The Laurel District

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Wendy Dutton, MFA ’90, writes on her neighborhood.

Wendy Dutton, MFA ’90, with younger daughter Jesse and the basic writer’s tool, a #2 pencil

This is what my neighborhood is like. To begin with, we all have a marvel­ous view of the freeway. But when I close my eyes, the sound of high speed travel becomes the sound of the ocean.
I live in a cabiny place behind an enormous pink house. I moved here because it was close to Mills. And like Mills, the neighborhood has a quirky mix of past and present, a feeling of constant evolution.

On the corner of Mountain and Mountain View, Bud, age 90, keeps chickens and a rooster. They have a camper cab for a henhouse. And over on Leona the old hippie walks his horse beside the freeway as if he’s walking a dog. There’s also an observatory, open on Friday and Sat­urday nights for star-gazing.

Every morning I walk these hills with my babies, calling on our favor­ite dogs. We are big roamers. When I see a foundation laid, I think, “What are they building now—a tool shed?” Next thing I know it’s a three-story stucco house! Gradually these steep hills, tangled with live oak, are being filled in.

The Leona Heights Neighbor­hood Association is blocking the development of the hill behind my house because of its rare peony popu­lation. In fact, developers used to have a trailer up there until some kids torched it. Before the flames took over, they dragged a sofa out of the trailer and set it up on the cliff.

At night it’s worth the climb up the fire trail just to sit on that charred sofa and overlook all of Oakland. The lights map out the city. But just on the other side of the 580 freeway lies a pocket of charmed darkness. That is Mills.

The perception that there should somehow be a dome over Mills pro­tecting it from the surrounding neigh­borhood is long outdated. Mills women are becoming a part of the community as surely as locals depend on the campus. Neighbors come to walk their dogs, jog, swim, use the library, the post office, the children’s school, the art gallery.

Once I met a girl named Danielle. She lived in the apartment next to the house with the WISE MEN STILL SEEK HIM sign, just opposite Richards Gate. She was ten and got around by rollerskating. She had been spying on the different camps and conventions that come to Mills during the summer. Her favor­ite was the dental convention. “Learned a lot about teeth,” she claimed.

Further down is MacArthur Ave­nue. It’s still the home of many dives—Glenn’s Hotdogs and The Friend­ship Cafe. And don’t forget The Foot Clinic and The Love Center. But there’s also the small stretch between High and 35th that has become a bur­geoning neighborhood.

It is known for its food-inexpen­sive and good. Take The House of Produce, for example, know as sim­ply “Bob’s” to generations of Mills people. A whole bag of beautiful fruits and vegetables might cost $5—not to mention the fat pretzels and raspberry bars. Next door is the MacArthur Fish and Poultry. You can get terrific fish and chips for as little as $3.99, or shrimp cocktail for $2.99. La Ultima serves great Mexican food.

And then there’s Brewberry’s. The coffee shop has been open three years and is owned by three women. They employ many Mills women and were supportive during the strike. In fact, the Brewberry’s XX Dark coffee is known as “the official coffee of the 1990 women’s revolution at Mills.”

This is also a practical neighbor­hood. There is a shoe repair, a frame shop, two banks, and a hardware store, and a florist that has been in business for years. The Oakland Par­ent-Teacher Shop is tops. So is The Oakland Veterinary Hospital. A new copy shop could prove vital to stu­dents. There is even a neighborhood newspaper, The MacArthur Metro.

It’s a city neighborhood, of course, with city problems. There are a couple of bars, a place where drugs are commonly sold, and the hotels with hourly rates. The Century Foods building has been empty and ignored too long. It used to be the Hopkins Theater when MacArthur was called Hopkins Boulevard. But there is also a neighborhood watch group that’s very involved. Gena Rickon, ’90, manager of Brewberry’s and a neighborhood resident, calls it “a different kind of crime from what goes on in the hills; it’s more visible.”

The other side of Mills is more dubious. Mills students avoid the liq­uor store. The closest mall, East­mont, is not great. But there’s a new flower and plant shop on Seminary called Terracotta. And right next to the Poodle Parlor is a cultural eye­sore and joy: Weang Ping.

Located three blocks from Semi­nary on MacArthur, Weang Ping serves Thai food. Thai spaghetti with peanut butter sauce is under $5 and excellent. And the decor of bamboo and blinking chili peppers is good fodder for conversation.

What I’m trying to say is this: The neighborhood surrounding Mills is actually everything a neighbor­hood should be. It is multicultural and multigenerational with a scram­bled economy and a sense of humor. It’s a neighborhood in transition, and Mills is lucky to be right in the mid­dle of it.

Wendy Dutton, MFA, ’90, is a freelance writer and a member of the Quarterly Board. She also writes Class Notes for grad­uate students.