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How to write an Oakland, CA history? This question has undoubtedly occupied many a writer’s mind who stepped up to the task. Part unruly city, part sylvan town, Oakland is as complex as an entire nation.

In 1942, authors G.A. Cummings and E.S. Pladwell put pen to paper and wrote Oakland from the ground up. They approached the city history as a multi-storied skyscraper, in an era when the wartime economy was kind to Oakland. Shipyards brimmed with supplies; 714 miles of paved streets stretched across town; and Downtown had become a cultural nexus.

The structure and voice in “Oakland…A History” reflects this kind of pro-industrial tone. The book divides into three parts of development, and the major milestones center around transportation and construction. In dry and certain terms, Cummings and Pladwell devise a mechanical history with more facts than narrative flair. City histories like “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898,” winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for History, hadn’t yet set the standard for nonfictions that read like novels. The city story that Cummings and Pladwell present reads more like a textbook. That the owner of Grant D. Miller Mortuaries, Inc. published the book seems fitting.

But it is Miller’s conclusory contribution that breathes life into the book. His memoir-like epilogue adds character to what otherwise reads like yearbook of Dead White Dudes on parchment pages. His reminiscing about “a city still in a state of adolescence” says a lot about the crossroads his city found itself at the time of publication:

“We [older residents] recall the muddy streets, many of which lacked even sidewalks; the dim and insufficient street lighting; the primitive means of transportation—clumsy, slow horse cars, and early steam strains and cable cars.

“Those were the days when a trip from Oakland to Fruitvale took us through ranches, woods and vast fields of grain; when there were miles of open country between the northern boundaries of the city and Berkeley. When the land from Market Street, west to the waterfront, was mostly marsh, and the water system was so inadequate that there were windmills and wells in many residential areas.”

Miller presents a skyline that today any Oaklander is hard pressed to imagine. Perhaps then what is most redeeming about “Oakland…A History” is the mirror the authors hold up to a city in transition. Like the new high-rise condos that reflect Lake Merritt and its necklace of lights, Cummings and Pladwell tell an Oakland story through a city they saw outside their windows: a steel-framed, car-lined metropolis in-waiting.

Take a peek into “Oakland…A History” at the main branch of the Oakland Public Library, or purchase it online at Amazon or Alibris. You may find it’s a fitting addition to your Oak-book collection.

It is autumn in the Glenview. Dried sycamore leaves collect at the foot of red cement stairwells and crack underfoot. Spiders have spun webs all over yards up and down Park Boulevard, almost as thick as the store-bought cobwebs I see clinging to hedges next to dummy witches. The summer warmth makes its exit in fits and starts as the crisp air settles in. The holiday season, a marathon of sugar binges and punched-up cider, begins with Halloween this weekend. Here’s what Oakland has in store:


The Oakland Museum Honors Dia de los Muertos in 2008

In the Glenview: Tomorrow on All Hallows Eve, Glenview Elementary will host its annual block party from 11 a.m.–2 p.m., on Tiffin Road. Bring a dish to share and meet the neighbors. Take part in the food, games and in making a financial pledge to the school; costumes, like donations, are encouraged but not required. Later on that evening on Greenwood Avenue, a spooky puppet show and yard haunt is rumored to start at nightfall. Glenfriend John has created a Flickr group so Oaklanders can share their photos of the festivities.

In West Oakland: Also for Halloween, check out “FrankenSk8,” an event held in Town Park. It’s Oakland’s premiere skating venue brought to you by Hood Games, a community grown out of East Oakland. They successfully convinced the city to carve out a space in deFremery Park for skaters to work on their skills and officially opened in July. Bring your board or simply scope the local talent from 12 p.m.–3 p.m.

On Piedmont Avenue: This neighborhood will be all things Samhain from dawn ’til dusk. The merchants association will throw its 23rd Annual Piedmont Avenue Halloween Celebration from 9:45 a.m., when patrons can see free cartoons at the Landmark Theatre. After the parade and a trick-or-treat at Issues, visit Mountain View Cemetery. It rests at the top of Piedmont Avenue and hosts a pumpkin festival, where kids can count on a free pumpkin, treat bag and plenty of time in the jump house.

Closing out the evening is a free screening of “Nightmare Before Christmas” at the Video Room. The film runs in the yet-to-rented storefront beside the store’s current location. Prizes go to the best kids costume:


Downtown: For the cocktail crowd, The Den serves up a “Thrillerthon” costume ball this Halloween. Give-away treats at the Halloween bash range from dinner certificates at local restaurants to free drinks at future Den parties. DJ Epic and DJ Mpenzi will spin in honor of Haitian Gede and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” explaining one of the costume contest categories: Best MJ Look-alike. Also performing is the Kendra Kimbrough Ensemble and the El Wah Movement Caribbean Dancers. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. with tickets at $5 before 10 p.m. and $10 thereafter.

Dia de los Muertos in The Fruitvale: Oakland’s best festival is arguably Dia de los Muertos. In past years its attendance has surpassed many Dia de los Muertos celebrations across the country. This year, it was almost in danger of dying out but was resurrected in time for Sunday, November 1, thanks in part to Oakland’s Vice Mayor Ignacio De La Fuente. Every year on International Boulevard, the entire Fruitvale skyline transforms with rainbow-colored paper prayer flags. Sugar skulls and sweet pan de muertos pile high. But front-and-center for food concessions are from La Borinqueña Restaurant & Specialty Shop in Old Oakland; Tina “Tamale” Ramos represents with family recipes going back for generations—hopefully with some of their tasty green chile and cheese tamales.

This year more than 25 altars spill out onto the street from the ‘Vale Transit Village. A portion of them are provided by the Oakland Museum, which is currently closed for renovations. Still, they make an appearance at the festival with an interactive display and make a virtual ofrendas online. The dead fest begins at 10 a.m. with music from local Latino bands, cultural crafts and games, and shutters at 5 p.m. To get there, you could take the bus or BART to the Fruitvale station. From the escalator, follow the scent of marigolds and you’ve arrived.


Mictecacihuatl, or the Aztec's Lady of the Dead

Mas Muertos: Many peoples observe the dead with rituals. The Haitians, Celts and Native Americans each had their method of reaching for loved ones in the Otherworld. There’s also curious overlap across cultures. The Greeks spoke of Persephone presiding over the dead, and ushering departed souls to their new residences. The Aztecs, for their part, personified this “Lady of the Dead” as the goddess Mictecacihuatl. According to the story, she dies in childbirth the Underworld, where she and her husband Mictlan watch over the bones of those passed. This ensures that the lifeless bones could, if needed, build a people for some future world.

The Oakland Museum has online resources on the Day of the Dead that’s worth a peek. Under the Bay Area events is a healthy book list, featuring the indispensable “Digging the Days of the Dead,” by Juanita Garciagodoy. She writes somewhat academically but lucidly about the origins of the rites and looks at death as viewed today. It’s a great read for information and the index contains poems like the one by an ancient American poet, Cuahcuauhtzin:

My heart longs for flowers anxiously.
I only suffer with songs,
I only essay my songs,
on the earth, I am Cuahcuauhtzin.
With anxiety I want flowers,
may they rest in my hand,
I am wretched!
Where will we go
that we may never die?
Although I were jade,
although I were gold,
I will be melted, I will be perforated
in the crucible.
My heart, I Cuahcuauhtzin,
am a wretched man!

In her chapter “The Lively Skeletons,” Garciagodoy examines the oxymoronic nature of the Mexican holiday. She writes, “The calaveras are working, self-reflexively making offerings to the dead, socializing, or displaying themselves. Whatever they are doing, what may be most obvious about these skeletons is that they are not dead.” Skulls shrouded in vibrant colors walk a line between life and death. They do not dwell on last rites but on timeless rituals. In this realm, life seems the most brilliant.

One could make a similar argument for Oakland: it may be haunted by wayward ghosts, but it’s on the cusp of renewal. The city lets out its closeted skeletons every fall and takes stock of the living and the dead. A dark subject and bright colors show the beauty of life in stark contrast. And fittingly, Oakland shines.

Today Bobby Seale turns 73 years old. A week before his 30th birthday, he co-founded the Black Panther Party with Huey Newton steps away from their North Oakland community college. Seale spoke to a small crowd some ten years ago at the now closed New College of California; he had the same furrowed brow and mustache pictured in archival photos, but sported a pair of suspenders and silvered hair. He engaged the audience with his boisterous energy as he talked about past political rallies. His memoir, “Seize the Time,” remains the most popular book about the Black Panthers, a revolutionary group that changed the consciousness of a nation.

You can check out a host of BPP literature today and tomorrow at Laney College, from 11–3 p.m. Former Panthers turned authors will present a book fair at the Student Center. It’s just one of several events dedicated to October, aka Black Panther Party History Month:

Pictured: Bobby Seale, Co-Founder of the Black Panther Party

Pictured: Bobby Seale, Co-Founder of the Black Panther Party

Billy “X” Jennings has called Seale’s autobiography the “Bible of the Black Panthers.” A former Panther and party archivist, Jennings is co-hosting the event with The Commemoration Committee of the Black Panther Party, run by Melvin Dickson. Dickson was one of the Panthers to start the Community School—a place where kids could get a free meal, school supplies, access to medical care and bus fare.

With 43 years between now and the moment Seale and Newton laid down the party’s constitution, time has mitigated much of the Panthers’ history. Memories and mainstream media accounts of the Panthers conflict and conflate with one another. It’s a story defined by its diversity and best understood in volume.

Certainly, the books written by and about the Black Panther Party could fill a library. A couple of them can be found here. Stay tuned for a more complete list.