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Oakland's Sobrante Park Fights to Resurrect a Neighborhood Jewel

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Young children on the playground of Tyrone Carney Park for the first time in 13 years.  (Sandhya Dirks/KQED)

The car pulls up quickly, parking sideways in a driveway across the street. Everyone standing around at the park entrance starts talking quickly, breathlessly. They know who this is.

“It’s Little Charlie,” Antoinette Bale says out loud -- to no one and everyone. “Damn,” she sighs. “Little Charlie.”

The man known as Little Charlie, 24-year-old Dayvon Brown, gets out of the car with his girlfriend and walks across the street.

“Oh my god,” he says, “I feel like crying right now.” He shakes his head. “I ain’t been in here since my father died.”

"Here" is Tyrone Carney Park, a long, triangular stretch of broken concrete, rusted basketball hoops and a playground, where the skeleton of the swing set still stands but with no swings. The park, in the neighborhood known as Sobrante Park, was closed after the shooting death of Little Charlie’s dad, Charlie Brown, in September 2002.

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For 13 years, it has sat here, cut off from the world by a giant fence.

“My dad died right here. He was shot dead, killed, right here,” Dayvon Brown says. “It brings back memories. It's as if an old wound has been reopened. In a sense it has. For the first time in 13 years the park where his father lost his life has been opened up again to the community, just for one day.

Sobrante Park

There is a tragic irony in the fact the park closed down after a series of shootings that took the lives of young black men. It was named in honor of another young man, Tyrone Edward Carney, the first African-American from the neighborhood to die in combat in Vietnam, in 1968, at the age of 20.

Carney grew up in Sobrante Park. He was a Boy Scout who planned on being a minister, and he signed up to go to war so others wouldn’t have to, neighbors who remember him say. They add he was the kind of young man the community elders saw as a future leader: loyal, moral and true.

Now the park that bears his name not only holds his story, but also the history of the Sobrante Park neighborhood.

It's one of three neighborhoods, independent but intertwined, in the deepest part of Deep East Oakland. Brookfield and Columbia Gardens are the other two.

The story of these neighborhoods is like the story of so many parts of Oakland, and familiar to many inner-city neighborhoods, cut off by redlining and divided by freeways that bypassed African-American business districts. These are the places that grew increasingly isolated and abandoned by city, state and federal policies that left a legacy of intergenerational poverty, a dark cloud that settled over America’s urban core.

Neighbors enjoy Tyrone Carney Park's one-day opening.
Neighbors enjoy Tyrone Carney Park's one-day opening. (Sandhya Dirks/KQED)

But that is a simplification, a narrative that is both true and also truly more complicated. To understand the human history of Sobrante Park, look no further than Phebia Richardson. Just about everyone here calls the 82-year-old "Mrs. Phebia." These days she uses a cane to help her walk, but her memory is strong.

“The first black woman to move in Sobrante Park lived across the street from the church," Mrs. Phebia says. "Her name was Mrs. Winn, and they didn’t know she was black because she was light-skinned with blond hair. And when her husband and child came in, that’s when they found out, but it was too late."

The year was 1952, and that, says Mrs. Phebia, was the beginning of white flight.

In 1955, Mrs. Phebia’s sister moved into the neighborhood, the first black woman on her block. Mrs. Phebia followed seven years later, moving into the house she still inhabits. That wasn’t the first time she had tried to buy real estate in the neighborhood. “I got married in 1951, my husband and I came out here, and tried to get a house, but they wouldn’t let us have one.”

Sobrante Park was initially built to house the families of military service members. White flight left behind a thriving, increasingly African-American community. It was a tight-knit group, where neighbors looked out for neighbors, worshipped together, and planned graduation parties when kids went off to college. The community was tied together not just by experience and faith, but by geography. The layout of Sobrante Park is a network of narrow, looping streets with single-story bungalows built side by side.

Hellen Harvey grew up in Columbia Gardens, but she remembers coming to Sobrante Park. Harvey doesn’t live in these parts anymore, but she promised when she retired she would give back to the community that raised her. Now, she’s a church deacon at the Community Reformed Church in Sobrante Park, the same church she started attending when she was 9 years old.

“Back in the day, where that park is, where Tyrone Carney Park is -- that was a thriving community,” she says. “You had your grocery stores, you had your gas station, you had your beauty shop, you had your real estate office, you had your cleaners, you had everything right there.”

Brookfield was the same way, she says. Columbia Gardens residents didn’t have a business district, but they would come to Sobrante Park to shop.

Tyrone Carney

By the mid to late 1960s, that thriving business center was fading. Stores closed or moved out, the grocery store burned down in a fire. Real estate restrictions targeting African-Americans and a slow migration of wealthier families were part of the issue, as was the increasing isolation, politically and geographically, of the neighborhood. The closing off of the Deep East had begun.

But the neighborhood still had a vibrant and active base, including Mrs. Phebia.

“When they sold all of this stuff in here,” she says, “and then all of the other people moved all their stores, we decided we wanted to do something, because people were just hanging out on the corner.”

That was why, in 1968, the year Carney died in Vietnam, the community banded together to build a park. They knew just the right spot -- where the burned-out grocery store once stood, at the entrance to the neighborhood. And they had a name picked out. They wanted to name it after their native son, Tyrone Carney.

And Then the Drugs Came

The close quarters of the neighborhood meant that a community that shared the good also shared the bad.

At first the park was just what it should be, a jewel of the neighborhood where children played and families came together. But slowly that changed too.

“When the drugs came in it just killed the communities,” says Hellen Harvey. “It really did.”

Harvey worked for the post office, and she remembers how dealers would drop their drug stashes in mailboxes. Sometimes they would beat up the mailman "because he wasn’t getting there in a timely manner so he could unlock the box so they could get their stuff out."

The park once named for the neighborhood hero became an open-air drug market. There were fights and shootings. Too many deaths, says Mrs. Phebia. If the first battle for Tyrone Carney Park was to create it, the second was to close it. But she never expected the park to stay that way.

The park's tattered basketball hoops have sat unused for over a decade.
The park's tattered basketball hoops have sat unused for over a decade. (Sandhya Dirks/KQED)

A Reopening

Thirteen years later, Dayvon Brown, whose father’s death helped usher the closing of Tyrone Carney park, walks through the park with his girlfriend. On this Saturday in August, the park has been turned into a neighborhood garage sale, the sounds of children playing lingering in the air with the smell of grilled hot dogs.

Brown doesn't buy anything. He's here to pay his respects. He says he's glad the park is open. “For the kids,” he says, “this is for the kids.”

For Brown, being a kid in the park was more complicated. He was just 11 years old when his father was killed here. And by that age, he says, he was already coming to the park to sell drugs.

Antoinette Bale also remembers the park during those years. Even with the drugs and destruction, her memories are good ones. This is still her childhood park, and she was the girl out here, beating all the boys in basketball. She remembers Brown’s father, too.

He may have been out here doing some bad things, but he was her friend. She recalls one night in particular, the two of them leaning back on the park bench, staring at the sky and talking about the hugeness of it all, the way young people do, knowing everything and not enough all at once.

The gates of Tyrone Carney Park are open to residents for the first time since 2002.
The gates of Tyrone Carney Park are open to residents for the first time since 2002. (Sandhya Dirks/KQED)

"He was like, 'Man, it’s no such thing as a God, Toinette,'" she says. "'Cause how the bird this, and the fish. ...' Man, I never forget that night. And then to see his son. ...” She trails off. “You don’t know how people who was here before it was closed feel, just to pass through it again. This is beautiful.”

The Memory Holders

The memories guiding the neighborhood, in large part, are those of Mrs. Phebia -- back to a time when the park was open and the streets were safe. There is a group of tough women -- and some men -- working on finding that safety again, including Tiffany Gibson. She doesn’t live in the neighborhood, but she works here with a community group called Higher Ground. It set up shop in Sobrante Park in 2002, the same year Tyrone Carney Park closed.

“The ones who are older, who are really championing this work, they have that historical perspective,” Gibson said. "They felt a connection to each other and the space that they lived in.”

That connection never went away. The moment the park closed, Mrs. Phebia was on the phone with every politician and mover and shaker she knew. Mrs. Phebia’s list of contacts reads like a who’s who of black politics in Oakland -- from former mayor and state legislator Elihu Harris to longtime East Oakland City Councilman Larry Reid.

Mrs. Phebia is a fierce matriarch, Gibson says: “When you see a 70-plus-year-old woman standing up at a meeting saying, 'I’m ready to fight, so what are you going to do?' You have no choice but to fight.”

In the aftermath of the park's closure in 2002, the city of Oakland formed a city-county initiative to connect residents to public agencies. The neighborhood women worked with them, training teenagers to canvass the neighborhood to ask residents what they wanted for a new Tyrone Carney Park. They raised money to have an architect draw up plans, and the community voted on them, picking one that conceived the park as a gateway to the neighborhood.

