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Alameda County, CA June 6, 2006 Election
Smart Voter

A Tale From the Neighborhoods in District 2 - Down Memory Lane

By Shirley Gee

Candidate for Councilmember; City of Oakland; District 2

This information is provided by the candidate
Growing up in District 2 neighborhoods gives me a deep appreciation for the heritage of Oakland and an understanding of the people who have made Oakland their home. This up-close and intimate account of my experiences in Oakland from the 50's forward can provide voters with some insight into who I am and why it is important that a local person with a long commitment and roots in Oakland should go to City Hall to set public policy.
Growing up in the 50's in Oakland was pretty much like any town in America. It was post- WWII and people were flooding back into their communities. My dad, a WWII veteran settled in Oakland bringing his wife from China with him.

I was two when we moved into the laundry shop on Park Blvd in the merchant district about 5 doors down from the Parkway Theater. Back then and before television really took hold, going to the movies was the primary source of evening entertainment. The Parkway Theater, with its art deco design and velvet seats, was a pretty fabulous place for a kid to go.

I couldn't afford a ticket to see the movies, but my sister and I figured out that if we hung around the theater long enough; eventually the Theater manager would wave us in when the house wasn't too full. After the Manager started taking his laundry to my parent's laundry to wash and iron, he started giving my mom movie passes so we could all enjoy a night at the movies from time to time.

It was a time of long, hot summers where a child could whittle away the day doing nothing but hanging around the neighborhood. My sister and I were frequent visitors at the local merchants and we knew all of them up and down the street. There was the auto accessory and hardware store next door, the cigar, cigarette and magazine store next to that. Then there was the restaurant with the funny name, the Parkway Theater, the pet shop, shoe shop, and television repair and sales store. Going in the other direction, there was the bakery, real estate office and branch library. Neighbors and merchants watched out for each other in those days and knew each other's children.

Across the street from the laundry was the park, now known as the F. M. Smith Park and Recreation Center. This was where I learned to play on the monkey bars, swing the swings and hop scotch. The Park Recreation Director was a kindly person and worked there a long time. He showed the kids in the neighborhood how to play ping pong and let them tinker with the piano inside the Center. To check out a ball, we had to leave an article of clothing and there was a rich assortment of choices . . . basketball, red bouncey balls, paddles with tennis balls, and even badminton equipment. There were also board games that could be checked out and these could be played on the many park benches and tables that were scattered throughout the park. Checkers, chess, monopoly, Chinese checkers, and decks of cards were among the items available for checkout.

People walked everywhere in those days. I walked to Cleveland school everyday past the little park and crossed at the corner of 5th Avenue and Park Blvd to head up the hill to Cleveland Elementary School. The traffic monitor (Ms. Ruby) was always in her crisp red jacket with the snap buttons and topped with a bright yellow, wedge hat. We could hear her whistle from blocks away as she helped us kids get across the street safely. She was strict about her crossing and had the eyes of an eagle. Woe be the child who cross the street anywhere but at her corner. In the winter, she wore that big yellow, full length rubber jacket with a floppy hat to match and black galoshes up to her calves.

When you live in the back of the laundry business; a family of five in one room, there isn't much in the way of entertainment for 3 kids. Perhaps that is why I have a fondness for "live/work" arrangements. It's particularly good if families have to work and want their children nearby. I was seven before I realized that cheese was okay to eat and not just for mouse traps. Imagine how startled I was when I discovered cheese between my hamburger sandwich for the first time and thought my friend's mother was trying to feed me mouse food.

I lived in a single room with my entire family where it was so damp, you would see salamanders scurrying around and hear mice nibbling boxes in the night. There was no hot water or refrigeration and my mother would have to get up extra early every morning to boil enough hot water for the family to wash up and then go to the butcher down the street to get the day's ration of meat and perishables for lunch and dinner. Breakfast was hot water mixed with evaporated condense milk. Regular milk was delivered in a bottle once a week and we would keep it in cold water during the day and put it out in the alley at night to keep it from spoiling. Toast (for dad only) was made by inserting it into a mesh holder and held over a gas flame and then scrapping the black stuff off the bread over the sink.

