Cars swerving back and forth, swinging side to side; the sound of tires screeching against concrete; the smell of burnt rubber. All of this makes up the sensory signature of events known as sideshows.
Sideshows have a bad reputation as illegal, dangerous and occasionally violent street car shows, where gunshots may ring out and people could die. But for those who grew up in the early days, sideshows were not so much dangerous as they were innovative. They created a space for self-expression and originality that bubbled up on the streets of Deep East Oakland.
“It’s in the soil,” says Sean Kennedy, a multimedia producer and local hip-hop historian. “For some reason the air here in East Oakland breeds that type of creativity.”
Kennedy says it goes back to the early 1980s, when the music of the Sugar Hill Gang made it out here to the West Coast. “It seems like it started when hip-hop first got out here,” Kennedy said.
I meet Kennedy at the entrance to the Foods Co. in Foothill Square, so deep into East Oakland it is almost San Leandro. Kennedy says this is where it all began.
“There was a carnival that used to exist right here in Foothill Square, because there was a skating rink right here,” he says, pointing to what is now a Ross Dress for Less. “All the people would come down here to the skating rink and the carnival.” They would would bring their best cars and just cruise, he says.
Kennedy says that what many people think of as a sideshow these days, all doughnuts and destruction, was not the way it began. Back then, he says, “no one did doughnuts or spun their cars.” It was just peacocking, showing off the cars that were the pride and joy of many -- mostly male -- residents. “That,” Kennedy says, “was the original sideshow of East Oakland.”
People had cruised around in their souped up Chevys before, but it was as if the introduction of the new music taught the cars to dance.
In Kennedy's description, you can almost imagine the whole scene: Men slowly circling the parking lot in lovingly modified cars painted colors like cherry red or apple green. On the sidelines women watched, wearing tight skirts and showing off skin. The sideshow was a social event, a party in a parking lot, and showing off your car had a familiar goal: to woo women.
The Sideshow as Cultural Marketplace
As the sideshows spread, Kennedy says, they became a sort of cultural marketplace where people repped parties, hawked homemade fashion lines and shared the latest in music.
Yakpusua Zazaboi documented sideshows across East Oakland for his documentary series "Sidewayz." When a proposal to make it illegal to attend sideshows went before the Oakland City Council in 2005, Sidewayz videos were singled out in the law's language: “These videos portray the city in a negative light, encourage the proliferation of the activity and allow the promoters to popularize and profit from sideshows.” The law, championed by then-Mayor Jerry Brown, passed in modified form, allowing those who watched the sideshows from the sidelines to be fined and even arrested.
But the sideshow, according to Zazaboi, was a thriving place, part craft fair, part improv performance, and always a place to catch the cultural zeitgeist. The sideshows, he said, were not just part of Oakland's unique hyphy culture, they formed the space in which hyphy was born. (Some of you might ask, "What's hyphy?" In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary recently added an entry, suggesting the word dates back to 2002 and giving the following definitions: "1. Extremely rowdy, excited, or energetic. 2. A style of uptempo hip-hop music and frenetic dancing.")
“You would come out and you would really understand what is popular in Oakland,” Zazaboi says. A key part of that was the music. “I think for about three or four years straight, we used to hear this song by a group called 3X Krazy.”
“It was just a baseline and it was so popular and would sound so good on really nice audio systems, it was almost like a sideshow theme," Zazaboi says.
When asked to name his pick for the theme of the sideshows, Sean Kennedy says there is really only one: Richie Rich’s sideshow song.
“Now that's a classic,” Kennedy says. “When it comes to explaining the sideshow, in the early days.”
You can hear the whole sideshow in Richie Rich’s deep and sonorous voice. “In Oakland, California," he raps, "every Saturday night brothers be riding, straight-laced zeniths, drop-tops, buckets, high performance.”
Music might have been the lifeblood of the sideshow, but according to Kennedy, the heart pumping that blood was the neighborhood's deep-rooted car culture.
Car Culture and the Sideshow
Ruben Flores greets a customer whose car he’s just modified at A1 Spring Service, a mechanic on the corner of MacArthur Boulevard and 98th Avenue.
This was -- and still is -- the go-to place to bring your car for modifications.
Flores, who went to Castlemont, the neighborhood high school, got the job straight out of school.
“The owner of the shop, he was losing a man, a mechanic, so he came down to the high school to ask about the auto shop program.”
Flores was hired on the spot, and he has been here ever since. Now he owns the place.
"The first day of work became the longest day of work, 38 years later,” Flores says, laughing as he shakes his head. Those years have given Flores a passenger seat to car culture in Deep East Oakland. He confirms what Sean Kennedy told me-- that in the beginning, it wasn’t about souping up cars to go fast. “It was going lower,” Flores says. “Low and slow.”
