29 Great Oakland blogs from 2009, part 1

From time to time, journalists putting together stories about the future of news or new media or something will ask to talk to me about blogging and local news. I always think this sounds like fun. It usually doesn’t turn out that way, though.

The conversations almost all go pretty much the same. First, they tell me that they’re a huge fan of my blog and that they read it all the time and are so impressed with what a great writer I am. I thank them. Then, they ask something along the lines of “So, what would you do if there were no more journalists covering Oakland City Hall? Without newspaper stories to respond to, how would you find things to write about?”

So much for that thing about reading my blog all the time, huh?

This has happened to me enough times that I have an immediate answer at the ready, which, while honest, is probably a little bit snottier than strictly necessary. I tell them simply “While I think it would be a horrible loss to all of Oakland’s residents if there were no professionally produced and widely distributed local news, as far as my writing goes, it wouldn’t make much of a difference at all. My blog has an extremely narrow focus, and I can’t remember the last time I read something in a newspaper about Oakland politics that I didn’t already know.”

From there, it goes one of two ways. Sometimes, they’ll respond with something along the lines of “Well, okay, maybe your blog is like that, but most blogs just copy and paste newspaper stories with a line or two of commentary. What would happen to them if there were no newspapers?”

Like I have any idea. I don’t read any blogs like that.

If they don’t ask me about some type of blog I know nothing about, they usually turn the conversation to a more meta discussion of journalism. As in “Do you consider yourself a journalist?” I have no idea why they always seem so freaking shocked when I say “No, I’m a blogger,” but they do. Then they ask a bunch of ridiculous questions like “What makes you say your blog isn’t journalism? Is it because its worse? Is it because you don’t do any original reporting or research? Is it because what you write is biased and unreliable? Is that why?” (Seriously. I am not making this up.)

Anyway, I always find the whole thing very weird. I know lots of great journalists who enjoy reading blogs about their subject matter. While they may be (rightfully) frightened about the future of their industry, they don’t see blogs as their primary threat. But then there are others, like the people I mention above, who have this really weird competitive mindset about blogs versus newspapers that makes me think they would be best served by sitting down and actually reading some blogs instead of talking to me.

Local blogs aren’t great because they’re going to replace newspapers. I think you’d have to look for a very long time before you found a blogger who thought that. They’re great because they allow a multitude of voices to join the conversation about civic life. Everyone, everywhere, who has a computer, or hell, even just a library card, can now be a part of the public discourse. How awesome is that?

No, blogging isn’t journalism. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t often contain good, well-researched news or can’t be an excellent source of information. But it’s a completely different creature. It’s not constrained by some arbitrary word count or story structure. It’s not filtered by whether an editor thinks enough people will find it interesting to merit printing. Some blogs are super wonky and detailed, others are totally personal. Some blogs are carefully edited and beautifully wordsmithed while others are raw and rambling and brimming with intense emotion. It’s just a platform that can be whatever you want it to be, and I am so glad that we have so many people using it to write about Oakland. The breadth of things local bloggers have to say about our city never ceases to fascinate me.

Anyway, I thought it might be nice to take some time to highlight some great Oakland blog posts from 2009. This isn’t a best of – that’s how it started, but I quickly realized that there was no way I was ever going to be able to pick out, like, the 10 best Oakland blog posts of the year. After all, to say something is better than something else, you have be comparing like things, and the only thing that all the entrants in my pool had in common was the town that inspired them and the format they were using to share their thoughts.

Over the new few days, I’m going to share a sampling of Oakland blog posts that I really loved this year. The list could easily be two or three times as long and every post would be just as good, but it had to stop somewhere, so I randomly settled on 29 because I liked the way it sounded for my title. Some, I’m highlighting because I loved what they had to say. Others, because I think they were just so well written. Others, because they were so well researched or because they taught me something new. But every last one of them is worth your time reading.

Okay, here we go. In chronological order:

  • Reportback from The Oscar Grant Protests/Riots from Fem.men.ist (January 8, 2009)

    So. I totally missed the downtown riots last January. Like, completely. I got to work at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and somehow, the entire night, nobody thought to say a word to me about what was going on outside. (Nice work, building security!) I finished my shift and walked outside at like nine o’clock to find like half a dozen helicopters buzzing overhead and more police cars than I had ever seen crawling down Broadway. Dumbfounded, I called dto510 all “Something really weird is going on downtown, do you know anything about it?” He was like “Yeah, I’m in Rockridge, watching it on the news. Just take the back way home and avoid Broadway. Call back when you get there and I’ll fill you in.”

