When I sat down in mid-September to review some of our most memorable stories of the past 40 years, my first thought was, “We should’ve started this project months ago.” Going through all the old bound copies of the Express (our online archives only go back to 2001) seemed daunting.
But then as I started to leaf through all the old issues, a few things struck me: It’s super fun to peruse the Express‘ past (I’m a history buff and have been reading the Express since 1979) and I’d never realized that we had kept returning to the same topics over and over again during the past 40 years — and that we’re still writing about them.
Along the way, I also had another epiphany: Express cover stories and investigations, especially in the 1980s and ’90s, helped shape my politics and world view.
Care to guess which topic we’ve explored in-depth and have featured on the cover the most? Our longtime readers should have no problem with this one: police and law enforcement misconduct and cops killing young unarmed Black men. We’ve been investigating this issue and putting it on the cover since 1979.
Other topics we’ve returned to repeatedly over the years should also come as no surprise to longtime readers: homelessness; gender and LGBTQ issues; gentrification and housing; pollution and the environment; and the decades-long battle to save the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. We’ve also written time and again about the next looming big disaster in the East Bay — whether it will be devastating earthquake or wildfire in the hills. And, of course, we’ve closely chronicled the East Bay’s arts and culture, food, and music scenes.
This top 40 list also includes many of our best standalone stories over the years — stories that affected change or simply shed light on an important or fascinating topic. By no means is the list comprehensive. But we hope you’ll find it interesting.
We also asked some of our current and former staffers to reminisce about their most memorable stories. The list is mostly in chronological order and begins with our co-founder and longtime editor John Raeside’s memory of our first cover story.
1. “Last Tango in Oakland,” by George Benet, Oct. 20, 1978, Volume 1, Number 1
“Sometime during the workweek that concluded on Friday, Oct. 20, 1978, a young photographer named Nick Allen mounted the steps at 3254 Adeline St. in South Berkeley. He passed by a collection of newly constructed wooden distribution racks, arrayed atop the stained linoleum of an otherwise barren lobby, and advanced into the drafty warren of unheated rooms that comprised the offices of the fledgling East Bay Express. Later that week, the racks would be distributed to street corners around Berkeley and Oakland, where they would receive the paper’s inaugural issue.
The very first cover story Allen had been assigned to photograph was written by a retired dockworker and Beat poet named George Benet, and celebrated the Ali Baba Ballroom, a prominent downtown landmark from prewar Oakland. The print the photographer handed in that day was a stark image of an aging couple lit by the garish, sepulchral wash of a Weegee-style Speed Graphic flash: he in a three-piece gabardine suit, the tennis-ball-sized knot of his tie riding jauntily beneath his prominent Adam’s apple, a crisp fedora held in his hands; she in a modest cloth coat buttoned to the throat and belted at the waist. Above their heads floated the fat neon letters that graced the marquee: Ali Baba. Dancing.
Even though Allen brought another picture with him that morning of a similarly posed but much younger group of Ali Baba patrons — ballroom dancing was experiencing a boomlet among the twenty- and thirtysomethings of that era — there was no question about the image we would choose for our first cover. It was exotic; it was authentic; it was nostalgic; it was gloriously black and white; it was … Oakland.
By the autumn of 1978, while echoes from the rapturous tumult of the 1960s were still resonating through American mass culture, here in the East Bay, where so many of the seminal events of the 1960s had actually taken place, the fires had burned to embers. Vietnam-era student activists had joined veterans of the Free Speech Movement and settled down in flatland Berkeley and North Oakland neighborhoods, displacing the annual autumnal stream of Cal students and sparking both a housing crisis and, only months before, Berkeley’s first rent-control ordinance.
At People’s Park, an uneasy truce was holding, and memories of the military occupation of the city were growing more distant. The rail line where protesters had gathered to stop troop trains at the height of the Vietnam War still existed, but only one sleepy freight train was left to clatter through the backyards along Sacramento Street each day. The massive demonstrations that had shut down the university were more than eight years in the past. Now, fraternity row was undergoing a renaissance, Animal House was playing to packed houses at the Act One, and toga parties were the season’s rage. There were only two businesses of consequence on Berkeley’s Fourth Street, Brennan’s and Spenger’s Fish Grotto, the latter nestled comfortably among the nation’s top five highest-grossing restaurants.
Meanwhile, from our perch in Berkeley, the small staff of the Express was looking curiously out at the less-familiar region that surrounded us, organizing expeditions into the unexplored wilds of the urban East Bay. As writer John Krich would put it in these pages a few months later: “Oakland offers a challenge, it represents a quest: to unearth the urban, to seek out the resources and reverberations to be found behind the ghost town facade.”
The headline we attached to the Ali Baba story, “Last Tango in Oakland,” turned out to be more prescient than we had any way of knowing. Within months, the high-Deco dance palace at Webster and Grand would be scheduled for demolition to make room for a bland, generic office building, the vast spring-loaded hardwood dance floor that had swayed to the beat of a generation, lost forever.
On Oct. 20, 1978, there were three functioning department stores in downtown Oakland (four if you count the sprawling Swan’s Market) and one movie theater (the late and seldom-lamented Roxie). The port had recently taken its place as the largest on the West Coast, but it mostly functioned out of sight beyond barbed wire. The waterfront was home to a small collection of restaurants and a somnambulant shopping pavilion, officially named “Jack London Village” but universally known throughout the retail sales community as “kiss-of-death mall.” The peeling flophouses along 8th and 9th streets, then grandiosely called “Victorian Row,” had yet to be redeveloped into “Old Oakland.” Emeryville was a virtually unpopulated town composed of warehouses, foundries, and rowdy “Urban Cowboy” bars. Personal computers had yet to be invented, few had yet heard the word “biotech,” and improbable eight-foot toque-topped Doggie Diner canine heads could still be found prominently alongside local intersections.
Lionel Wilson had just been elected Oakland mayor with considerable support from the Black Panther Party, ending decades of white Republican rule. Proposition 13 had just been approved but its effects were still being debated. The descendants of Senator Joe Knowland had finally sold the once-powerful Oakland Tribune to a billboard company; within a year it would wind up in the hands of the Gannett Corporation, which would bring in a redesign team including a charismatic black editor named Robert Maynard.
Obviously, the East Bay has changed a lot over the past four decades and so have the tools and techniques this paper uses to describe it. But when I look back over the years into the eyes of that nameless pair posing for a young photographer in front of a long-vanished dance hall, I see something I missed at the time: their generosity and their resolute vitality.
In the end, we all construct our own image of the place we call home. Those two people will always be in mine.”
—John Raeside, co-founder and longtime editor of the Express.
2. “Marley Speaks,” by Jeff Cathro, Jan. 26, 1979
Over the decades, Express music critics and writers have interviewed plenty of famous and musicians and music industry personalities. One of our first was a lengthy, sit-down chat with Bob Marley by journalist Jeff Cathro.
Cathro: Which comes first, herb or Rastafari?
Marley: Ya couldn’t really say that. It’s jus’ that, what come first, life or the breathin’ blue?
Eight months after the Marley interview, Harlow Robinson sat down with the new 29-year-old music director of the Oakland Symphony: Calvin Simmons and then wrote, “High Voltage Conductor,” Aug. 31, 1979.
3. “The Quake of ’79,” by Peggy Hughes, March 23, 1979
Every five to ten years, Express editors and writers decide it’s time to issue another dire warning and blast it across the front page: Hey, East Bay, we’re completely unprepared for the next big disaster!
Then, of course, after we publish our 6,000-word piece, no one really does anything to prepare. So we write about it again: “Our Fault,” by Laura Hagar, Nov. 23, 1990; “Landscape of Doom,” by David Darlington, Jan. 15, 1993; “East Bay Rocks,” by Lucy Jane Bledsoe, Jan. 4, 1998; “It’s Not Our Fault,” by Kara Platoni, Feb. 16, 2005; “It’s Everybody’s Fault,” by Robert Gammon, Feb. 23, 2005; “Warning: Quake in 60 Seconds,” by Azeen Ghorayshi, May 1, 2013.
4. “Is Rent Control Working in Berkeley?” by Brad Seligman, June 22, 1979
We’ve been asking this question about Berkeley and Oakland for almost the entire time we’ve been publishing newspapers. And our answer hasn’t really changed much: Yes, but it depends upon who you ask.
5. “Magnum Force,” by Mike McGrath, Dec. 21, 1979; “Badge of Dishonor,” by Darwin BondGraham and Ali Winston, June 15, 2016
When readers today think of the Express‘ coverage of Oakland police misconduct, the first thing that probably comes to mind is our 2016 award-winning reporting about the OPD sex exploitation scandal. And rightly so, it’s arguably the best investigative reporting we’ve ever published.
