, family breakdown and lack of opportunity aren't unique to Oakland. Those dynamics are in poor urban communities across the country. However, bad news sticks to Oakland. And for decades, it has been a Bay Area pastime to bash Oakland.
The people who live in Oakland, who love it, see a different city. They see the way people of different races, ethnicities and backgrounds are comfortable with each other. They see the thriving arts, born of the population's diversity. The city's striking architecture, from West Oakland's Victorians to the Art Deco buildings downtown. The glorious urban beauty of Lake Merritt, a refuge for birds and city dwellers alike. They might see the neighborhood doughnut shop where former co-workers, then retired, used to congregate. Or their church. Or maybe they just see the neighbors who watch their house and pick up their mail when they're out of town.
They aren't blind to the numerous and serious problems. Oaklanders have always impressed me as unusually concerned about their town, genuinely empathetic with the families and neighborhoods struggling with poverty and violence. More than in most cities, there is less a feeling that it's their problem over there and more of a recognition that if it happens in the city, it's everyone's problem. Then, maybe that's my Oakland chauvinism showing.
So now we have a new test of the city's resolve. The nation is watching and maybe more important, the city is taking a hard look at itself. The outpouring of grief and concern demonstrates a strong sense of community, and residents have been inspired to express their commitment to their city. Of course commitment hasn't been so successful in solving the interrelated problems of poverty, ignorance and violence.
And the city's alternate realities are visible and within sight of each other - the flags flying at the memorial to the two slain motorcycle police officers at 74th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard, and the street shrine to the gunman just a half a block away.
This time, however , there was something different, a hopeful sign. A woman in the neighborhood gave police officers information about the whereabouts of the gunman. She told reporters that while she had been in trouble with the law in the past, she wanted to help the police find who had gunned down their colleagues. She recognized that her community was under siege as hundreds of officers looked for the suspect. She broke with the "no-snitch" code of the street and passed on information that led to the end of the manhunt. She understood that the lawlessness evident in the shooting of two officers in the middle of a Saturday afternoon could not be tolerated.
Maybe the city's alternate realities are coming closer together.
This article appeared on page H - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle