There is one moment from the cross-country trip I took with my mother in 2007 that will probably forever live in my mind. We were on Highway 80 going through Nebraska in the middle of a blizzard. The road was invisible, buried under a sheet of snow. An occasional car or 18-wheeler dotted the side of the highway, spun out or waiting for the storm to pass, the people inside most likely freezing cold and silently contemplating, as I was, their fragility and mortality.
My mother was dying of cancer. We did not get along very well. We never had, save for a few years in my early childhood when we were intermittently homeless and we were all we had. Since then our lives had gone in different directions. I had gone to live with different families, in some cases, seemingly the only Black person in the entire world. For her part, who knows what she endured? Probably only she, and those occasional friends and lovers she called late at night when her desperation for food or money had become too acute for her to keep to herself, had any idea. Now I can imagine this. But I didn’t use to. It didn’t occur to me until very recently that my mother had an entire life of her own in those years she spent without me.
In that moment, we were facing a long and straight road together. Or rather, I was facing it alone. She was asleep in the passenger seat. We had stopped 60 miles or so earlier at a hotel, to check the Internet and see how serious this storm was (in 2007, my Samsung i600 was inadequate for the kind of simultaneous driving and web searching to which we’ve since become accustomed). All indications were that the storm was so intense that we should just chill in the lobby like everyone else was doing. And it was a cozy scene. A vast array of travelers were convivial and talkative, sitting on couches, standing near the fireplace, swapping tales of the earlier hours of their journeys, where they were coming from, when they first learned about the storm, when they decided to pull over. Boots and sweaters galore. Small talk. Something that had always made me uncomfortable, like I was faking or lying; the forced smiles and dull punchlines. I’d always been that way, part snob, part frightened kid.
But there was another problem with staying in the lobby, something that made us infinitely more uncomfortable than small talk. We were the only Black people there. We were used to operating in places like New York, D.C., L.A., where we were rarely the only people of color in a room. In fact, we had purposefully built a life avoiding states like Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, places that felt alien and potentially dangerous to us. I only applied to schools in coastal, diverse cities. My mother had moved countless times in her life, but had always chosen metropolitan centers, places she could barely afford. My wife and I struggled to make ends meet, renting overpriced apartments in sketchy neighborhoods in L.A. or Brooklyn, rather than taking the risk of relocating our mixed-race family to more affordable places. “You can get a three-bedroom house in Nebraska for $200,000!” the Internet told us gleefully. “And the people are kind! Good American values!” That was a nice idea that always felt like it didn’t apply to us. I mean, sure, it was possible, we assumed most people were kindly, and non-violent – the kind of people who would offer you a cup of coffee and a slice of cake if you stopped by their house when your car broke down. But we knew there were other kinds of people too, the kind who drag you from the back of a truck until your skin is ripped from your body. And that the risk of running into that person, even once, was far greater than any promise of affordable houses and good schools or, in the case of this blizzard, a warm hotel lobby. This is how the promise of America lands for us. It’s all good, except not for you. Every idea of how great this country is, or can be, carries with it a silent caveat, never spoken but always felt. “We are a simple country of good-hearted, upstanding people. We believe in justice and freedom. But you may be killed for being born. Even if you are an American. Even if your family has been here since the very beginning. Even if you were brought here against your will, built the country with your bare hands, overcame poverty, and lynchings and apartheid, even if you attended one the most prestigious schools in the country, even if you are a kind and loving father, who is just trying to get your dying mother safely back to your home so you can take care of her for the last months of her life, even then, you may be killed just for being born.”
This is why, with my dying mother in the passenger seat of the car, I drove through a storm that turned the entire sky an impenetrable white. Slowly and carefully, my hands gripping to the wheel, breathing to keep myself calm, giving just enough gas to keep from spinning out and to make sure we kept moving. We had to keep moving. No matter what. Even past the cars and trucks that littered the side of the road, having surrendered to the obvious authority of the sky.
The fact that the American Dream presents two very different faces depending on the color of yours is why Victor H. Greene created the Negro Motorist Green Book in 1936. Greene, an African-American postal worker, and an early social entrepreneur, saw opportunity in the fact that Black people wanted to enjoy the vast American landscape, but had to take into account inconveniences like being refused service, spat on, or lynched. Jewish newspapers had long published comprehensive listings of establishments for readers to avoid and the analogy to Black life was not lost on Greene. He developed a solution to what he termed the “embarrassment” that comes with being refused service for the color of your skin. Greene created a travel guide that listed all the restaurants, filling stations, museums, hotels, guest homes, grocery stores and establishments that readers would feel safe being Black in. The Green Book, as it was affectionately known by Black families, began publishing annually in 1936 and ran for 28 years, growing steadily in listings and readership, and becoming a staple in Black homes. The final issue ran in 1964, by which time the combined forces of the Civil Rights Act and the development of the freeway system made it easier to avoid uncomfortable stops, rendering the book theoretically obsolete.
Collective interest in the book has increased in recent years. USA Today, The Washington Post and The 99% Invisible podcast have all recently run features on it. The New York Public Library’s Schomberg Center recently made public their digital collection of back issues. In 2010, playwright Calvin Alexander Ramsay published Ruth And The Green Book, a children’s book about a young Black girl and her family’s travel through the South. He also wrote The Green Book: A Play In Two Acts, which debuted in Atlanta in 2011 and enjoyed an extended run. Ramsay is also working with Greene’s family on a documentary that will gather stories from families who considered The Green Book a part of their lives.
