"We Are The People In Your Neighborhood"
We (some of the Actual crew and I) came up with this tagline one day while we were brainstorming about what to write on our sidewalk sign.
I liked the allusion to Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street, which for me brings to mind a very specific feeling about community. I remember watching those shows as a kid in the New Jersey suburbs, and being fascinated by the idea of urban neighborhood - it wasn't my direct experience then, but it appealed to me in a way that my life at the time really didn't. I grew up in a town totally unlike Oakland - it was not terribly diverse in any way: socioeconomically (mostly middle-class), racially (near 100% white), religiously (I think I might have gone to school with one hindu, and didn't meet a muslim or a buddhist until I was an adult), and sexually (although I'm sure there were gay folks, they were not prominent). There weren't even old people in any significant numbers - it was a town of young families trying to live the American dream. Unfortunately, the version of the American dream practiced there didn't accommodate a weirdo like me, and I never felt comfortable in that environment. I was geeky and awkward, not athletic, and just socially inept - a typical young outcast.
The window that PBS gave me into a different sort of life was really attractive - I often wished I could be living in a city, where people of all different stripes found ways to live together and make community in a very different way. I visited Manhattan a lot growing up, both with my family as a young kid, and with my friends as a teenager. My experiences there solidified the idea of urban living as something particularly suited to me. Even the sometimes-sketchy late-70s/early-80s gritty streets, run-ins with hustlers, the vague sense of danger, the bad smells, the neglected corners - I soaked up the whole experience, and knew that it was what more like what I wanted. I considered living there when I moved from my parents' house, but it didn't quite fit - it was a bit too crowded, too psychically demanding (a great place to visit, as they say, but I wouldn’t want to live there).
When I moved to Oakland in 1991, I found a version of that experience that resonated more deeply with me. I had all my belongings packed into a truck, and wasn't sure where I'd eventually settle. I had a friend in Oakland, and when I arrived, I fell in love. And what I fell in love with was the sense that not only was it acceptable to be different here, but that the character of the entire city was largely centered around people who were not on a career path, or motivated primarily by money. It was a town packed to the gills with creative people - musicians, artists, writers, DJs, party promoters, graphic designers, poets, dancers, circus people, motorheads, graffiti kids, skaters, fighters, and on and on. It was the norm for people to have two part-time jobs and three side projects. I became part of this crowd, playing music, making jewelry, and having free time to explore a different way of living.
I spent countless hours in coffee shops during my first several years here. I met and hung out with so many people at little wood tables, played spades and backgammon, read, wrote, talked about everything imaginable, and just soaked in the atmosphere. I interacted with people of all stripes, from all over the world. I grew up, and grew into a new self-image - I was a part of a community. I felt neighborhood, instead of imagining it.
So...the phrase - "We Are The People In Your Neighborhood" - it taps right into all of that. I remember the profiles of people on those PBS shows- the artists, the musicians, the tradespeople, the municipal workers, and everyone. I remember the very specific thought that a true community comes from the bringing together of all kinds of people, each living in their own ways, and doing things that give them identity, purpose, and pride. That idea excited me, and still does. I think we all deserve to live fulfilling lives, and that we ought to work together to find ways to do so. "We" in this context means all of us - the people who have lived in this neighborhood for decades, and those who just moved here; young people and old; black, white, and all shades of brown; straight, gay and all shades of queer; rich, poor, and otherwise; creative, professional, blue collar, students; families, single people; kids, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents; those who need help and those who can give it. It means the cafe staff, our customers, our neighbors, our vendors, and me.
It is important to me to preserve the unique qualities of this neighborhood as it evolves. I've seen the complete gentrification of too many areas, at the expense of those who have invested their lives there. I live here, and I don't want to walk down the street between strip malls and chain stores. We're better than that...we deserve better than that. We all have the ability to make an impact on our block, in our little community, and set an example that others can follow. We can learn from examples set elsewhere. We can remember what it was like, just a few decades ago, when the folks who sold us things knew our names, asked about our families, lived down the street, and became part of the web of social ties that make us strong. We can experience that today.
Thanks to Kim Babnik, our awesome barista and artist-in-residence, for making a mural to remind us of all this, and bring the idea to life through her beautiful work. The representation of the outside (the neighborhood), inside (the cafe), through the depiction of the buildings and other sights of our city, speaks to the integration between what we do here and what happens in Oakland at large. We're most successful when we work together, finding common ground instead of finding reasons to disagree.
We. Are the People. In your (our) Neighborhood. And that’s pretty all right.