I was born in San Francisco but lived there only two days, which is when my mother and father brought me home to Oakland. Oakland, the city across the bay forever in the shadow of San Francisco, would be my hometown for the next seven years, when my family moved to Los Angeles.
Since I was a young child during the time I lived in Oakland, my memories are pretty hazy and episodic. But to this day I have a very vivid sense of growing up in a world that now seems idyllic. The street we lived on, Calmar Avenue, sits atop the ridge of a hill just north of Lake Merritt. The homes are large but not opulent. The street was quiet and tree-lined. It sounds like a cliche, but people really did know their neighbors and left their front doors unlocked.
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My best friend was a kid named Ocie Henderson, who lived across the street from us with his mother and two older brothers. His father died when Ocie was just 3. In the 1950s, this was an integrated street, which I only later would come to realize was unusual.
Down the hill from where we lived were Lake Shore and Grand Avenues, the commercial district of our neighborhood consisting of small shops and a smattering of restaurants. Where Lake Shore and Grand converged was the palatial Grand Lake Theater, and next door to it a hamburger stand. My brother Keith, a year older than me, and I saw our first movies at the Grand Lake.
Going back to Oakland always feels like going home. Last week, I went home on assignment for "World News" to report on how Oakland had changed since I'd lived there and, in particular, how it had fared during the latest economic recession.
I also got a chance to visit the Grand Lake where the management kindly allowed us to shoot inside before the day's showings. We brought with us a DVD copy of one of the first movies I remember seeing: "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad," made in 1958, the year I turned 5. As I sat in the middle of the cavernous old theater with a bag of popcorn, Sinbad was projected onto the screen. It was as if I was traveling back in time.
The movie was, of course, ridiculous. The acting was decent enough, but the costumes, the storyline and the special effects -- especially the giant Cyclops that emerges from a cave (which scared the heck out of me when I was kid) -- were comical.
What was not at all comical was what I learned on our visit to East Oakland. The small, tidy houses on the side street belie a grim reality. This mostly African-American neighborhood is scarred by chronic unemployment -- 27 percent, according to local officials -- and so much violent crime that it bears the nickname "Killer Corridor."
We stopped by the East Oakland Youth Development Center, a community service organization that provides a refuge from the surrounding anarchy. The center offers educational help, job training, counseling and recreational facilities free to anyone who wants to drop in.
We met Sinead Anderson, who dropped out of school at 16 but later came to the center to get help with the GED.
"It was amazing," she said. "Everything [was] laid out, the math packet, the science. I passed [the exam] the first time."
Today, she is an undergraduate at Merritt Junior College, majoring in mathematics.
"I'm going to teach," she said. "I'm going to come back to my community and teach."