Mrs. Bird

Mrs. Bird,” originally uploaded by gwen.

[Gwen Harlow contributed a variety of compelling images to the MLK BLVD Flickr Pool; until recently, she actually lived on an MLK — Martin Luther King Jr. Way, in Oakland, CA. She shares the following story, below. See more of Ms. Harlow’s photography here; here’s an Oakland set]

Mrs. Bird [2nd floor, front] was my neighbor at 10th & MLK from 1988 until the day I took this photo in June 2007, which was the day she moved out. The new owner wanted us all gone, so we had to go. I moved to that block in 1988
and lived in three other apartments before settling at 939 Martin Luther King Jr. Way (née Grove Street) in Oakland, California, in early 1993. I lived in that apartment until 2007. After Mrs. Bird left, for that last month I lived
there, I had been in our neighborhood longer than anyone. It’s kind of sad when the Old Lady of your block is only 38 years old.

There used to be a bunch of old-time residents in our neighborhood, but they disappeared one by one, either died or, more often, were pushed and priced out by the encroaching gentrification of Jerry Brown’s Oakland. Mrs. Bird had been in our neighborhood longer than anyone, since she was a little girl in the 50s, her father owned the little Victorian next door til he passed a couple years
ago; her brother lived in the brick studios on 10th until he died shortly not too long after their dad. I’ve known her longer than almost anyone outside my family.
Our building dated to 1890. The whole top floor was ours, an ornate old penthouse with more window seats and wood details than you could count, a million closets, beveled mirrors, secret sliding doors, leaded glass in the dining
room, columns at the entrance to the living room. Mrs. Bird says her mother told her one of Oakland’s mayors lived in our flat at some point earlier in the 20th century; I wouldn’t be surprised, it was just that fancy. The family before us, the Normans, were there for 50 years, until one of the parents died and the other went to a home. We found a stack of old magazines that belonged to them in the back of a closet, and got mail addressed to them once in awhile.

The other floors were split into two units each. Chantal and her daughter [3rd floor, rear] were the first ones who left, months before us. She’d start banging her broom against the ceiling every time my daughter walked into her room, then leave notes about how we should be friendly neighbors. I hope she has her own place now, she didn’t seem fit for apartment living. Peter [3rd, front] moved to
NYC over Memorial Day, he was here first as my roommate in 1994, then moved into his own unit downstairs a few years later. Michael [2nd, rear] showed up in the late ’90s and disappeared into the night without saying goodbye. James
Brown [really, bottom, front] and his sister Connie were still there when we left but never around since their mom had recently passed, so we didn’t get to say goodbye to him. The guy who was in the downstairs rear was only there
a few months and gone before he ever said boo.


2 responses to “Mrs. Bird

  1. Does anyone know when MLK Jr. Blvd. was named in Oakland and what the original name of the street was called?

  2. hello
    i am tring to find information out about an abandoned lot next to my house. my girlfriend and i bought it and cant find any hisotrical pictures of the house that was there. its at the corner of mlk and 28th. please email me at if anyone knows anything about it. I was told the house that was there burned down in 1989. thank you.

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