Longtime residents reminisce about old Oakland

The Merante family has owned and operated Groceria Merante since 1979. (TPN file photo)

At the corner of Bates and McKee streets sits Groceria Merante, an Italian grocery that’s been situated in the neighborhood for nearly four decades. Walk inside and Salvatore Merante, age 86, may be there to ring you up or reminisce about the Oakland he used to know — a calm family neighborhood, very different from the bustling hub for college students its turned into today.

Merante emigrated to Oakland 67 years ago with his family to seek business opportunities. His family has run Groceria Merante since 1979. He said plenty has changed since his nieces started running Groceria Merante — many familiar faces have left his community and thousands of new ones have poured in.

“Oakland used to be Italian. All of these houses were Italian homes and the kids would play in the streets. A lot of our older friends left […] now it’s all strangers,” Merante said.

He said Oakland used to have some of the best food in the city — and it wasn’t always just pizza. While Merante had trouble remembering the names of the eateries he used to frequent, one in particular stood out in his mind. There used to be a famous saloon — now no longer in business —  that drew in a friendly crowd of important people and local politicians such as the district attorney who used the restaurant as a way to decompress after work.

Leica Sciulli, 53, has been a friend of the Merante family and a member of the Oakland community for more than 30 years. She is also from an Italian background — her family runs Sciulli Pizza on Fifth Avenue in Oakland. She’s also a landlord for a few apartments in the area and understands why many people left, but thinks Oakland has since adapted to its new residents.

“I mean everything is up for change and the younger Italians should’ve stayed here instead of deserting us, but it would’ve changed anyway. That’s life,” Sciulli said. “It used to be a regular neighborhood with families. The kids used to play in the street. Now college kids live in all of these houses and there are always new ones coming in.”

Sciulli said the community used to be more townesque with families owning the local food, clothing and other businesses along the Oakland streets. She said she misses the families and the Italian culture — including festivals, clubs and parties — but does admire the “diversity” the large population of student tenants has brought.

“There are always new people and things are always changing,” she said. “Every year we meet a new set of unique people and say goodbye to the old ones and it can get sad to watch people grow up and leave.”

Andrea Boykowycz, 46, has lived in Oakland her entire life — and has been around long enough to see the rental market overtake the neighborhood. She’s been involved with the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation for more than a dozen years, serving both on its board and as a program analyst.

Boykowycz’s work puts her in touch with people looking to secure home ownership in Oakland, and her organization runs a community land trust to save affordable homes in the neighborhood for prospective permanent residents.

“The rental pressure in Oakland is such that it is very, very difficult to have a home ownership market,” Boykowycz said. “One of the reasons we started a community land trust was to offer a bulwark against the utter ‘studentrification’ of Oakland.”

Aside from a large influx of students, another change Boykowycz noticed is that some landlords take advantage of the opportunities they see in Oakland. She said many landlords don’t live in Oakland — or even in the state or the country — which makes it harder to monitor the living conditions of the neighborhood. Since people are now harder to reach, police have more difficulty getting the proper information to investigate landlord violations compared to the past.

“Most of the trash you see on the streets isn’t because college students are just throwing their trash out the window. It’s because the land owners failed to provide any trash cans,” Boykowycz said. “On windy days, the trash gets torn open or animals get into the trash and it gets blown all over the streets.”

Boykowycz said the responsibility has now fallen onto the community to find and report violations committed by landlords in order to keep Oakland clean and healthy. Her childhood, she said, was far less hectic and everything was more localized.

But Boykowycz still defended the new culture of Oakland, claiming it isn’t worse now, just different. While it may not be the quiet, comfortable community it once was, it still has retained many core community aspects of the old Oakland.

“There is a perception that people don’t live here, that it’s all undergraduates, but that isn’t true,” Boykowycz said. “There are definitely kids here. They get on buses, they go to a neighborhood school, there are community organizations long-term residents are a part of. There are things going on here.”

Boykowycz said the university culture has also helped the community, but she still misses a few things from her childhood, such as the block parties on Semple and festivals with pony rides, face painting and Swedish meatballs.

She also misses an old pet project of a few university students started back in 1972 that brought fresh food to the community and connected Oakland residents with the students. The project, called the East End Food Coop, has since moved to Point Breeze.

“We also used to have the East End Food Coop here. It was actually started by a few undergraduate students who thought ‘Hey, we’re growing sprouts in our basement, may as well sell them to the public,’” Boykowycz said. “That kind of scene I wish we could bring back.”

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