There is an obvious irony in the fact that a country that obsessively congratulates itself on its freedoms, even using them as a rationale for foreign military intervention, is so unsafe for its own naturally-born citizens that a guide book showing those citizens where they could safely exist within its borders was ever published.
Part of what makes The Green Book compelling is that its existence can be used to bolster both the the idea that America is and isn’t currently a racist place. This may explain our current interest: for some, the book is a relief, a reminder of precisely how far we’ve come. We can pat ourselves on the back, confident that our country is no longer dangerous to a significant portion of the citizenry. For others, the book evokes different feelings. Recognition. Maybe even longing. We think about the fear we’ve felt when traveling in unknown parts, even in recent years. We remember long, lampless highways and Confederate flags glowering at us from the backs of trucks. We remember the feeling of loneliness. We know what it’s like to feel afraid of the sunset. And we know that even now in 2016, we have no guarantee of safe passage.
No matter how anyone feels about racism, the fact remains that none of us would be talking about this book if it didn’t still hold some kind of relevance. In order to make sense of this, I had to see the book.
I began by traveling to Stanford’s special collections library, which holds one of the only physical copies of the Negro Motorist Green Book on the West Coast. A librarian handed it to me in a clean, stiff, manila envelope and I found myself unwrapping and handling it like a hallowed parchment, carefully touching the thin yellow pages. All that reverence feels slightly incongruous because the first thing you notice about the Green Book is that it feels like a relatively low-budget operation. The features, written in clunky prose, are hackneyed paragraphs about towns and tourist attractions, with the occasional marketing plug for brands like Studebaker thrown in. Printing errors are evident, as are ink blotches, letters off-line from the rest, and the occasional misspelling. The book was a small-time operation. Greene retired from his postal carrier job in 1947 to focus exclusively on the book. Soon he had hired a small staff and set up an office in Harlem. He also expanded his operation into a travel agency designed to assist Black travelers in making safe arrangements for cross-country voyages. By the time of the 1950 edition that I handled at Stanford, the book featured a mix of advertisements, promotional pieces and recommendations for the cottage industries of Victor H. Green & Co, everything from sightseeing tours of New York City to competitive rates on large-scale printing jobs. The effect is much closer to that of a PennySaver circular than a sacred text.
But something else strikes you when you handle the book: the hopefulness of it. America then was an optimistic place. The postwar economy was booming. Technological developments promised that life could be free, easy, and devoid of struggle for everyone. The suburbs promised clean, modern houses with freshly-cut lawns. You could see and hear people thousands of miles away by just turning a switch. You could take pills to curb the inherent difficulty that comes with being a living person. America was newly possessed of great promise. Work hard, buy good things, and great ease and luxury could be yours. Wide-eyed enthusiasm permeates the 1950 Green Book, from the smiling, beautiful, often light-skinned travelers pictured on the cover, to the enthusiastic adverts promising everything from moisturizers to portable heaters. Like other Americans, Black people’s spirits were likely bolstered by this collective idealistic fever.
It had been, to put it mildly, a rough 350 or so years since the Transatlantic Slave Trade had begun its assault on the humanity of an entire continent. Rape, murder, infanticide, forced labor, castration, savage public executions; a law, upheld by the highest court in your, land that you don’t even count as a complete human. A most brutal and relentless backlash should you even threaten to assert your human rights. And a legal system designed to encourage, enforce and uphold this repression. And yet, Black people continued to work, to form banks and businesses, communities and families. Black people continued to believe that this history, no matter how ugly, could be overcome. If they just kept their suits pressed and their business affairs in order, if they just figured out a way to match the spiritual calamity of America’s bloodthirsty racism with a responsible and noble decorum, then everything would turn out just fine. This sort of thing couldn’t go on forever. Even racism would eventually shrink from its own hideousness. Americans are, by nature, an idealistic people.
The second time I looked through the book, I noticed something that I had not seen before: mingled among the businesses were listings for what were called “tourist homes.” These were private residences available for boarders to stay for the night, saving them the discomfort of seeking paid accommodation in a potentially unfriendly town. These homes functioned like safe harbors, stops along an underground railroad, a proto-Airbnb for refugees from racism. Each listing had three simple items: a name, an address and a phone number. How frustrating it was to not be able to dial these numbers from the cell phone that sat next to me on the desk. I have become inexorably conditioned to expect instant access to any piece of information, to being able to look up anything I want to know. I have learned to uncover the entire life story of strangers on the internet so fast that it doesn’t even feel like I’m stalking them. But this was not possible with these listings. These people had existed once, but did not now. Further obscuring them was the custom of printing the last name and first initial. More frustrating still was the fact that most of the people listed as guest house proprietors were women, but they were listed under the names of their husbands.
We easily remember the names of the living. This is what it means to be, as George Orwell put it, the victor in the battle of history. It is the winners who tell the story, and who cast themselves as the sympathetic lead characters. I recently had to Google Trayvon Martin’s name because it had temporarily escaped me, lost for a dark moment in a vast sea of Black deaths by racism. Trayvon was the reason I started writing, why I started talking plainly and openly to anyone, no matter who they were, about the realities of American racism. And yet, a few years later, the only thing I could remember to Google was “George Zimmerman.” This is because Zimmerman is still living, still imprinting himself on our minds. One of the functions of racism is erasure. When we value some lives more than others, then it necessarily follows that we value some stories more than others. Which means that some stories live on, and some stories do not. The lives that were lived are gone, never to be thought of again. This, in turn, means those people no longer exist for us. So we do not value them. And the cycle begins again. It is remembrance we are fighting for when we tell our stories.