    But then the police had blocked off the roads and would not let me go the back way, and funneled me onto a different side street where I watched a group of teenagers shriek and holler as they smashed car windows with a baseball bat and climbed up on top of windshields and jumped up and down on them until they broke. I decided that whatever the hell was going on, I didn’t want to be any part of it, and marched straight to a nearby bar, where I figured I could chill safely until things calmed down, plus maybe get some answers about the mayhem. And so I did, and I stayed there for a few hours, and when everything seemed good and quiet, I went home. Lame story, huh?

    Over the next few days, I found myself absolutely captivated reading all the amazing first-hand accounts of the event from bloggers who had been part of the protest. But out the many engrossing stories, this breathless, present-tense narrative still sticks in my mind the most.

    From Richard’s initial sense of belonging when he arrives at the protest, to his discomfort as the tone starts to turn, the protest’s rapid descent into a scene of fire and destruction with no identifiable genesis, to his fear when the police show up and his desperate attempt at calm, trying to create some oasis, just standing there in the crowd, clutching a candle, every one of the night’s emotions came through so crystal clear in this excellent, moving blog:

    I am starting to buzz with adrenaline. I reach for my face towel, awaiting what had to be inevitable. I looked around to see if i could see them –

    There they were. Riot cops blocking off one street walking towards the intersection.

    I started backing away, and seconds later came the tear gas.

    I only smelled a little of it thanks to my towel, and i was far enough for it not to get in my eyes.

    I am still holding my candle.
    I am the only one holding a candle.
    I feel strangely out of place
    and also that this is the most important place for me to be
    with a lone candle.

    Start to finish, it’s a gripping, beautiful story, and if you missed it a year ago, you should go read it right now. If you did catch it then, it’s worth going back and re-reading.

  • Oakland Authority, Now and Then from Oaklander Online (January 12, 2009)

    In this post, another Oaklander, feeling restless and confused about the shooting of Oscar Grant and the destruction that followed, turns for insight to notebooks kept by her great-grandfather, which record his work as an Oakland police officer in the early 20th century. In them, she sees reflections of many of the same racial tensions that plague Oakland today:

    My great-grandfather seemed like a loving man in many respects, who helped his wife around their house on Grove Street and “joked too hard” with friends. But unfamiliarity translates into fear, and that process is a tricky thing.

    In fact, his descriptions of the people he sees on the street reveal an interesting subtext. The anxiety is in the naming of things. He addresses them by surname (as in the case of his fellow officers), first name (of family and friends), and race (without the detailed descriptions afforded to white citizens). One day, he “straightened out a row” between a “Hawaiian” and a Mrs. Bird. On another, at the corner of Harrison and Second streets, he encountered a “(mexican)” drunk. And on the same corner days earlier, he “quizzed three soldiers about [a] negro place close by.”

    It’s a fascinating window into Oakland’s past, and how things have changed so much in some ways, but not at all in others.

  • Oakland is a Mess from Monteskewed (January 13, 2009)

    This post is inspired by the riots, but not about them. The events simply serve as a catalyst for reflections on how Oakland, a place with so much to offer and loved deeply by many of its residents, seems, in spite of all its potential, to be falling apart at the seams.

    That Oakland has problems is not exactly an earth-shattering revelation. But I was moved by Monte’s assessment of the way Oakland always seems to be searching for rescue from some outside force.

    Many are the people I encounter that love Oakland, are proud to live here, yet have given up or become complacent in terms of things ever changing for the better. We’ve pinned all our hopes of cleaning up the mess on the building of condos, hoping that if we build it they will come. Then upon a mayor. In my brief tenure as citizen of Oakland we seem to vacillate from hope to hope to hope, touching lightly upon the notion that we all are the power to change the city – yet never being able to organize to make it happen.

    The post reminded me of a thing this guy I know is always saying about the Mayor’s unprecedented partnership with the State that was going to completely revitalize and eliminate crime in 500 blocks of Oakland. I don’t know if you guys remember this, but the Mayor was bragging about this mysterious plan almost constantly during fall 2008, with details always to be released very soon, and then eventually all talk of it just kind of faded away. Anyway, every time it would come up, this guy would be like, “Why am I supposed to believe that this is even possible? Why 500 blocks? Why not start with one block? Show me you can clean up one square block in Oakland’s worst neighborhoods, and then we can talk about how we fix things on a larger scale.”

    I always really appreciated that sentiment. Oakland isn’t going to be fixed overnight, or by any one person or single initiative. But we can make our neighborhoods and our city better. We just have to focus on doing it step by step, piece by piece. So thanks to Monte for reminding me of that.

  • Park Boulevard: the anatomy of a city street from Fragmentary Evidence (January 21, 2009)

    What does it take to create a vibrant neighborhood? Lower Park Boulevard in Eastlake has streetside parks, dense residential, and a nearby commercial district, yet lacks many of the signs of life and community one would expect from a place with such amenities. In this post, DC takes a look at the barriers to pedestrian activity along this Oakland thoroughfare.

    Think about what the woman with the stroller in the photo above is facing if she wants to get to the playground: over half a mile of wide, fast street without any way to safely cross over to the park on the other side. This is almost criminal. To take her kid the playground, she has to either walk out of her way to one of the streets that has a proper crossing light, or she has to cross her fingers, murmur a quick prayer, and take her chances at one of the “crosswalks,” or she has to get in her car (assuming she owns one) and drive to the park.

    His observations highlight just how little effort – the addition of simple amenities like stop lights, stop signs, and crosswalks – it would take to create a more liveable, walkable neighborhood.

  • (Dis)respect for the City Council from Living in the O (February 12, 2009)

    This post cracked me up. I always think of Becks as being so much more level-headed and even tempered than I am, so reading her account of how quickly she once rushed to judgement about one Councilmember based on a single issue was almost surreal for me.

    Very quickly, Reid became my least favorite council member. I knew little about the Council and how the city functioned, but I knew that I did not like Larry Reid. All the negative medical marijuana regulations that came from the council, I blamed on Reid.

    Looking back, I realize just how absurd and unfair that judgement was.

    It’s always tempting, but rarely productive, to demonize decision makers we disagree with on issues we feel passionate about. Becks reminds us that even policies we strongly oppose usually come from a place of good intentions. This post should be required reading for anyone starting to get involved with Oakland politics, and is a great reminder for veteran activists as well.

  • Driving from East to West Oakland to See Our Walls Speak (part 1) from La Carpe del FEO: Fandango en East Oakland (February 13, 2009)

    Public art, particularly murals, surround us in Oakland. But with so many colorfully painted walls throughout the city, these murals can easily start to fade into the background, becoming something we pass by every day without ever really thinking about. In this post, Arnoldo Garcia drives across Oakland, photographing those murals we too often don’t notice, and telling the stories behind them.

    Our walls speak whoever writes or paints on them. Like the mural above, tagged with some “consideration,” that is making the tag almost a part of the mural, blending it like streaks in her hair? A second tagger or color however disrupts and mars whatever was friendly in the first tag.

    This post inspired me to start looking more consciously at the murals I pass by every day. I hope it will do the same for you. Our walls have some great stories to tell.

Okay, that’s enough for today. More great Oakland blogs from 2009 tomorrow!

15 thoughts on “29 Great Oakland blogs from 2009, part 1

  1. Amy Gahran

    Great roundup, V! Thanks for posting it.

    I know what you mean about those forehead-meet-wall conversations with journalists who seem bent on positioning local bloggers as somehow being in competition with journalists, and with trying to establish “who’s better” or “who will win.”

    As a longtime journalist and blogger — including a stint for several years managing E-Media Tidbits, a weblog by the Poynter Institute (a leading think tank for mainstream news media) — I am sooooo tired of those conversations I just flat-out refuse to have them anymore. Or rather, I tend to answer their questions by questioning their assumptions.

    That gets MUCH more interesting. I get quoted by them less, but I think it gets them to think more.

    Keep up the good work,

    - Amy Gahran

    Senior Editor

  2. Dave C.

    Be nice to the journalists, V–they were hit by a tidal wave, and a lot of the ones who didn’t drown are still trying to figure out which way is up.

    And thanks for the kind words in the past few days. My own blogging resolution for the new year is to try to live up to your undue praise. I re-read that post about Park Boulevard the other day, and it was sad to remember that I listed the Parkway as one of the bright spots of lower Park. Little did I know then that it would close two months later. With any luck we’ll see its rebirth in 2010.

  3. Ralph

    I think I would have pimp smacked the journalist who asked “So, what would you do if there were no more journalists covering Oakland City Hall? Without newspaper stories to respond to, how would you find things to write about?”

    I would have asked them to tell me exactly what they read and then walk out while they fumbled for words. Seriously. I am beginning to doubt their print creds. Do we even have a journalist who covers city hall?

    I really love the Becks selection.

  4. Karen Smulevitz

    For some reason I rarely think of BayAreaNewsService as mainstream journalism. Nevertheless, when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, and if all you have is a B.A. in journalism…..and so on.

  5. V Smoothe Post author

    Kelly Rayburn from the Oakland Tribune and Matthai Kuruvila from the San Francisco Chronicle are usually at Council meetings. (Well, Matthai has been on leave for a while, but will be returning this month, hooray!) The Tribune’s Angela Woodall goes whenever something related to nightlife or entertainment is on the agenda. Other writers may watch them from home – I know I would always do it that way if I could. It’s a lot easier to write about stuff when you have the ability to rewind, rewatch, pause when you need a break, etc.

