West Oakland Neighbors Build Backyard Community

Picking up trash in West Oakland earns do-gooders entrance to an all-comers combination backyard hootenanny and backyard block party.


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West Oakland neighbors come together for the #RegularsOnly gatherings.

Photo by Stephen Buel

It all started two years ago, when a group of pals were sitting in a West Oakland backyard, drinking beer and relaxing. They texted a few friends, and about a dozen people showed up.

A few weeks later, they did it again. More people showed up. Gracious hosts that they are, they brought in some chairs, built a fire pit, and cleared away space for a dance floor. Before they knew it, 300 people were showing up for their spontaneous backyard gatherings, and these events part block party, part hootenanny became the best parties in town, complete with their own hashtag, #RegularsOnly. Neighbors on three adjacent lots have joined in, as well, knocking down fences to expand the party space.

Everyone is welcome, and everyone shows up: homeless people, NBA stars, grandmothers, college students, R&B musicians, hip-hop artists, Oaklanders of all stripes. There's dancing, poetry readings, outdoor movies, marshmallow roasting, political speeches, ping-pong, barbecues and plenty of frivolity. All the hosts ask is that attendees chip in for costs, if they can, and help pick up trash in West Oakland.

And that they do. It's not unusual for more than 100 people to show up on a Saturday morning, bags in hand and tools provided by the city, clearing San Pablo Avenue of fast-food wrappers and other debris.

Why not? asked Keith Tivon Gregory, 33, who works in the IT business when he's not hosting parties. It's just elbow grease. We're all able-bodied. There's no reason we shouldn't be helping out. We're all from Oakland. It feels good to get everyone out there helping us.

 The notion of giving back is what motivates the hosts. It's not easy organizing these events, but they believe that by opening their yards to strangers, allowing a mix of Oaklanders a safe place to meet, relax, and have low-key fun makes the city a better and friendlier place, especially with all the newcomers and sometimes-high tensions over the changing city.

We're just regular guys who wanted to do something for regular people, give people a place to relax in peace, said Pendarvis Harshaw, 28, a teacher and freelance journalist. All the new bars and clubs downtown are great, but sometimes you just want to hang out in your backyard.  And none of this would be possible without all the neighbors participation.

 The party space extends over four lots and includes everything you might hope to find in a Oakland backyard: patios, barbecues, a massive vegetable garden, chicken coops, a beehive, fruit trees, Christmas lights, and a big, friendly dog wandering around. The group, which also includes London Franklin, 33, a North Oakland resident and R&B musician and producer, embodies a philosophy that gave rise to the name of the event: Regulars Only, which means that no matter who shows up, he or she will be treated like a regular person.

The low-key attitude is what makes the parties, as well as the Saturday morning cleanups, so successful, said the fourth host, Kevin "Erk tha Jerk" Allen, 34, a DJ, recording artist, music teacher, and photographer.

There's no stressing, he said. No one gets dressed up. It's the anti-dress-up. For one thing, it's hard to wear high heels on tan bark. This started with us just kicking it in the backyard; sometimes it seems odd that so many people show up now. But I guess this is what people were missing

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