The idea, Gibson says, was to get a series of projects done in three years, from reopening the park to making the streets safe. But that didn't happen.

“Ten years later what we realized was the plan was great,” she says. “But it takes longer to move community than that.”

They still have the architect's plans for Tyrone Carney Park. But they haven’t been able to get the money to realize them. Part of the problem is that it would cost $2 million. There was hope the project would be able to get city redevelopment money, but that never happened.

As time passed, the challenges facing the neighborhood changed. Sobrante Park has seen sweeping shifts in the past decade. Many long-term residents lost their homes in the foreclosure crisis and left the neighborhood. There are more renters now, and the demographics have shifted. It's an increasingly Latino community.

For one day only, community residents have opened their neighborhood park, closed for 13 years, for a garage sale.
For one day only, community residents have opened their neighborhood park, closed for 13 years, for a garage sale. (Sandhya Dirks/KQED)

Bringing a whole group of new people into the work of neighborhood building isn't easy, Gibson says: "We have some real race issues that we are dealing with right now. It really is -- it’s race and culture and class.”

The fact is, Gibson says, change is hard. It took 30-plus years for the neighborhood to fall apart, she says, and "you can't put the pieces back together overnight."

A New Community

Cynthia Arrington is driving me around the looped streets of Sobrante Park.  Arrington is the head of the RAC -- the Resident Action Council -- a group of neighbors who are on the ground here daily. She returned to the neighborhood about five years ago to look after her aging parents, who still live in the house she grew up in.

Arrington drives past a woman setting up folding tables on her front lawn. Arrington explains that everyone calls the woman "Bishop," although it's not her name; she got the nickname because she is a pastor. “She has a food giveaway, people go over there and get food," Arrington tells me.

“This is a community,” she exclaims as we pass Bishop. You can hear a hint of frustration in her voice, a rare occurrence for a woman who is usually relentlessly upbeat, continuously stressing the need to focus on the positive.

When I first met Arrington, she was straight up about one thing: “We want to make clear,” she told me, “that your speaking to us today is going to project positiveness in our community." She is sick of only hearing about Sobrante Park when something bad happens.

One of those positive things is a minipark at the back end of the neighborhood, on a patch of grass that connects the two Sobrante Park public schools. Arrington and the RAC got a grant to put in a playground and benches there, so even without Tyrone Carney Park, kids would have a place to play.

Cynthia Arrington, right, sells raffle tickets at the entrance to the park.
Cynthia Arrington, right, sells raffle tickets at the entrance to the park. (Sandhya Dirks/KQED)

As we sit on the bench, Arrington doesn’t shy away from the fact that problems still linger. She points to a few men, lingering at the corner entrance to the park.

They are watching us, and Arrington knows they are wondering what we are doing, maybe even waiting for us to leave.

She doesn’t mind people hanging out, but she suspects these men aren’t here for that. “It’s drug activity,” she says. “You can’t do that in our minipark. This is where our children should feel safe to play. “

Still Arrington says, today is a good day.

“You know we’re trying,” she says.

She knows as an insular neighborhood in East Oakland, Sobrante Park tends to be forgotten by the outside world. That, Arrington says, has left residents underserved. It’s not just Tyrone Carney Park remaining shuttered for 13 years, it is things as simple as illegal dumping.

Arrington says she often needs to hound the city to pick up trash that's been dumped on neighborhood streets. Last year, the residents got so sick of the dumping, they organized a community project to block part of a street that had become a de facto junkyard.

This Is Just a Beginning

Arrington played a big role in getting Tyrone Carney Park open for one day. She helped to organize and plan, and sat at the entrance all day long, selling raffle tickets.

Sitting there, she and fellow RAC member Victoria Figg chatted, dreaming up new uses for Tyrone Carney Park. Maybe they could plan a music concert, one of the women suggests.

“There’s a lot of history and lot of value here,” Figg tells Arrington. It isn’t fair, she says, that this one neighborhood and this one park carry a bad reputation.

“Oakland’s a murder ground, so don’t put Sobrante Park or this one park on the map as a murder ground,” Figg says.

There might have been murders, but Figg echoes what so many residents here say, “We're a thriving community.”

Figg looks out over the scene, kids running around, people barbecuing, one of the local ladies dancing up a storm to Michael Jackson.

“It’s heartwarming, but it’s heart breaking,” she said. “We can’t even utilize space in our own community.”

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Arrington nods her head sympathetically, and then she smiles. “This,” she tells her friend, “is just a beginning.”

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