Obviously, I didn't exactly grow in the lap of luxury, but if we were poor, I didn't always know it except when others pointed it out to me. Once in a while when there wasn't enough money left over after rent, we would have to cut back to one meal a day since there was no welfare, food stamps or public assistance to tied you over. If you didn't have money, you simply didn't eat.

I don't think I had my first store bought dress until I was in sixth grade when the teacher insisted that my mother buy me a dress for graduation. I still remember the purple and white little striped dress with frillies all around it. Up until then, we were beholden to the kindness of strangers who brought second hand clothes and shoes for us. Can't remember how many shoes I had to wear with tissue stuffed in them because they were always too big for me. My whole life then was a series of "you'll grow into them" clothes, whether they be shoes, coats or dresses. To this day, I still buy things that are one size larger. Old habits are hard to break. People in Oakland were charitable and kind to little children and tolerant of differences. But then, there is no pride when you are poor and just want to survive.

While other little girls were wearing pretty matching outfits, I was pretty drab, but clean and always freshly pressed (the advantage of parents with a laundry and cleaner). There was not a speck of dust around us and my mom was fastidiously clean because she said she wasn't sure what kind of germs were in America versus China.

I had a great grandfather who lived in San Francisco Chinatown and he would periodically walk from San Francisco across the Bay Bridge (upper deck) to visit us in Oakland on Park Blvd. He would start at 4:00 a.m. and arrive at our doorstep around 12:00 p.m.. At 5:00 p.m., he would head back to San Francisco and get home about midnight. Even though it only costs 20 cents for bus fare, he rather spend it on candy for us.

We spent a lot of time walking around Lake Merritt and he would always stop by Peralta Park near the Kaiser Convention Center and let us ride the children's train that use to lap around the lagoon. The Kaiser Convention Center, according to my father, use to be the first stop for the WWII veterans and they were kept in the basement area where the ramps go into the subterranean level of the Center. It was also the place where basketball, trade shows, fairs and concerts were held and occasionally my dad would walk us over there so we could watch from afar all the excitement and fanfare.

Lake Merritt was still pretty pristine and the duck population was under control and there were no Canadian geese or pelicans around. Whenever the estuary locks were open there would be a fresh batch of fish that would stock the lake where young people with bamboo fishing poles could actually fish all day and bring home smelt for dinner that night. All the wharf's were useable and provided the local kids a place to hang out and watch the world go by. The lake was where a child could meander all day long with their sibling and explore all of the activities and programs being offered around the lake. The beehive and naturalist area, the museums, the lawn bowling, and the concerts at the bandstand were all free. Artists from all over would come to the lake with their paint boxes and easels and paint, sketch or watercolor pictures of the lake and the buildings around it. For 25 cent, you could catch a paddle boat which would take you on a brief excursion around and around the Lake. Fairyland was just getting started and not yet the basis for Walt Disney's idea for Disneyland.

We were at the laundry for eight years before all the merchants down the street on the corner block of E18th and Park Blvd were given notice and forced to leave due to "eminent domain". Someone at City Hall decided that a supermarket was better than 20 small businesses (i.e., a Mayfair store) and the concept of community activism was still far, far away. Mayfair soon gave way to Safeway which gave way to a Grand Auto which gave way to a Kragens. In the meantime the area declined and deteriorated. People stop coming into the area and my mom and dad started losing business and struggled to stay afloat.

The merchants who had been neighbors for almost a decade had to leave one by one and with them their loyal customers and patrons. For me, it was the end of an era of carefree summers and a loss of companionship and community as the people that I knew and grew up with left the area. No more shopkeepers sweeping their front doorways; no more hello's as you walked by and no more citizens rushing out into the street to help when there was a car accident or when an elderly person tripped and fell.