But, in truth, we’ve been writing in-depth about East Bay police and law enforcement misdeeds for a long time. Our first cover story on the topic was “Magnum Force,” by longtime Express investigative reporter Mike McGrath, in December 1979. The subhed to McGrath’s deeply researched piece will give you a sense of how intractable this issue was then and still is: “On November 18, Talmage Curtis was gunned down by an Oakland police officer. Since Curtis was the fifth black flatlands resident to be shot and killed by police this year, many people — including Mayor Lionel Wilson — thought it was time to ask some hard questions. Wilson soon found out that Oakland cops don’t take kindly to questions.”
Some things never change. Which is why we keep writing cover stories about it: “A Question of Force,” by John Ross, Sept. 7, 1984; “Criminal Law,” by Seth Norman and Mike McGrath, Aug. 10, 1990; “The Fraud Squad,” by Laura Hagar, May 24, 1991; “Who Do You Trust?” by Gary Rivlin, Sept. 20, 1991; “To Serve and Protect?,” by Timothy Beneke, April 23, 1993; “The Cop Watch,” by Gary Rivlin, April 18, 1997; “Deadly Secrets,” by Ali Winston, Dec. 12, 2011; “Why Can’t Oakland Fire Bad Cops,” by Ali Winston, Sept. 17, 2014; “Badge of Dishonor,” by Darwin BondGraham and Ali Winston, June 15, 2016.
Here’s Ali Winston’s take on his 2016 blockbuster report on the OPD sex exploitation case, which garnered a Polk Award:
“Over the years, I wrote dozens of stories for the Express about police brutality and corruption. However, none of them — an exposé on DA investigators endangering murder witnesses, articles identifying cops involved in gratuitous violence against Occupy Oakland protesters — had the impact of “Badge of Dishonor,” the 2016 cover story with Darwin BondGraham about the dozens of police officers who exploited Celeste Guap. Three successive police chiefs in Oakland lost their jobs in the span of a week. However, the failure of Oakland and Richmond police to fire some of the officers involved in Guap’s exploitation, the Alameda County DA’s inability to make criminal charges stick against several of the cops, and the refusal of the DA and U.S. attorney to look into obstruction of justice by former Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent meant that the individuals who bear the most responsibility for what happened to Guap will never be truly held accountable.”
6. “Hydro-Fraud,” by Michael Helm, March 14, 1980
We’ve written about Jerry Brown’s schemes to ship Northern California river water to San Joaquin Valley agribusiness and Southern California — and perhaps destroy the delta in the process — for nearly as long and almost as often as police misconduct. Almost. The only reason we didn’t write about it more was because Brown was out of the governor’s office for a few decades.
Our first cover story, in 1980, was an in-depth review of Brown’s original hare-brained plan: the peripheral canal. We called it as we saw it: “Hydro-Fraud.”
Also, “The Delta Dilemma,” by Dennis Drabelle, May 29, 1987; “Tunnel Vision Part One: Delta in Peril,” by Joaquin Palomino, June 12, 2013; “Tunnel Vision Part Two: Rivers in Peril,” by Robert Gammon, June 19, 2013; “California’s Thirsty Almonds,” by Joaquin Palomino, Feb. 5. 2014; “Brown’s Tunnels Could Start in 2018, and Delta Farmers Say They’ll Be Devastated,” by Alastair Bland, Aug. 23, 2017.
7. “Eviction: Landlords, the law, and you,” by Seth Rosenfeld, June 20, 1980
Over the years, the Express hasn’t sent reporters undercover very often. We lean toward keeping journalism as transparent as possible. But sometimes a reporter can’t really get the story unless they disguise their identity. Rosenfeld, one of the best investigative reporters in East Bay history, did that for the Express in 1980, posing as landlord “Rex Terra” to get the scoop on local eviction mills.
8. “The Medi-Cal Crisis,” by Art Goldberg, Feb. 19, 1982
Gross underfunding of health care for low-income people in California is as old as — well, forever, it seems. So, it’s a topic we’ve written about often over the years, especially as it impacts local medical facilities that serve the poor, like Oakland Children’s Hospital.
