By C.J. Hirschfield
Quick: How many distinct neighborhoods do you think there are in Oakland?
Photographer Stephen Texeira says the answer is 146, and his Oakland Neighborhood Project seeks to hear from all of them.
Children’s Fairyland doesn’t technically constitute a classic neighborhood. Nevertheless, Stephen invited us to participate last week in a photo shoot that allowed our Children’s Theatre kids to share with the world what their distinctively Oakland park represents to them.
Photographer Stephen Texeira captures Fairyland’s Children’s Theatre kids and their messages for his Oakland Neighborhoods photo project. Photo by Stephen Texeira.
Stephen, who was raised in the Bay Area and now lives in the Laurel District, started the project three years ago, believing that his city was among the most misunderstood and misrepresented in the country. His goal: to change Oakland’s image both internally and externally, one neighborhood at a time, by holding photo sessions featuring a local person, couple, or family displaying a sign with a message about the place where they live.
Until last week, his compelling photos graced the windows of a vacant but highly visible building at the corner of 19th St. and Broadway. For 18 months, Stephen’s work attracted the attention of commuters and locals. The reaction, according to the business district’s representative, Andrew Jones, was “totally positive.”
Stephen admits that when he first embarked upon this project, he didn’t have a clear notion of where it would lead him. He has disciplined himself to devote four hours a day to it; the rest of the time he earns his living as a professional photographer for clients that include Alameda Health System, the YMCA of the East Bay, Mills College, and numerous dance companies.
|Photographer Stephen Texeira at Fairyland's Aesop's Playhouse.|
The neighborhoods project got more attention when it was featured in the San Francisco Chronicle and OaklandLocal. Suddenly, people were contacting Stephen instead of the other way around.
Oakland residents have opened their homes and their hearts to Stephen. For his part, he says his goal is to make images “that are honest, emotional, funny, touching, sad, beautiful, and moving.”
The project allows Stephen to explore parts of Oakland he says he wouldn’t have otherwise seen. He’s sometimes asked whether venturing outside his own neighborhood makes him nervous. No, he answers: “Neighborhoods are made up of families and kids — people who are trying to pay their rent, have a garden. That perspective is huge.”
Stephen says that he never censors what his subjects write on their signs. Often, he says, he is most moved by the folks who write the least.
The photos capture our city’s quirky, proud spirit. One resident representing Allendale is photographed with his happy dog. His message: “I promise Oakland will NOT eat your child, it just wants to lick you in the face.”
From a mom and her three kids whose Bushrod roots go back many generations: “Family.”
And from one young lady from Grand Lake: “Diversity, kindness, and local is my way of describing Oakland!”
Stephen recalls two especially memorable photo shoots. One took place at the East Oakland Youth Development Center, where he worked with kids age 6 to 14. One drew a picture of a gun; another asked how to spell “homicide.” But hearts, butterflies, and trees were also represented in abundance.
Another involved Maybelle Broussard, a 102-year-old resident of Toler Heights who passed away a month ago. In 1932, she was one of a handful of African American students admitted to the University of California at Berkeley. She earned a B.A. in languages in an era when few women of color and only 10 percent of all Americans attended college. “Her message read like a Visit Oakland ad,” says Stephen: “Not too large a city,” “Lots of hills, fabulous views, good transportation.” Her message closes with “Many cultures are living together here peacefully.”
“A remarkable woman,” Stephen says.
The shoot Stephen did last week with one of our Children’s Theatre casts was great fun for all of us. A sampling of their messages: “At Fairyland I learned stories that taught me lessons I learned that it’s nice to BE YOURSELF.” “Fairyland is a party to be YOU.” And one that really resonated with me: “Fairyland inspires me to be more ... kid.”
|Children's Theatre kids working on their signs.|
Stephen will be posting the Fairyland photos on his website, Oakland Photo, later this week. In the meantime, you can see photos from all the neighborhoods he’s already shot. There’s also a map of all 146 Oakland neighborhoods. Proceeds from the sale of photos are put directly back into the project.
Stephen’s photos are also scheduled to be displayed soon in a storefront at 15th St. and Broadway. He hopes one day to see them in the airport, in libraries and cafés, and even in a book.
But for now, he’s still actively recruiting participants for the project.
But don’t think you can convince him you’ve come up with a new neighborhood, as a handful of creative realtors have. ‟Deep East San Francisco” is one that was suggested for an up-and-coming neighborhood near the Emeryville border. Stephen didn’t buy it. For him, 146 neighborhoods are clearly enough.
C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park.