After Park Blvd and the laundry business, we moved to Chinatown to live on 8th Street and Alice to an apartment that was originally for bachelors from foreign countries. They left remnants of this and that in the apartment and we actually had a bedroom that we dubbed the "junk room" because it had all of the leftovers from tenants past who each left a little something behind when they moved. Of course, this was our treasure room and I came to appreciate the craftsmanship of old furniture, fine lacy doilies and an assortment of canes, umbrellas and shipper trunks. We even had an old safe in one of the bedrooms that was large enough to put a few bodies in. We were never able to open it, but we always wondered what was hidden in that old thing.

Dad became a waiter and mom worked at the cannery seasonally and at sweatshops when work was available. She got 1 cent for 3 buttons and hemmed skirts at home.

Chinatown was only 3 blocks long then and immigrant families shopped and hung out there and felt secure. Post WWII brought a lot of racial hatred out in people and people couldn't tell the difference between a Chinese and Japanese so Chinatown became a safe haven for Chinese. Civil rights was still over a decade away and Asians had to protect themselves as best as they could. I attended Lincoln School and was the first class that actually graduated from 6th grade there. I went to Westlake for a while before my family had to move again.

The landlord wasn't very good about repairs and tenant rights were non-existent then. We had holes in walls and in the flooring (that we had to avoid to keep from falling to floor below) and at $55/month, I guess we weren't in a position to ask for repairs. Ultimately, we were evicted because the place was condemned and the owners wanted to tear it down and re-build something else.

This brought us to the avenues (10th Avenue and E. 21st Street) next. This was actually an improvement from our previous quarters and my parents had worked hard to save money for the future. We lived among all the stately Victorians in the avenues in a 4 plex apartment and paid $99/month which was a royal sum for us. There were a bunch of elderly, retired people who were the original owners of these beautiful homes and while the merchants before had welcomed us, the locals in the neighborhood were not so hot about our moving into the neighborhood. In any case, we settled in and I attended McChesney (now Edna Brewer) and after 16 very difficult years for my parents, they bought a home on Haddon Road near Athol Avenue where they still live to this day.

I attended and graduated 5th out of 750+ students from Oakland High (the blue and white Wildcats!) and left school on a Friday and went to work the following Monday. My parents could not afford college for me so for the next thirteen years, I worked and put myself through college 3 classes at a time; part of it at Laney College.

I ultimately finished my undergraduate at St. Mary's College and graduated with honors with a Bachelors degree in Business. While there were many life lessons along my academic path and I would not trade that experience for anything, it took sheer determination and 13 years to succeed. Given an option to go to college right out of high school, I have always mentored young people to make that their preferred choice.

During my struggle with education, the Oakland Museum was being built and all of the California artifacts which I grew up admiring in the Stafford Cameron House and Snow Museum were moved to the new Oakland Museum. I remember the controversy surrounding the architectural design with some people saying it was cutting edge designing while others were saying it resembled a mausoleum.

My career has always outpaced my academic training and most of my achievements came from "bootstrapping" myself and working extra hard. What I didn't have in resources, I more then made up for in superior effort and incredible hard work.

Fast forward. Ten years with the government and almost thirty years with Stanford University later, I am running for City Council in the very District that I grew up in. All that I have experienced growing up in Oakland, all that I have learned away from Oakland and all that I have accomplished in Oakland will be brought to bear on the challenges confronting this City and its citizens. While my road to this point have been harsh and a struggle, I have learned much and feel a profound responsibility to leave footprints for those still struggling. Sometimes we can help most by showing others the way out of poverty and to provide hope for a better future.

My past and experience will instruct every decision that I make and my compassion for those less fortunate and in need of advocacy will be evident. My respect for the privilege of office and the awesome responsibility that comes from carrying the hopes and aspirations of others will never be far from my thoughts. My primary job in City Hall is to make public policy as relevant as possible to people like you.

Fifty plus years in Oakland, 40 years of professional experience in government and in a University setting and 20 years of community service makes me uniquely qualified to handle a wide breath of projects and issues. Of all the candidates, I am the only one who grew up in Oakland and who has the broadest background; tested by fire and tempered by experience.

Sometimes, it does take a local citizen to handle local issues. I hope you will agree and Elect Gee.

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