That is probably why the most affecting part of this aging document was the names. After the articles and advertisements, the book settles into a comprehensive list of names, divided by state and then city, names of every hotel, restaurant, tavern, beauty supply, and mom-and-pop shop that wanted to be associated with Black citizens in the 1950s. The Palm Garden Restaurant on Jackson Street in Seattle, Washington. Whittico’s Drug Store on East Third in Williamson, West Virginia. Middleton’s Garage, on 2nd St, Muskogee, Oklahoma. More, many more, in every town and city of the country. Each name, nearly a thousand of them crowdsourced and crammed into each edition of the Green Book, is itself a forgotten human story. Who were the owners? What became of their businesses? What became of their families?
The very first guest house listed in the 1950 edition is in Gadsen, Alabama. Desperate for some kind of immediate satisfaction, I looked it up on Google Street View. It still stood, a blue clapboard house built next to a field. I wanted to crawl inside the photo and stand on the porch. I could almost smell the grass and irises in the front lawn. I imagined myself knocking on the door. “Did you know,” I would ask, “that this home was listed as a safe haven for Blacks travelling through the South in the 1950s?” I wondered who lived there now. Was the home passed down through the family? Would I be invited in, offered a drink and shown faded framed pictures of the current resident’s mothers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles? Or would the current owners be suspicious of a Black man on their porch? Would they talk speak tersely through the screen, one hand on a loaded weapon?
I stared at this picture for a long time. My own family had come north from Alabama, I’m told, moving to up north in the 1940s. The name of that state was a sacred and mysterious word in my childhood. It tumbled late in the night from adult lips in tones that were both reverent and profane. Never in front of the kids. We only heard the musical whispering talk, hushed laughter, and the clinking of ice in glasses when we eavesdropped long after we were supposed to have been asleep. Rumor had it my grandfather fled north after hitting a white cop who disrespected his mother. I was well into my twenties before I learned that every Black family has some version of this story, of a time when we had to go because we could not both be human and stay. Like all good folklore, whether or not it happened has little to do with whether or not it’s true.
I don’t know a whole lot about the branch of the family that remains in Alabama. I’ve never been to visit and it’s always made me feel something like a wayward son. For the first week after seeing The Green Book at Stanford, I fantasized about traveling south and somehow using this story as an excuse to connect with a part of myself that lives in my DNA but is gone from my memory. I imagined tearful hugs, joyful cookouts and uncanny resemblances with newfound relatives. But then it’s all in my imagination. Who knows what Alabama really means to an art-school kid born in Pennsylvania, raised in L.A. and living in Oakland. It’s dizzying to go so quickly from feeling like you belong somewhere to feeling like you don’t.
It was not reasonable, logistically or otherwise, to trace this story to Alabama, so I continued to pore over the photos I had taken of each page of the 1950 Green Book. Eventually I landed on the page for Oakland, California. By the time of that edition’s printing, Oakland already had a sizeable Black population, so its pages in the Green Book were well-filled. That’s why it was surprising to find there were only two tourist homes listed in the entire city.
The first listing was 805 Linden Boulevard in West Oakland. Not only does that address not exist anymore, but the street doesn’t either. Linden used to run 26 blocks all the way from the train tracks near the docks up to McClymonds High School. Sometime in the 1960s that changed. The Acorn Housing Project was the first major project of the Oakland Redevelopment Agency, whose work would dramatically affect the makeup of Black neighborhoods. Construction began in 1962; by 1968 all existing structures in the area had been demolished. This included churches, mortuaries, and homes, including the guest house at 805 Linden. Nearly 9000 residents were displaced, and an entire functioning community uprooted and re-imagined as a ghetto under the guise of “urban renewal.” The resulting buildings, known as the Acorn Projects, housed a mere 1000 people. By the 1980s, Acorn had gained a reputation as one of the most dangerous housing projects in Oakland.
The second address listed was 3521 Grove Street. I don’t know why it jumped out at me. Maybe it was because it felt friendly. Maybe it was because it was on a corner I had driven by many times. I felt connected to it. But when I looked up the address, the results were odd. Google Maps kept placing me on top of the 580 freeway. I tried a few other times before it occurred to me: this house, too, was no longer there.
I found myself wondering who had lived there. The guide book listed someone named Mrs. H. Williams and a defunct phone number. Later that week, I stopped by that corner on the way to pick up my kids from school. It was now a freeway underpass that I’d driven past many times. It’s on a dark and desolate stretch of what is now called Martin Luther King Boulevard, a street not unlike most other Martin Luther King Boulevards in most other cities. Broad, trashed, dotted with liquor stores, largely empty of pedestrians except for a few figures pushing shopping carts and baby strollers stuffed to the brim with a small world of personal possessions.
Freeway underpasses have a kind of nameless danger to them. There is something deeply eerie about being immediately underneath the concrete of our greatest inventions. There are no lights to illuminate your path. There are rats and human waste. Meanwhile there is the steady rush of cars and trucks above your head. Underpasses are human-made and yet entirely unfit for humans. They symbolize what is necessarily left behind while we move forward. Driving by, I thought about how the building of a freeway had turned a light space into a dark one.
My next stop was the Permits and Planning Division in a modern high-rise across from City Hall. If there had ever been any construction on 3521 Grove – an addition, a floor added, a room expanded – there would be some record here that might lead me one step closer to whoever Mrs. H. Williams was or is.