Our first deep dive into the topic was 36 years ago by Art Goldberg, and we just did it again last month in an in-depth piece by Momo Chang, “Sickle Cell: The Last Health-Care Frontier for Black Lives,” Sept. 12, 2018.
9. “Warehouse Living,” by Linda Sanderson, Feb. 26, 1982
Decades before the tragic Ghost Ship fire in 2016, the Express repeatedly chronicled the lives of artists and musicians living cheaply and illegally in makeshift warehouses in Oakland’s old industrial areas. Our first cover story on the topic hit the streets nearly 35 years before 36 people died in the Ghost Ship blaze.
The subhed of Linda Sanderson’s story said it all: “Meet the determined band of artists whose search for creative freedom — and low rents — is transforming our cities’ industrial zones.”
10. “Boom City,” by John Krich, Aug. 20, 1982
Oakland is building like crazy and The Town is gentrifying beyond recognition? 2018? Uh. No. Try 1982.
Here’s a telling line from Krich’s cover story: “In case you hadn’t noticed, the Manhattanization of Oakland is on.”
Things, as we say, don’t change much. Except for this: Back then, we used to call Oakland, “Bump City,” not “The Town.”
Also, “Under Development,” March 4, 1983 about lots of building in Berkeley, and, of course, our Sept. 19, 2018 cover package 35 years later, “Is It Too Late for the Town?”
11. “Yuppie!” by Alice Kahn, June 10, 1983
Yes, we know that for history buffs and trivia nerds like us, this is a bit controversial, but we have long maintained that Alice Kahn coined the term “Yuppie” in her June 1983 Express cover story, detailing the plague of young urban professionals who are like “mutant rats.”
Avocado toast for $10? Nah. Yuppies in 1983 were wasting $1.75 (!) on “buttery curved rolls” and the outrageous sum of $89,500 (!!) for one-bedroom condos.
12. “The Pollution Game,” by Martha Ture, June 24, 1983
Local regulators in the pocket of the East Bay refineries that they’re supposed to regulate? That’s a proud local tradition of at least 35 years in these parts.
And the Express has a long tradition of covering environmental issues in the East Bay and throughout California (besides Jerry Brown’s assaults on the delta): “Toxic Truckin’,” by Richard Katz Sept. 21, 1983; “Something Scary in the Air,” by Dashka Slater, Sept. 22, 1995; “We’re Outta Here,” by Robert Gammon, April 12, 2006; “Sierra Water Grab,” by Robert Gammon, April 29, 2009; “Oakland Invades the Desert,” by Nate Seltenrich, Dec. 10, 2010; “Waste: The Dark Side of the New Coffee Craze,” by Vanessa Rancaño, Aug. 21, 2013.
13. “The Bum’s Rush,” by Mike McGrath, July 29, 1983
“Oakland is proud of its developing new image and the residents of Skid Row are not in the picture.”
Sounds like 2018, again? Try Oakland, circa 1983.
Like bad cops and greedy landlords, the story of Oakland, Berkeley, and other East Bay cities’ attempts to keep homeless people out of sight, without offering them a viable alternative, has been a constant refrain in the pages of the Express: “Squatters’ Rights,” by Laura Fraser, Feb. 6, 1987; “Dead on Arrival; Address Unknown,” by Gary Rivlin, Feb. 19, 1993; “The Geography of Nowhere,” by Fred Setterberg, Feb. 25, 1994; “Koko’s Story,” by Chris Thompson, Nov. 27, 1998; “Edge City,” by Chris Thompson, April 9, 1999; “Living on the Streets of Oakland,” by David Bacon, Aug. 6, 2014.
14. “On the Bus: An Urban Diary,” by Dakota Lane, Nov. 26, 1983
The Express also has a storied tradition of publishing in-depth, day-in-the-life or slice-of-life reports that provide readers with an up-close look of a piece of the East Bay that might be familiar — or unfamiliar.
One of the first was Dakota Lane’s “On the Bus,” in which she spent a week riding AC Transit’s 51 line. On day six, she wrote, “Some nights, when there’s nothing to see outside, the bus becomes a midnight cabaret.”
Also, “Nighthawks: An IHOP Nocturne,” by Judith Moore, Jan. 1, 1985; “Psych Ward Saturday Night,” by Peter Cohen, March 24, 1989; “Cat Fever,” by Linnea Due, Nov. 11, 1988; “When Push Comes to Shove,” by Eric Smith, May 3, 1991; “The 51,” by Kibby Kleiman, April 16, 1993; “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare,” by Karen Laws, June 16, 1995; “Private Enterprise,” by Jennifer Kahn, Aug. 30, 1996.
