This is an excerpt from reporter Scott Johnson's blog, which focuses on the effects of violence and trauma on the community. Go to www.oaklandeffect.com for updates on his reporting and www.insidebayarea.com/oakland-hotspot for updates from the Oakland Hotspot.

May 15

For Amanda Smulevitz, AC Transit bus line No. 40 is like a time machine. It takes her back nearly four decades to a past growing up in homes scattered across East Oakland, past San Antonio Park where she hung out as a teenager and past Wing's Daily Kitchen on Foothill, where she and her parents used to order food. At nearly every stop along the way, it reminds her of a story.

"For me it was always the 40," she said today when we rode the bus together. "Back in the old days, when we used to take it up to Berkeley, we call this line the 'Forty goin' Norty.' "

The 40 runs from Eastmont Town Center to downtown, cutting right through our Hotspot zone and servicing much of East Oakland's population.

Smulevitz, 45, has seen a lot on the 40: fist fights, arguments, shootings, abuse, music, love and generosity.

There was a time when Smulevitz herself was one of the ones fighting. People used to single her out, she says, maybe because they thought she was an easy target. She wasn't. Once, when a girl sitting behind her tried to light her ponytail on fire with a lighter, Smulevitz turned around and punched her in the face.


Advertisement

In the early 90s, she was riding the 40 when two young men got into a loud argument. It quickly degenerated into a fist fight and then spilled outside onto the street at the corner of Foothill and High Street, where one of the men started shooting at the other.

"Everybody was ducking down; people thought they were going to get shot," she said.

She has seen more fights than she can remember -- dozens. Once she saw an angry woman hurl a stream of abuse at the bus driver and then spit on him. "I wanted to slap her for that," she said.

But she has also seen a lot that makes her happy: friends reuniting on the bus after long absences, young people helping the elderly. "I love it when I see young people doing something courteous," she said. "The guy in khakis and carrying a briefcase is just sitting there, but then the young thug stands up and helps the old lady who's having trouble; I've seen that a lot."

Smulevitz looked out the window as the 40 cruised down Foothill. She pointed out that none of the black iron wrought fences used to be here. Instead, there were houses, yards, some ugly, some lush and beautiful, where she and her friends used to play, jumping over fences if they got in trouble, running carefree through the streets. "You can't do that anymore," she said.

Around San Antonio Park, she recalled how there were two groups feuding with each other back when she was a teenager. She and her friends would meet in the park to avoid trouble. You can't do much of that anymore either. When we passed today, there was a police cruiser sitting in the park, as if waiting for trouble. We passed one of her old houses. "Oh, look, it's blue now, and there are roses," she said.

Smulevitz loves East Oakland. People generally let you be yourself. It's diverse. You can walk to Lake Merritt. People like to talk to you. As we continued along Foothill, she began reminiscing about what the crack epidemic looked like when it hit here. It was bad, she said.

"As soon as crack hit, people started selling furniture, baby diapers; they'd lose their jobs because they'd be high and just forget to go to work," she said. "And it was so quick."

She pointed outside. At the height of the crack epidemic, these streets were filled with prostitutes, junkies, dope fiends and dealers.

"We went from having two "Ho Strolls" to having people hooking right in front of your house; there was just this huge demand. You had crackheads robbing people, and there was tons and tons of it right along this route."

She remembers Felix Mitchell's funeral passing along here, too. But she has no sympathy for the man known as Felix the Cat.

"He ruined an entire neighborhood and countless lives, and he's the coolest cat around? But if that's all you know, who else are you gonna idolize?"

For all of that, Smulevitz says that most of the bus rides in her life have been nice. She enjoys people watching. She writes things to herself in her head, nurtures a latent creativity, enjoys the sights and sounds of other people's conversations.

"I like the evolution," she said. "I get nostalgic for the way things used to be -- I'd go into that Rexall and my mom would buy me a coloring book if I was good -- but change is good, too."

Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429 or scjohnson@bayareanewsgroup.com.