Not that we need one, but a good slogan to promote an influx of people to the East Bay could be “Move here for the Berkeley, stay here for the Oakland.” Berkeley still retains its reputation in the rest of the country for academics, freaks, and lefties (one and the same?), as well as good food and 924 Gilman. But Berkeley hasn’t created any new “cool” in years, since the only people who can afford to live here are well-off and over 35. Let’s face it: Everything cool that Berkeley’s got these days is stuff it had already.
Which has all been fine and dandy for Oakland, that awkward yet lovable Cousin Oliver to Berkeley’s Brady Bunch. Besides boasting a fine history of famous alcoholics, Oakland has more neighborhoods than San Francisco, some major funk, and still-affordable housing — most of which is conveniently located next to leftover toxic by-products or amid turf warfare. But poverty breeds art, and Leonardo da Vinci never had it this good. Oakland is seeing a resurgence in its creative community because young people can actually afford to live there. It all comes down to available public space. Berkeley has made most of its space unobtainable. Oakland has not.
“Oakland is a ghost town, in a way,” says Jeff Hull, slowing sipping on his whiskey at the 5th Amendment on Lakeshore Avenue. He’s here to discuss his zine, Oakslander, which he conceived as a homage to the East Bay. “It’s invisible; you have to go beyond the surface,” he says of his hometown. “There’s a film you need to break through before you can find its hidden spirit.”
Hull is tall and expressive, with laugh lines around his eyes and a satchel full of stuff that he carries around on his escapades. He’s a fast-talker with the cadence of a surfer at times, but without the accompanying lack of intellect.
It’s the eerie Oakland underbelly that he seems to celebrate most in his zine. Among other things, the debut issue includes a guide to the secret stairways of the East Bay and stuff about the legacy of drug kingpin Felix Mitchell, the sci-fi funk of Afro Futurism, and the monster in Lake Merritt. The 33-year-old is part of local art collective Nonchalance, which spreads what its members call the “Oaklandish” gospel through film, archiving, writing, and more. “Oaklandish is a tagline for a campaign to express your love for the East Bay,” he says. “When you say Oaklandish, you are evoking all of the previous incarnations that the city has represented.”
Two other members of Nonchalance also had a hand in the zine. Sean and Katie Aaberg collect old Oakland signs and help organize the “Liberation Drive-In,” a renegade series of films and art projected onto the wall of an Oakland parking lot. For the first issue of Oakslander, Sean interviewed Dan Fontes, the artist who did the giraffe murals on the I-580 overpass. “What is Oakland soul, and how is it different from other cities?” Fontes asks himself in the piece. He finds an oracle in his collection of matchbook covers dating from the ’40s through the ’70s: “You see the answer in the typefonts, in the promise, in the hope, in the plainness, in the trying-not-to-be-too-fancy quality, in the translation of an idea into a simple matchbook. Not “top of the line and elegant’ like San Francisco.”
But Oakslander is written almost entirely by Hull, who adopts a different nom de plume for each story. His obsession with public and private space, as well as his town’s hidden areas, informs the entire work. “When I was a kid I always thought it would be fun to be a bum, because I thought all of those places they hang out in urban areas are those spaces that aren’t used,” he says, struggling to be heard over the Al Jarreau music in the background. “My interest in public space goes back to that time. It’s only from being an adult that I realized that that stuff is totally not allowed, public space is totally controlled.”
Apart from sideshows, probably the only public-space free-for-all that still exists in the East Bay is Berkeley’s Ashby Flea Market in the BART parking lot. Naturally, even though it ain’t in Oakland, Hull spends a lot of time there and had a word with Professor Curtis, a character who sells kung fu, cult, true crime, and otherwise rare videos at the market, and has been observing the changing landscape of the East Bay via this unique social bouillabaisse for years. “I was born in Berkeley,” Curtis tells Oakslander. “It’s turned into a different place. I feel like an American Indian because the town I was born in doesn’t even exist anymore.”
There’s a certain nostalgia for days of yore that exists in every Oakslander story. Much of Oakland’s art resurgence seems to be celebrating, or perhaps dwelling on, our past, as evidenced in the posters of Julia Morgan, Sonny Barger, and Bobby Hutton that Nonchalance sells on its Web site. But that’s probably the best place to start generating appreciation for the East Bay — say it loud, we’re wack and we’re proud. Most of all, perhaps, Hull’s zine manages to capture the city’s zeitgeist. Reading it makes you proud to live in Oakland, even if you don’t.