15. “Master Jammers,” by J. Poet, Oct. 4, 1985
J. Poet has chronicled the East Bay music scene and its trends for the Express for nearly as long as music critic Lee Hildebrand and film critic Kelly Vance. The subhed to Poet’s 1985 cover story about a new music trend that began on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue said it all: “They are local bands playing the East Bay circuit. They are young, musically eclectic, and politically conscious. They call their music ‘World Beat,’ and it may soon become the hottest thing in pop.”
Similarly, we’ve covered the rise of hip-hop, hyphy, and numerous other musical genres.
16. “Does the Oakland Zoo Deserve to Exist?” by Robert Hurwitt, Jan. 1, 1986
We realize that it’s an unpopular opinion, but we’ve implied it several times over the years: We don’t really like zoos very much. To be blunt: Keeping animals in cages for the enjoyment of humans makes many of us queasy.
Now, Oakland Zoo has improved significantly since Robert Hurwitt detailed its severe problems in 1986. But three decades later, we were still questioning the zoo and its moves in “Zoo Gone Wild,” by Sam Levin, Sept. 3, 2014.
17. “Anatomy of a Confrontation,” by Mike McGrath, Paul Rauber, and J.H. Tompkins, April 11, 1986
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Oakland was not the center of East Bay political activism. Berkeley was. The streets of Oakland, in fact, were mostly quiet during those decades. Even the Rodney King police brutality case, which sparked repeated protests around the nation, barely registered in The Town.
Berkeley, however, was a different story, particularly concerning such issues as Cal’s investment in anti-apartheid South Africa or its plans for People’s Park. Protests back then seemed like a weekly occurrence, and the Express covered them in-depth.
Our first cover story package on the repeated protests was one of our best: a comprehensive look at the massive confrontation between demonstrators and Berkeley and UC Berkeley police.
Of course, we would do the same years later in Oakland during the Oscar Grant and Occupy Oakland demonstrations.
18. “Mien Streets,” by Lonny Shavelson, April 3, 1987
When we think of gentrification and displacement, we typically envision white artists, hipsters, or tech bros taking over neighborhoods of color. But over the past several decades, the East Bay, particularly Oakland, has experienced other types of demographic shifts, including new immigrants and refugees from war-torn countries changing formerly Black neighborhoods. The Express has been there to record many of these shifts.
Lonny Shavelson’s 1987 cover story, “Mien Streets” was one of our first in-depth looks at the influx of Southeast Asian refugees into West Oakland: “The complexities of the process of immigration and assimilation are as difficult to understand as racism itself. But as Southeast Asian refugees move into previously black West Oakland, this intermittently volcanic process is rumbling again.”
19. “The Return of Oakland Tech,” by Mike McGrath, May 27, 1988
Documenting the many problems of Oakland schools and the district’s attempts to find answers amid extreme bureaucratic and political dysfunction (not to mention, serious underfunding) has been another staple of Express cover stories over the decades. And some of our in-depth looks have been prescient: like Mike McGrath’s piece on Oakland Tech under then new principal Dennis Chaconas. Many of the reforms Chaconas instituted are still in place today and are responsible for Tech’s current reputation for being the best public high school in the city.
20. “Oiltown,” by Paul Rauber, Sept. 30, 1988
Chevron once wielded so much power in Richmond that the oil giant had an office inside City Hall. And the Express has examined this corporate political dominance and corruption for decades, along with the numerous pollution impacts from Chevron’s Richmond refineries on surrounding low-income communities, starting with Paul Rauber’s 1988 cover story, “Oiltown.”
Also, “Price of Power,” by Chris Thompson, March 24, 2000; “Big Oil in Little Richmond,” by Anna McCarthy, July 8, 2008.
21. Holiday Books & Records, by Express staff, Nov. 25, 1988
Throughout most of the ’80s and ’90s, our annual Holiday Guide each November focused almost exclusively on books and records. We really loved them; we were old school (and many of us still are). The 1988 edition of the Express Holiday Guide featured 56 pages on books and records alone. Hell, we loved books so much that for many years, we published a monthly supplement on the newest books and local authors.