Low and slow, Flores said, was a way to show off the beauty of your car. Flores said his shop became known for fixing up cars in a signature style.
“What A1 means, in the car culture,” Flores said, “is the stance is higher in the front and lower in the back. So they have that pointing --towards-the-moon type of look.”
Yakpasua Zazaboi said everyone knew about A1. “That was the place to go,” he said. “People would say, I have my car sitting A1, it was because of the name of the shop.”
But the sideshows began to change and evolve with time; they went from low and slow to fast and loose, with drivers performing tricks with increasing levels of difficulty and danger. The Oakland Police Department began to take notice.
Zazaboi says sideshows veered from “a nice slow cruising type of an event to a much faster speed, away-from-the-cops type of an event.”
Sideshows Run Into the Law
Everyone has a story about when and how things got out of hand. Zazaboi says it was when guys with cheap cars started doing doughnuts to get attention.
Sean Kennedy says it was when the new built-for-speed Mustangs came on the market in the 1980s.
Maybe it was the death of a young girl, in a police chase during a sideshow in the mid-'90s.
Whatever the exact moment, the crackdown by Oakland police and the city came quickly. New laws were introduced that let the city impound any car involved in a sideshow. Then came the 2005 ordinance, which allowed police to permanently confiscate any car directly involved in a sideshow. According to Zazaboi, that made it personal, because the cars were not just painted pieces of metal to the men who drove them.
“Their car is an extension of their ego,” Zazaboi says of sideshow participants. “You take away their car, you kill their ego, and that is exactly what they did out here in Oakland.”
Sean Kennedy says that response complicated the already tense relationship between police and the community.
"Does that create an animosity to the police?" Kennedy asks. "It becomes a war at that point. And then it becomes a situation where the rebellion is, 'We're going to have sideshows anyway.'"
Both Kennedy and Zazaboi say that while local politicians criminalized the sideshow, local media demonized it, with story after story of violent, out-of-control youth taking over the streets.
Kennedy admits that bad stuff did go down, and there was by necessity a kind of nomadic, extra-legal element to the sideshows. People brought guns and sold drugs; sometimes fights broke out. And yes, young men acted stupid. But he says all that was just as likely to happen at a Raiders game.
Kennedy said despite all that, the sideshow did not breed criminal behavior. The bad behavior, he says, would have been on display with or without the sideshows. Kennedy believes the sideshows were targeted.
"It's not about a car show," he says. "At that point, it's about arresting black youth in Oakland."
He says the sideshow made it easy to paint East Oakland youth into an already-made stereotype: "Young black kids who don’t have anything to do with their lives, out there playing around in these cars, carrying guns and selling drugs.”
Celebrating the Sideshow
What was lost in that narrative, Kennedy says, was the ingenuity of the sideshow: the mechanical skills it took to work on the cars, the driving skills it took to get them moving and dancing, the coordination to plan what are in essence the Bay Area's first pop-up events.
Kennedy acknowledges his perspective has changed with age. Now that he has a few years on him, he is a little more weary of making cars spin like whirling dervishes.
"As much as I love sideshows," he says, "it’s a dangerous culture when it comes to spinning around a half-a-ton vehicle with no barriers and people standing there."
That is why Kennedy, among others, supported a push to legalize sideshows that gained some ground in the late 2000s. The suggestion was to bring sideshows out of the shadows and turn them into neighborhood street parties. They could even make money, proponents argued.
But opponents, like Councilman Larry Reid, who represents Deep East Oakland, countered that it was folly for the city to sanction an illegal activity.
Reid says the sideshows slowed down for a bit, but in the last year they've once again become a regular weekend event. He said they take over the street every weekend from Friday to Sunday, around 106th and MacArthur. That is right by Foothill Square, where more than three decades ago, according to Sean Kennedy, sideshows began.
"It is just crazy what the residents along the MacArthur corridor have to endure," Reid said. In the past few weeks, right here, there have been incidents, including this past weekend when a sideshow participant rammed into a California Highway Patrol car.
If you ask Yakpusau Zazaboi, he will say what is happening now is not even a real sideshow.
"I break it down like this now," Zazaboi says. "This is how you know it's a sideshow. If there are clean cars and women out there, you might have a sideshow. If it's a bunch of buckets and a whole bunch of dudes clowning around looking at each other -- you do not have sideshow."
The definition of just what makes a sideshow is constantly in flux. Every generation has its own version, just like every sideshow has people who say it is either a criminal act or a space for the creation of culture. Maybe, just maybe, there is a little bit of both, hanging out at the sideshow.