As I waited in the office holding the tiny slip of paper with my number, I looked around the room. Oakland, like most cities, is changing. New restaurants, bars, and lofts are being built at an unprecedented rate. Old homes, held for generations in one family, are being bought and transformed daily, first by foreign investors, and then by young couples fleeing the real estate mayhem across the bridge in San Francisco. This change, like all social movement, has a face. The Town, as it’s affectionately known by longtime residents, lost 25% of its Black population in the years between the 2000 and 2010 census. It was once a flourishing destination for Black families who migrated out West for jobs at the docks, mills and refineries. They bought houses and formed vibrant communities in West Oakland, Richmond, and South Berkeley, the only places they could, with relative ease, buy property at the time. The most celebrated of these was West Oakland, sometimes called “The Harlem Of The West.” Its main corridor of 7th Street housed dancehalls, theatres, cafes, blues and jazz venues that hosted the likes of B.B King, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Nat King Cole and The Ink Spots. But the end of the postwar boom, combined with the sweeping and destructive hand of the “Urban Renewal” policies, which purposefully cut off municipal funds from Black neighborhoods, hastened the ghettoization and deterioration of an already-crowded section of the city. Then came heroin. Then crack. Then mass incarceration. You already know the story.
The first dot-com boom arrived in the late 90s, when 23-year-olds earning six figures out of college were turning the rental market into a free-for-all. I remember going to an open house in 2001 where every prospective tenant brought a resume and cover letter. While the eventual bust put a temporary throttle on the flow of venture capital funding, it did little to diminish the unremitting horsepower of gentrification, which was really the primary market force of the first ten years of the millennium. By the time the second tech boom had reached full steam, one- bedroom apartments in San Francisco were going for as high as $6500 per month, causing massive migration to the East Bay.
All this made Oakland, the first municipality over the bridge from San Francisco, a prime target for a vast urban migration. A snappy new section popped up around the newly refurbished Fox Theater, near the formerly-bleak intersection of 19th Street and Telegraph. The sudden influx of comparatively wealthy residents required farm-to-table restaurants and craft mixologists to complete their experience. Everyone all of a sudden hella loved Oakland, and bought the t-shirts to prove it. In 2015, after extensive lobbying from the city, Uber (currently valued at around $66 billion) announced it was building a campus in the old Sears building at 20th and Broadway. Meanwhile, as Oakland became more and more expensive, some of the grandchildren of those laborers who arrived during the Great Migration saw a tremendous opportunity to unload their family homes for much more than they originally paid for them and move out to the hotter, more affordable suburbs of Pittsburg, Antioch, San Pablo, and Vallejo. Those who were not fortunate enough to own their homes were exorcised even more quickly, with landlords raising monthly rents as often as possible before tenants rights groups organized themselves. Just as West Oakland had once been the only place their parents were free to live, the outer suburbs became the new frontier for Black families unable to pay the costs associated with living in a prime location. The migration always continues.
The Permits and Planning Office felt like the secret lair from which this transformation of Oakland was being commanded. A white couple seated near me was working on getting permits for a restaurant downtown. He unrolled pages of blueprints for the city worker, eager to appear compliant and thorough, answering every question with a nervous readiness. She twisted her wedding ring and watched the city employee closely.
On my other side, a skinny man with glasses, messy hair, and a scruffy beard was discussing renovations on a four-bedroom home in North Oakland, less than two miles from where 3521 Grove Street would have been. I found myself wondering he got the money to buy that house. Where does anyone get the money to buy a house in a county where the median home price is $650,000, a 12% increase from just the year before? This has always been a great mystery to me, having grown up as I did in small apartments and the occasional weekly motel, but attending schools with people that had pools and hot tubs, rec rooms, and cars for each child of driving age. Where does the money come from? I know people who bought houses in their twenties. Have they been saving their down payments since they were seven? Is there just one big pile of money that gets shuffled from one young white home-buying couple to another?
When I was growing up, I had always thought of Oakland as a Black city. It meant Marcus Books, the Black Panthers, MC Hammer, Toni, Tone, Tony, Too $hort, The Legend of Charles Cosby. But here I was, in the crowded Planning and Permits office, where the city is literally made, blueprint by blueprint, and I was the only Black person not behind a desk. And I was still just there for my job. It was as though I was suddenly being let in on a vast secret.
When my number was called, I went to the desk to talk to the only other Black person there. I gave him the address and waited while he searched the files. He came back with nothing, but advised me to talk to another employee whose records went back farther. This new guy, a good-natured middle-aged white man with baggy jeans, a ponytail and a vaguely hip-hop vibe, was fascinated with my story. I mentioned that the house once stood where the freeway is now. He searched his records for a good while, finding nothing but occasionally mumbling to himself about something else that might work. After about twenty minutes, he gave up. “There is one person who might know,” he told me. He jotted down a name and number on a yellow Post-It note. “Call her from the phone in the hallway.” It suddenly felt like a drug deal.
I retreated to the lone phone in the empty fluorescent-lit hallway and dialed the number. A shaky voice answered on the third ring.
“Hi, is this Betty Marvin?”
Suddenly I felt very awkward. For a moment nothing I was doing made sense.
“Hi, I…I was given your name in the Permit and Planning office. I’m looking for information about an address that no longers exists. I wonder if…”
“Yes! Yes, indeed. Come to the third floor. I’ll meet you by the elevator.” She hung up the phone.
When I got upstairs, she was waiting at the far end of the hallway. Betty is a planner at the City of Oakland Cultural Heritage Survey. Buildings come and go quickly in the history of a city, and Betty’s job is to make sure they are remembered.