22. “Home Town Hero,” by Derk Richardson, July 28, 1989
Sure, we dig the Golden State Warriors and the Oakland Raiders (OK, maybe not the Raiders), but there is no doubt that the East Bay Express is an Oakland A’s newspaper. Always has been.
We’ve featured the Green and Gold on our cover more than any other sports team, with one of the first being Derk Richardson’s in-depth 1989 piece, “Home Town Hero,” on pitching star Dave Stewart.
Also, “False Spring,” by John Krich and Christopher Hawthorne, April 19, 1996; “The Fremont Athletics,” by Chris Thompson and Robert Gammon; Nov. 29, 2006; “Moneyball 2.0: The Pitching Whisperer,” by Kibby Kleiman, Sept. 12, 2012.
23. “The Gender Factor,” by Brady Kahn, March 8, 1991
“The UC Berkeley math department considers itself to among the very best in the world. So when it denied tenure to Jenny Harrison, effectively dismissing one of the only two female assistant professors it had hired in more than 30 years, it was simply because she wasn’t good enough to teach at Berkeley. Or is there another explanation?”
Spoiler alert: There was another explanation.
“You asked if there was a subculture antagonistic towards women. I am afraid that the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ There are men [on the faculty] who think women can’t do math …”
Brady Kahn’s in-depth piece on gender discrimination at Cal was one of many such stories to grace the pages of the Express over the years.
24. “Young & Gay,” by Linnea Due, June 26, 1992
Journalist Linnea Due, a senior editor at the Express for more than 20 years, wrote some of her most essential early work on being young and LGBTQ in the East Bay. “Young & Gay” was transformative.
Due’s longtime colleague, award-winning journalist and author Dashka Slater, called Due’s stories on LGBTQ issues “ground-breaking,” including two memorable features — one on trans sexuality and one on coming out in high school (“Sex and Safety at San Leandro High,” April 17, 98) that later became her book Joining the Tribe.
These days, the Express publishes an annual Queer & Trans issue in late August.
25. “The Happy Warrior,” by Dashka Slater, June 9, 1995; “Don Perata: The Man, the Machine, the Investigation,” by Robert Gammon, Will Harper, and Chris Thompson, Dec. 8, 2004 For nearly two decades, Don Perata was the East Bay’s most powerful — and shady — politician. Other politicos, particularly in Oakland, were terrified of him, because he was a prodigious fund-raiser and a master at exacting revenge. Cross him, and you’d be facing a well-financed candidate in the next election.
The Express covered Perata like no other news organization. In 1995, Dashka Slater penned the definitive piece on his rise from being an Alameda high school civics teacher to becoming a powerbroker. Nine years later, the Express broke the story of the FBI’s corruption investigation into him.
After being termed out as state Senate president, Perata ran for Oakland mayor in 2010, but Jean Quan upset him, in part because she attacked him relentlessly with negative ads quoting from Express exposés.
26. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” by Dashka Slater, Nov. 24, 1995
“The regular customer has round silver spectacles and a brown leather jacket and a smile that is used to getting its way. He turns it on now, cocksure, charming. He understands that there are no clean rooms right now, he knows the maid has just arrived and the sign out front says, ‘no vacancy.’ But he can’t wait. He’s got his arm around a woman and he pats her bottom ever so softly. He doesn’t care if the room’s clean or not, just as long as he can have it now.”
That’s the lede from Dashka Slater’s 1995 exquisitely written cover story, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” which explores Oakland’s sex-worker industry in a row of motels on MacArthur Boulevard in the mid-’90s.
Sex work, from the rights of adult sex workers to the horrors of child sex trafficking, is another topic that the Express has examined often in its history.
Also, “Redefining Sex Work,” by Ellen Cushing, Oct. 17, 2012.
27. “Behind Closed Doors,” by Katy St. Clair, Sept. 15, 2000
Eighteen years ago, Katy St. Clair penned what was perhaps the Express‘ best cover story lede: “How do you prepare to meet a monster? The question came to me as I found myself crying in the grocery line, drinking more beer than necessary, and having more and more difficulty focusing my thoughts …”
St. Clair was referring to the days before she met face-to-face with the notorious child kidnapper and pedophile Kenneth Parnell at his West Berkeley home.