  6. KenO

    Karen, love the analogy…

    does anyone here want to co-admin the oakland911 twitter account with me? i’d rather not post about anti-radiation tablets on it all the time…

  7. Ralph

    I guess if I read either the Tribune or the Chronicle (or even thought they were worth reading), I might have known about those two reporters. Back when I was knee high to a grasshopper, if someone at CH sneezed it was in the news. Back then we had coverage. Thanks.

  8. Robert Menzimer

    Hi V,

    Okay, wild rumor has it that you’re one of our volunteers with the WriterCoach Connection program, working with students at Media Academy in the Fruitvale to develop their writing and critical thinking skills. True? If so, we’ve got to hip them to your blog, so they know why they should listen up as you communicate with them, same way you listen to them.

    Robert Menzimer
    Executive Director
    Community Alliance for Learning

  9. V Smoothe Post author

    Hey Robert –

    I volunteered with Writer Coach Connection last year, but unfortunately couldn’t manage to arrange my work schedule in a way that would let me do it this year. I’m hoping I can get it to work out in 10-11, because I loved doing it!

    People, if you’re looking for a way to help out in Oakland schools, and you have some flexibility with your weekday schedule, I cannot recommend more highly becoming part of the Writer Coach Connection. You work one on one with high school students at Media Academy (one of the small schools in Oakland’s Fremont High School) on their writing assignments. Most of these kids do not get much in the way of help with their schoolwork at home, and the opportunity for such detailed individual feedback is incredibly valuable for them.

    Do you know the dates yet for Spring coaching at Media Academy, Robert?

  10. Robert Menzimer

    Here’s what Karen Larson, who coordinates WriterCoach Connection at Media, says about the spring coaching schedule:

    Team 1 will begin at 8:10 and finish at 10:00.
    Team 2 will begin at 10:45 and finish at 12:35.

    Here are the coaching dates for 2010:

    Week 6: Thursday, 1/14 & Friday, 1/15
    Week 7: Thursday, 1/21 & Friday, 1/22

    Week 8: Thursday, 2/18 & Friday, 2/19
    Week 9: Thursday, 2/25 & Friday, 2/26

    Week 10: Thursday, 3/25 & Friday, 3/26

    Week 11: Thursday, 4/1 & Friday, 4/2

    Week 12: Thursday, 6/3 & Friday, 6/4

    Coach training sessions are scheduled throughout January and into early February, two three-hour sessions, options for daytime or evening training. You can register for training at http://www.writercoachconnection.org. Add a note that you heard about the program on V’s blog!

    We’re coaching all tenth graders at Media, as V did last year, and we’ve added coaching for all twelfth graders this year, helping them with their Senior Projects.


  11. Reginald James


    I started the rumor about you helping students write (kinda). All the spring training dates take place in Berkeley.

    Training #10 Wed 1/13 & 1/20 6:30-9:30 pm
    Training #11 Thu 1/14 & 1/21 12:00-3:00 pm
    Training #12 Wed 1/27 & 2/3 6:30-9:30 pm
    Training #13 Tue 2/2 & 2/9 12:00-3:00 pm
    Training #14 Thu 2/18 & 2/25 12:00-3:00 pm

    WriterCoach is a great experience!

  12. Ralph

    I wish I had a more flexible schedule. Is there any way that this program can do Saturday hours? I work with students who are just now beginning to grasp simple sentences and subject – verb agreement. These students are seniors applying to college. They need all the extra help they can get.

  13. Robert Menzimer

    WriterCoach Connection doesn’t do Saturday hours because we work in class with students, during regular school hours. And we also work with every student in class, regardless of writing skill level. Those are two key features of the program.

    The time commitment isn’t heavy, about two class periods per month minimum. But that doesn’t help, I know, if your work schedule is completely inflexible.


  14. Karen Larson

    We would love new WriterCoaches at Media Academy in Oakland!

    Here are all the coaching times:
    Team 1: 8:10 – 10:00 a.m. (12th graders)
    Team 2: 10:45 – 12:35 (12th graders)
    Team 3: 1:25 – 3:15 (10th graders)

    Team 5: 10:45 – 12:35 (10th graders)
    Team 6: 1:25 – 3:15 (10th graders)

    Robert Menzimer listed our coaching dates above (as always, subject to change. . . )

    @Ralph: I too wish we had an option for those who can’t break away from work during the day, but one of the hallmarks of the WriterCoach Connection is working on assignments with English teachers during the English classes. And, alas, that means during the school day. We do have some coaches who coach from 8:10 – 9:10 before heading to work. . .

    Thanks for all the enthusiasm around WCC!
    Karen Larson

  15. Robert Menzimer

    I also wanted to mention that you don’t need to be a writer or editor or teacher to be a writer coach–our volunteers come from a wide range of backgrounds. The training is really comprehensive, so you know what to do when you sit down with a student, regardless of the nature of the teacher’s writing assignment, where the student is in addressing the assignment, or the student’s writing skill level.