She greeted me warmly, a small figure in huge black slacks and a regal purple blouse buttoned up to the neck. A stately coil of white hair was pulled back from her face. She looked like the kind of person who has spent most of her life getting things done while everyone else was picking out an outfit to get things done in.
I introduced myself and explained what I was after, that I was trying to find something – anything – about the person who had once lived at an address that no longer existed (a story that sounded more ridiculous with each telling). I did not have a reason, really. I mean, I was working on a piece, but why this one? I just needed to know.
She was exceedingly friendly, warm in a way that made me immediately glad to be with her. She led me back through a locked door into a wide maze of cubicles filled with all manner of city workers. Around one corner, down one corridor. More cubicles, more computers. More potted plants, more Garfield mugs. More school pictures of nieces and grandchildren. More birthday cards. Finally we arrived at an area tucked away in the far back corner. It was very very different from the rest of the floor.
It was hard to believe this was part of the vast achromatic maze, so blandly modern, that typifies most government offices. Here stood giant volumes of defunct city directories stacked high on every desk, weathered leather covers and yellowed pages. There were piles of typewritten documents, photocopies of typewritten sheets stuffed into folders. There were all manner of 1950s posters, 1940s figurines. Old maps, hand-drawn on gigantic rolls. Black and white photographs of old houses, families on porches looking out with a stoic gaze. Aged pennants from ancient high school football games. Signs from restaurants that no longer exist.
“What’s the address you’re looking for?” Betty asked me, now making her way down the slender walkway that remained between the stacks of papers and the stacks of posters and books.
“3521 Grove Street.”
“3521 Grove Street,” she stopped for a moment, repeating the address as though it were a song she knew from her childhood. “3521 Grove Street. Of course it is…Of course.”
She reached for the third in a stack of old, thick directories on one of the office’s many cluttered desks. Within seconds she had found a page and was scrolling down it. “Here it is. Here’s your guy right here.”
I couldn’t believe how fast it all happened. I had been searching alone for what seemed like an eternity, and Betty Marvin had taken exactly 47 seconds to answer what seemed like an unanswerable question. I wondered how well she must understand Oakland. I imagined a large map on the inside of her head divided into sections, notated with endless scribbles of calligraphy.
I looked at what she was pointing to. The book was a directory of addresses, showing each resident. In the middle of the page, under “G” for Grove Street` was the address and the name. “Williams, Homer.”
Staring at the name was kind of a let-down. I immediately wanted more. A picture. A website. A link to a Twitter bio. It seemed strange that an entire person’s life could be reduced to a name in a directory.
Meanwhile she was opening another book. “This one will tell you who Mrs. Williams is,” she said. The second book listed the men of the house with the wives’ names in parenthesis. The name next to the address here was Charlotte Williams.
We went to an ancestry website to find out more. A 1940 census listed Mrs. Williams at the Grove Street address. No children were listed, but there were several boarders. A 1930 census showed the same. A 1920 census showed Homer Williams living at another address on Linden Street in West Oakland. A story began to form from the documents we found.
Homer was born in about 1887 in Macon, Georgia. It’s unclear when he arrived in Oakland, but it appears that he was a waiter on a train dining car, which meant that he must have been a Pullman Porter. The Pullman Company was a contractor that provided top-flight hospitality services for railway travelers in overnight sleeping cars. At its height the society was the largest employer of African-Americans in the United States. They worked as porters, chefs, waitstaff, maids, janitors, barbers, secretaries, and they served an exclusively white clientele. Advertisements from the era position Black servitude as an essential component of white serenity.
The goal was to make rail travel an experience that rivaled a stay in a hotel. Such an undertaking required staff of the utmost competence and decorum, with an unrelenting eye for detail, and an unflappable demeanor. It was highly skilled labor, and the men and women who undertook it were forced by their profession to present as sharp, controlled, dignified and intelligent. At the time that Williams would have worked for them, Pullman Porters belonged to one of the first and only African-American labor unions in the country, The Brotherhood Of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), founded and led by A. Philip Randolph, was the first group of Black laborers to form a union since the end of slavery and effectively negotiate with a corporation for better pay and working conditions. They were widely respected and considered key to the formation of a home-owning, disposable-cash-spending Black middle class. To form a union, to fight for fair treatment, to be well-paid, well-dressed, and above reproach in your professional life, represented the highest possible achievements for many Black men. And still, the end game was to help white people find their shoes and shaving equipment.
The BSCP’s national headquarters was in West Oakland, right on 7th Street, where the BART station is now.
The organizing success of BSCP was an influence on the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement, which led directly to the Black Panthers’ formation in Oakland, which led directly to the formation of COINTELPRO and the United States government’s infiltration tactics, which preceded the crack epidemic, and served right alongside the War On Drugs to enable a vast and purposeful incarceration of Black people.
Homer Williams’s first wife Charlotte died in 1942 when she was 68 years old. Homer would have been 55. A World War II draft card from two years earlier shows him living at the Grove Street address and working for the Southern Pacific Railroad at the West Oakland Yard. He must have remarried, because the Green Book from 1950 listed a Mrs. H. Williams at 3521 Grove Street, but we were unable to find who she was or when they married. The next time Homer appears in public record, he’s giving up the 3521 house to CalTrans, which was using eminent domain to build the 580/880 freeways. A 1967 directory shows him living at 1533 25th Avenue, a house that was listed for sale in the classified section of the September 17, 1961 issue of the Oakland Tribune. Homer must have been the buyer. Construction on the freeway wouldn’t begin for another several years, but by then Homer, and everyone else from that neighborhood had long since been scattered. He died on August 9, 1978. He left behind a few census records, a draft card and no heirs.
