Oakland, California has been my home going on twelve years now. For a person who moved every two years for the fifteen years prior, that says something. I could always come up with a reasonable reason to move...school, a job… But mostly, those were just reasons I felt I needed in order to go somewhere else. Mostly, I just got bored. At times I worried I would never find my place. That perfect place. Oakland is not the perfect place. But it is the most interesting place I have ever lived, and I can get what I need here.
I fell so hard for Oakland that one day years ago, on an flight home, I added to my To Do list: “write a love letter to Oakland”. I had been traveling and everyone I met seemed to cringe when I mentioned where I lived. I took it personally, refused to start saying “the Bay Area”, “San Francisco”, or “Berkeley” instead. It wasn’t the same. I wanted people to know about all of the good things Oakland offered, distract them from its reputation.
At the time I was learning about an Oakland photographer named Mose Cohen. Cohen was born in 1884 in New York City and came to the Bay Area to pursue photography in 1906, two months before the earthquake. In 1908 he began working for the Oakland Tribune, eventually opening his own studio on Franklin Street in 1927. He photographed nearly every major event, structure, and famous person to come through the city. His archives are a trove of Oakland history. Cohen was commissioned to make street scenes for the Oakland Downtown Property Owners Association (below) in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. The mission of the Association was to attract capital into downtown Oakland at time of decentralization. Together, the collection shows a specific area of the city shifting over time. Alone, the images show someone’s livelihood, someone’s hopes and dreams: Samuel’s Smoke House, S. and G. Upstairs Clothes Shop, Paradise Cafe, Duckman’s Bargain House, Margaret Burnham's Cottage Candies. Places that existed only in this one time and and in this one space, places that you photograph because you know they won’t be around much longer.
The idiosyncrasies are what make me love Oakland more than anywhere I have lived. They are what makes Oakland entertaining. It is an endless challenge to explore a place that is not easily understandable. I can’t give Oakland all the credit, but it was here that I felt inspired to take photographs again, and often. Here that all the studying and practice and waiting came together into an expression of myself and the world around me that at least sort of makes sense. It is not the perfect place, but it is my place. Love you Oakland. Explore more Oakland, California…