It was an unforgettable true crime yarn — and part of another Express tradition: “Little Miss Murder,” by Susan Goldsmith, July 9, 2003; “Sir Dyno’s Deal with the Devil,” by Justin Berton, Oct. 1, 2003, “At Large,” by Robert Gammon Jan. 12, 2005.
28. “Blood & Money,” by Chris Thompson, Nov. 13 and 20, 2003
Chris Thompson’s epic two-part investigative report on the North Oakland cult leader Yusuf Bey and the violent crime family behind Your Black Muslim Bakery stands out as one of the greatest pieces of journalism the Express has ever produced. It also was a frightening time for Chris. After the stories came out, he was forced into hiding because members of Bey’s family were stalking him. Five years later, Bey’s family members murdered Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey.
Chris Thompson died in January 2016. He was a one of a kind. And his reporting on the Black Muslim Bakery was his finest hour.
29. “Gary for Governor!” by Chris Thompson, Aug. 6, 2003
Yes. We ran Gary Coleman for governor during the absurd 2003 recall election that gave us Arnold Schwarzenegger. We still think Gary would’ve been better.
30. “2003 Illustrated,” by Express staff, Dec. 31, 2003
Every December, the Express publishes its special Year in Review issue, highlighting the top stories of the past 12 months. But in 2003, we smashed the mold with “2003 Illustrated,” a year in review with comics.
The best comic strip of the group was perhaps Chris Thompson’s “Trouble in Oaklandria,” in which Thompson lampooned then-Mayor Jerry Brown as “Jerry Brownicus,” head of the troubled Roman city-state “Oaklandria.”
That year, Brown had fired much of his top staff, including City Manager Robert Bobb over Bobb’s plan to build a new A’s ballpark in downtown rather than housing.
“Robert Bobbus … had bored Brownicus with talk of a new stadium for the Oaklandria Alphas,” Thompson wrote, adding that Brownicus said to Bobbus, “My vestal virgins want elegant density, not sweaty decathlons! Seize him!”
Funniest. Express. Ever.
Over the years, the pages of the Express have been blessed with some of the best food writing anywhere, from Jonathan Kauffman and John Birdsall to Luke Tsai and Janelle Bitker.
Not only have they exposed readers to numerous small, out-of-the-way eateries in the East Bay, but they’ve produced some of our finest cover stories: “Barrel Fever,” by Jonathan Kauffman, June 14, 2006; “La Vida Taco,” by John Birdsall, Feb. 4, 2009; “The Tipping Point,” Feb. 18, 2015; “The Woman Behind Oakland’s Mobile Food Scene,” by Janelle Bitker, Nov. 1, 2017.
32. “Touchy Feely,” by Stefanie Kalem, Oct. 5, 2005
Express journalists have a long history of participating in subcultures in order to fully understand them. Former staffer Stefanie Kalem wrote recently about her experience writing a 2005 piece about cuddle parties: “For many years after I left the Express, when people asked if I’d written anything that they may have read, it was always ‘the Cuddle Party story,’ a.k.a. ‘Touchy Feely’ that they remembered. [Staff writer] Will Harper didn’t want the story so he suggested giving it to me, probably since I had been to Burning Man a few times. I embarrassed the hell out of myself at an editorial meeting after attending my first cuddle party by saying, in a fit of nervous bravado, that myself and the photographer were easily the hottest people at the party. It was a fun story to write but I’m not sure it’s what I’d want as my East Bay journalistic legacy.”
33. “Yelp and the Business of Extortion 2.0,” by Kathleen Richards, Feb. 18. 2009
Kathleen Richards’ 2009 exposé on Yelp’s practice of shaking down small businesses by highlighting negative customer reviews if they didn’t buy ads on Yelp is still the most-read story in the history of EastBayExpress.com. It’s also one of the best cover stories we’ve ever printed.
Here are Richards’ recent thoughts on it: “I’ve written about all sorts of topics in my nine (non-consecutive) years at the Express — about pagan parents and gun-toting motorcycle dudes, Hate Man (RIP) and evangelical college students — but there’s one story that has stayed with me. We had gotten a tip from a local business owner who said that Yelp sales reps were offering to move or remove his negative reviews if he advertised with them. He likened their tactics to the mafia’s. Our sales reps said they were hearing similar stories from local business owners. These allegations had come up before, but Yelp had always denied them, and media outlets just chalked it up to a big misunderstanding despite what so many people were telling them.