This is a picture of the 3521 Grove Street that CalTrans took just before they demolished it.
It turns out that as I was working on this story, a CalTrans worker had come across an entire box of forgotten photos and files from the middle of the 20th century. He knew the person to call was Betty Marvin, who made a special trip to view the artifacts for the first time. Her visit was exactly one day before I came to her asking about 3521 Grove Street. She had not expected me to walk in, but she had not been at all surprised when I had.
Most people who work for the City of Oakland know the town as it exists in space. It’s about 56 square miles stretching from Alcatraz Avenue in the north to Durant and San Leandro Creek in the south, from Skyline Boulevard in the east to the Alameda Channel in the west. But Betty Marvin knows the city as it exists on a map of time. From its founding in the 1850s to its industrial growth in the first half of the twentieth century, through the radical explosions and riots of the 1960s to the crime waves of the 1980s and the tech influx and gentrification in the 2000s. More than anyone in the city, Ms. Marvin is aware of the passage of time, how everything is forgotten and only sometimes remembered again. She sees documents and draft cards and unravels the mysteries of the dead. She plumbs the depths of our paper trails, canonical, and dry and often the only thing left behind after the full, whole and messy life is gone. She sees how random it is; what dies, and what is chosen to live on. So maybe to her it makes perfect sense that a writer would come in trying to tell the story of an address the very day after she happened upon it. It was Homer Williams’ time to become one of the remembered ones.
But something troubled me about Betty Marvin’s office. There were no assistants, no interns. No young people digitizing files, or maintaining the office’s social media accounts. I asked her who would take over for her when she was gone.
She looked around the office, put both hands on her hips, and sighed. “I don’t know,” she said. “I hope we find someone young.”
I was all the way in my car and halfway home before I remembered that I had come in looking for Mrs. H. Williams. And that we still hadn’t found her. And that we probably never would.
On the way back, I stopped again by the former site of the house. It was getting on evening, the commute was running full force overhead. But the stretch of MLK below was as destitute at this hour as it was in all hours. This is not a world in which people rush to and from work.
Occasionally cars drove by, their engines echoing off of the concrete and creating a reverberating whoosh that sounded louder than their numbers merited. Bikers passed by, too, helmeted and toting backpacks on their commute from downtown Oakland to the deeply gentrified Temescal/North Oakland/South Berkeley Corridor. MLK used to be Grove Street, which used to be a major artery between downtown and the bedroom communities just north of the city proper. But then freeways became the way people got around. And some streets, like this one, were robbed of their life’s blood. And eventually all that remained is whoever or whatever couldn’t make it onto the freeway.
This afternoon an old van was parked on the side. There was also a camper parked a few feet behind it. Both vehicles were grizzled, broken, and repaired; barely kept together by the constant work and ingenuity of their owners. I spotted faces inside of each of them. Quiet, stoic, dark; looking outward with suspicion. A middle-aged man with a substantial potbelly was leaning on the passenger-side window of the van, talking to whomever was inside.
I parked my own car and walked back bathed in the dimness of the tunnel. The area was in the beginning stages of becoming a homeless encampment. This is the case for a fair number of the freeway underpasses between downtown and MacArthur Boulevard. Their development follows a predictable pattern. First the objects start appearing: chairs and strollers, tables, wooden racks. You’re not sure if someone has brought them there intentionally, or if they’ve been dumped off the back of a U-Haul under the cover of night during a particularly stressful and exhausting move. Then all of a sudden there’s a tent, fully erected and emitting a dim light from within. Then more tents, more objects. Shopping carts with hauls from the day. A small society of residents congregating at night. This grows. It is now a bustling encampment, a neighborhood. All of the characters you recognize from the signs they hold on freeway off-ramps throughout town, chatting, eating, picking through a day’s worth of acquisition. It begins to spill into the street. It becomes difficult to drive in the lane closest to the curb, because there are people and they’re carrying stuff. Then one day you try to drive by but cars are backed up. Sirens flash. You can’t tell what’s happening. The line slowly moves and you wait your turn to find out what the disturbance is. Then you get close enough to see. There are a swarm of uniformed cops wearing blue rubber gloves, ripping down tents and throwing away stuff. The Department of Public Works is there, hauling trash. The people who lived there are nowhere around. You continue on. The next day you drive by and the entire area is clear. It is as if nothing was ever there. It is as if no one was ever there. It stays this way for weeks. Maybe a month. Then one evening, near dusk, you drive by. And there is a stroller under the bridge again.
Right now the area is clearly on its way up. The stuff is there and so is a very small handful of people. I take out my phone and start taking pictures, aware that this is a bold move. I am being watched. This is a place that most people drive by. Anyone stopping is subject to suspicion.
“Hey, don’t take pictures of me, man,” the dude who is leaning on the car yells across the street at me.
“I’m not, man,” I yell back. “I’ll keep you out of it.” But i know now that I have to make a further gesture of goodwill. If a person’s motives are unknown, then they are untrustworthy. This is a rule many live by. I cross the street to talk to him.
He keeps his guard up, eyeing me skeptically. But then I tell him what I’m doing. I mention the address. His demeanor changes almost instantly, and he introduces himself. His name is Isaiah. He was here before the freeway. He starts to reminisce, yelling his history to me over the roar of the freeway. He tells me he’s been in the neighborhood since 1969. I switch on the recorder on my phone.
