There are only about twelve miles separating Oakland and San Francisco — a short distance easily traversed by bridge, boat, or BART train — and yet the two can feel worlds apart. Even within each respective city, occupants often bypass entire neighborhoods so much that someone living for ten years in Temescal may never have trekked to East Oakland, and some Mission District residents would be hard-pressed to pinpoint Visitacion Valley on a map. Considering the sometimes-vast economic and cultural disparities existing both between and within the cities, that lack of familiarity with nearby neighborhoods can effectively eradicate any true sense of community beyond the smallest of boundaries.
Erica Mu, a producer at San Francisco public radio station KALW 91.7 FM, hopes to help bridge those gaps through a year-long initiative called Hear Here: A Pop-Up Radio Project, which asks residents of both cities to share their personal stories based on a number of broad themes: work, eat, play, love, worship, and create. Since April, Mu, associate producer Audrey Dilling, and a small team of volunteers have been lugging recording equipment to libraries, schools, and other public venues to collect everyday anecdotes to be aired on KALW and archived on the project’s website, where participants can also upload recordings directly. In order to help develop connections between residents of different neighborhoods, they’ve also been sharing snippets with new participants and urging them to ask questions for those on future stops of the roving project. “We’re really trying to get people to start talking to each other,” Mu explained. “A lot of the questions — all in fact — of Visitacion Valley residents for East Oaklanders were, ‘How do you deal with being in a neighborhood where there are shootings all the time?'”
So far, participants have ranged from doctors to recovering drug addicts, with stories ranging from comical to austere. But all share the distinction of being narratives that, absent a project like Hear Here, probably wouldn’t have been shared with anyone but the tellers’ close friends and family. “When you’re a journalist reporting the news, the only time you ever really pursue an interview with a ‘normal’ resident is when there’s a news hook,” Mu lamented. “It feels like news outlets don’t think the ordinary story is valuable, so that’s kind of the issue we’re trying to overcome.”
Live, interactive storytelling events are planned to correspond with completion of each of the project’s six themes. Mu said the first such gathering, themed on work and held in San Francisco, packed the house. The next iteration, playfully titled The Hear Here Story Slam-Wich, takes place on Friday, August 10, at Awaken Cafe (1429 Broadway, Oakland). The food-themed slam features three courses: first, an anecdote by established author Andrew Lam; second, a grilled-cheese sandwich cook-off (presumably to justify the event’s title and sate hungry audience members as they listen to stories about food); and finally, stories from everyday people, one of which audience members will select to be broadcast over the air. “It’s sort of a perfect recipe, right?” Mu said. “What brings people together? Umm … food. Really awesome food. And sharing stories.” 7-9 p.m., free. 415-841-4121 or HearHere.KALW.org