So, with prodding from my editor, I began to investigate. Over a period of about six months, I cold-called dozens of businesses (using Yelp as a lead) and found several others who corroborated the allegations and even said positive reviews disappeared after they declined to advertise. Instead of just regurgitating the company’s denials, I went with the conclusion that came from my reporting: ‘Yelp and the Business of Extortion 2.0.’
The story went viral and was picked up by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and others. For weeks, months, and even years afterward, I fielded desperate phone calls from business owners around the country who said they had experienced the same thing. I joked that I had become the Yelp crisis line.
But it also made Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman’s continued denials all the more infuriating — either he was lying or ignorant of his employees’ behavior. Business owners filed lawsuits against the company, but Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act basically protected Yelp’s actions, no matter how unethical-seeming. It was a brutal, eye-opening moment about the pitfalls of powerful tech companies.
My article didn’t lead to any new laws — although the company did appear to change its ways — and I felt frustrated that I couldn’t help these business owners more. And yet, just listening to their stories and believing them seemed to be a comfort on its own. Really, that’s been the most rewarding part of working at the Express — not giving credence to those who happen to have the biggest megaphone but helping elevate the voices of those who felt powerless. Collectively, their voices were too loud to be ignored.”
34. “The Manhattan Project of Marijuana,” by David Downs, March 4, 2009
Express readers really love stories about weed. In fact, 12 of our most-read stories ever on EastBayExpress.com were on cannabis (see page 17). We’ve also produced numerous in-depth reports on the marijuana industry. One of the first and best was David Downs’ “The Manhattan Project of Marijuana,” in 2009.
Also by Downs: “Oakland’s Grow House Hazards,” March 9, 2011; “How Green Is Your Pot?” July 13, 2011; “Greenwashing the War on Drugs,” Oct. 9, 2013; plus, “Back to the Underground,” by Darwin BondGraham, April 18, 2018.
35. “Swimming in Sex Abuse,” by Kathleen Richards, April 7, 2010
Before sexual molestation scandals rocked U.S. gymnastics, Kathleen Richards was among the first to pull back the curtain on rampant sexual misconduct in U.S. swimming in her groundbreaking investigative report in 2010, “Swimming in Sex Abuse.”
36. “The Shrinking Stage,” by Rachel Swan, April 4, 2012
Of course, the Express had been covering the East Bay arts and culture scene long before 2012, but reporter Rachel Swan was arguably one of the paper’s best-ever. Her 2012 in-depth report on the changes in the local theater industry garnered a first-place award from the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California.
37. “The Bacon-Wrapped Economy,” by Ellen Cushing, March 20, 2013
“Tech has brought very young, very rich people to the Bay Area like never before. And the changes to our cultural and economic landscape aren’t necessarily for the better.”
Yes, Ellen Cushing, as usual, was five years ahead of the story.
38. “When the Mind Splits,” by Sam Levin, Oct. 29, 2014
Sam Levin is known as the Express‘ best ever editorial intern. After all, he wrote three cover stories in one summer. But he also became one of the best staff writers in the paper’s history. Among his most brilliantly researched and written in-depth features was “When the Mind Splits,” which explored dissociative identity disorder.
It won a first-place award in the Association of Alternative Newsmedia Awards for excellence in journalism and a first-place award in the 38th Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards contest in the serious feature category.
39. “Making Black Lives Matter,” by Darwin BondGraham May 13, 2015
For the past few years, Darwin BondGraham has come to personify the East Bay Express. Indeed, for many readers, he is the Express. At times, it feels as if he’s everywhere, covering court hearings and council meetings, tweeting out nuggets of can’t-miss journalism.
And when he’s not working late nights, BondGraham is penning must-read cover stories, like “Making Black Lives Matter,” in 2015.
Here’s a snippet: “[L]ong before Ferguson, Missouri became a flashpoint of protest against police brutality, before the killing of Eric Garner galvanized a movement, before Baltimore erupted and #BlackLivesMatter became a call to arms, Bay Area families have been fighting back by building a network of those directly affected by police violence.”
40. “Racial Profiling Via Nextdoor.com,” by Sam Levin, Oct. 7, 2015
It might be last on our list, but “Racial Profiling Via Nextdoor.com” is also one of the best longreads we’ve ever produced. It also is one of the top 5 most-read stories on our website.
And it’s one of my personal favorites.