“I was probably about 8,” he says. “We started off on Magnolia Street and then we moved up here. 1970 we moved up here, couple houses up here. From 35th and San Pablo at Adeline, all the way up to here was just dirt. There was a little tree in the middle right there. The streets was there, but nothing was here but dirt. It used to be houses all down through here. They tore all the houses down; it was vacant lots. It was vacant lots for the longest time.” He must be talking about the time after Homer Williams left, but before the freeway was built.
“CalTrans must have bought it somewhere around then when they built the freeway up here. There used to be a house right there. As a matter of fact, that house was green, I think it was. Big, green Victorian house.”
He offers to connect me with a friend of his who may have old pictures of the house in question. A house that may be 3521 Grove Street. I give him my number but he never calls. He does not have a phone of his own.
Pretty much immediately, and without prompting, he is talking about gentrification, police violence, migration, immigration, and Black people no longer belonging in Oakland. He has a raspy voice, one that fades in and out as he talks, covering wide variations in pitch during each sentence. He is an effective and engaging talker. You get the sense that he has done it for much of his life.
His skin is deep brown, covered with a thin layer of sweat from the late afternoon heat. He is wearing khaki cargo pants, socks with sandals, and a loose-fitting Hawaiian shirt. His forearms, shoulders and upper body are thick, solid. He looks like a man who has done a lot of lifting. I notice as he talks that his entire palm is one thick callus.
And he talks for a long time. He needs little prodding, once he’s decided he’s on board with what I’m doing. “Let me help you,” he says. “Anybody that’s Black, that’s doing something, we try to help them.”
We talk a little about how stories are disappearing. How the Oakland he knew is disappearing. “We didn’t have all these different people here,” he says “They lost their places all over the world, so they come here. And where are we getting moved to? Concord, Walnut Creek, Vallejo, Sacramento…They’re pushing everybody out. Pushing all the Black people out. This is our heritage. They already have a bad history with us. Abusing our grandmothers, grandfathers…My mother was picking cotton in New Orleans and my grandfather marched with Dr. King in Mobile, Alabama.”
It occurs to me that to be Black and born in the 1960s is to be in an awkward spot in history. You are too young to have actively taken part in the struggle for independence, but too old to understand or have facility with the vast technical revolution that would forever change the way we interact with one another. You have inherited the Black pride that grew from the exhilaration of physically fighting for your freedom, but you now operate in a world in which racial politics are complicated and layered. Fewer people are physically fighting nowadays. We are fighting with words. The discussion of race has moved in some ways from physical to metaphysical, and this creates the impression, for people like Isaiah, that we have simultaneously lost ground and gained it.
“It’s the same thing all over again,” he tells me. “Mass genocide. That’s what they’re doing. Keep up with your Black heritage.” He nods and points a thick finger at me. “That’s what’s happening. They’re lying, killing Black people.”
His own story unfolds has he talks. He is a laborer by trade, first a construction worker. He tells me a long story of coming into the trades in the late ‘70s and being the only Black person on his crew.
“I knew how to read the blueprints. I taught them how to read blueprints. I went on the job and I was the only Black boy on the job. You know how they give all those white boys a job? Because their fathers’ fathers, somebody’s uncle, somebody knew them. They never had no training or nothing. They didn’t want to hire no brothers, because they think we’re dumb, but this motherfucker doesn’t know how to read a blueprint.” His voice rises and echoes off the sea of concrete that frames us. He doesn’t sound like he’s talking about something 40 years in the past, but rather something happening to him right now.
Then he began work as a longshoreman. In the 1960s the Port of Oakland was the busiest on the West Coast. He held this job for a number of years until he was injured in an accident, which he described to me in gruesome detail.
When his mother died in the early 1980s, he and his sister sold the house she owned several blocks from the site of 3521 Grove. I asked him if his kids are still in the area.
“No. Couple of them in Stockton. Couple in Sacramento, Vallejo. They’re spread all over.”
“Where do you live now?” I ask.
“Stockton. My mother passed away, all my kids were grown, so no reason for me to stay here.”
Stockton is a former farm town about 70 miles east of Oakland. Located in the San Joaquin Valley, its relative affordability is a function of its extreme heat and distance from the ocean. The city’s African-American population saw a 35% spike between 1980 and 1990 and a 60% spike between 1990 and 2000. While currently only 12% of the population of Stockton is Black, census data shows that 38.1% of the town’s residents under 18 are African-American. There has been a steady migration of Black people displaced from Oakland and San Francisco to places like Stockton where they have bought homes and started families.
Sometimes you wonder if you could see the whole thing over time, the way we look at trade winds. Black people move in search of opportunity and affordability, and white people move away. White people move in search of a place without non-white people. Soon others are displaced and priced out. It is a vast and unstoppable transaction, of trading space for home. It seems like no one in this country can stay anywhere for long.
Isaiah was back in Oakland to collect his workman’s compensation check and to see if his friend, the man he was speaking with in the van, could help him repair his camper. When the two of them lived in the same neighborhood, many years ago, that man was known as an expert mechanic. But seasons have passed since then. Everyone’s station in life is different now than it used to be. Isaiah knew that if he came to Oakland, he would able to find him under the bridge.
I didn’t ask him why he didn’t just go to a mechanic in Stockton. I didn’t ask him if he lived in his camper. I just know that like everyone, Isaiah is unable to keep his roots down.
The site where 3521 Grove Street once stood
I don’t remember the day of our first eviction. But I remember the aftermath. For the better part of the next school year, my mother and I bounced from one family member or sketchy roommate to another. These arrangements always seemed to end in some kind of chaos, a falling-out with cursing and swearing, and the hasty packing of bags. She and I would then be in our car, forging a path out into the night, looking for a new place for us to stay. Life was one long Christmas pageant, and we were forever seeking room at the inn. This continued until she finally gave up custody of me to her brother. I was eight years old at the time. That situation brought with it its own insecurities and my mother and I reunited when I was twelve. A year and a half later, another eviction, another untenable roommate, another set of rising and ultimately unbearable tensions. This pattern would repeat itself until I left home to go to college. I never returned home once. Not for a single holiday. I’m not sure what there was to return to.
As a result, I grew up thinking living in an apartment as something that required dumb luck, something you tried and tried and tried to get with no guarantee of success; something you could lose at any point. Home, in my mind, was the the luxury of the fabulously stable. I had friends in my various schools who lived in the same place, who had bedrooms and neighborhoods, who had known the same kids since kindergarten, and I marveled at them. I envied the way their lives traced the cultural norm as expressed on movies and television. They were like celebrities to me. They had a place. They had roots. I always viewed myself as someone without them. I can be at home anywhere. Which means I can be at home nowhere.
My own children didn’t have to experience that. I’ve been able to forge out a relatively normal living for myself and my family. We have had our share of moves, but they’ve been our choice. We were not victim to the forces of an unseen hand, but rather responsible adults making responsible decisions. Even our divorce, which carried with it tremendous emotions, was still handled with a sense of personal agency. We had chosen to end our union and move on as a proactive step to achieve something better for ourselves.
But two days after I talked with Isaiah under the bridge, I came home to find an eviction notice on the door of the three-bedroom house I shared with my kids.
It was my first as an adult.
Several months earlier I had traveled abroad for work and, knowing I would be gone for two weeks, I posted my place on Airbnb. I hadn’t thought a second time about the transaction. It went smoothly. In the ensuing weeks, I took another trip, and I listed my place on Airbnb again.
My landlord had found the advertisements and evicted me immediately thereafter. Mostly I was surprised (I hadn’t thought of it as a lease violation; almost everyone I knew was using Airbnb on their rentals) but more than that, I was a little hurt. My landlord and I had maintained as close to an ideal relationship as a tenant and landlord can. She always complimented me on how well I kept the house, how well-behaved my kids were. On multiple occasions, she had made it clear that she valued me as a low-impact, low-problem, responsible tenant, one of the best she’d ever had. She told me she wanted to make sure we stayed there for a long time. I loved the place: a spacious house on a quiet, tree-lined street. I expected to be there for a decade. I felt, somehow, that I had earned it.
This change was abrupt. There had been no call or email. Just a notice. It was as if she ceased being someone I knew and became a landlord.
When you’re a kid and you get evicted, you are unhappy, but there’s some comfort in the resentment. It’s someone else’s fault. That night I felt both personally responsible and helplessly at the mercy of a system of forces far beyond my ability to control. I lay in bed that night with my heart slowly turning into stone. I couldn’t sleep because I needed to know something about the future. My brain needed some plan, however unlikely, to rest on and chew over. Not knowing what would happen was too uncomfortable. I turned on the light and started looking at apartment listings. Almost everything was out of my range. But I discovered something else.
In the four years since I moved into that place, the market value for similar buildings in my neighborhood had literally doubled. My house, for which I was paying $2000 a month starting in 2012, could easily fetch $4000 a month in 2016.
I think that’s when it finally occurred to me that I could not stay.
There is a part of me that wants to blame the real estate market. We are living in an historical bubble, we are told daily. It’s a bad time to live in the Bay Area. Under “normal” circumstances, as a steadily working writer, with a contract with MTV, regular freelance work with the New Yorker, I should be able to provide a home for my kids.
But what are normal circumstances? Where in the entire history that I’ve followed here, has there been a place where black people could just stay?
Homer and Charlotte Williams could not stay. Isaiah could not stay. My grandfather, who left the south, could not stay. My mother could not stay. And now, despite how much I had tried to change my fate – I had gone to college, gotten a degree. I had tried to stay married, I had learned and reflected solid, American middle-class values. I had learned to master the language. I had kept my house clean and in working order. I had paid my rent on time. I had worked every way I could at any job I could. I had fed my kids organic food, and read them stories every night. And still I could not stay.
Victor H. Greene made a book designed to help Black people know where they could stay. Because he knew Black people could not stay.
We never have figured out how to stay. It is racism, but it’s bigger than racism. It’s cash, and ready access to it. It’s jobs that are handed down from family member to family member. It’s the time and space it takes to have your story told and recorded. It’s the fight for your humanity. It’s the spiritual pain of living at the very highest level you can, and still being just a servant. It’s going into battle against your fellow citizens, your government, capitalism, business while you also do battle against the momentum of time and the inevitability of decay. It’s about having to spend your life building your humanity brick by broken brick, rather than inheriting it as a birthright.
America has always been about displacement for the many and homesteading for the few. Our national optimism allows us to see this as easily as it allows us to deny it. We believe things can change. We believe they already have. We believe it’s up to us, and we believe it’s our fault if we can’t.
The site under the freeway where 3521 Grove Street once stood changes little by little each day, growing until it is home to a small nation of weary people seeking a place to stay, while new cars fly by overhead. And then, like everything, that too is wiped away. This is a land that maybe doesn’t have a place for anyone.