by Lydia Gans
Kenneth McCoy has been selling the Street Spirit since he was diagnosed with colon cancer six years ago and found he had no way to pay for the medicine he would need to survive.
Sitting on an upturned bucket in front of the North Berkeley Post Office, Kenneth exchanges greetings with the people who pass by. “They know me and I know them and they’re wonderful people,” he declares. “They help me a great deal.”
Kenneth grew up near Hayward, “across the tracks,” in an unincorporated farming community called Russell City, about 10 miles south of Oakland. Russell City was settled back in 1853 and ceased to exist in 1964 when the last remaining residents were driven out and the small town was replaced by an industrial park.
That wasn’t unusual. The industrial parks now dominating the area were built on land taken forcibly from the people who had settled there, mainly African Americans who had migrated from the South. The story is that the residents tried to fight the removal and many of the buildings were destroyed by acts of arson.
Prior to the mass expulsion of all its residents, Russell City was a community of more than 1,200 people, mostly families with children. It was known for its little farms, modest homes, and small-town feel — including dirt floors and bootlegged electricity in some residences.
The largely African-American community also drew many blues musicians. Russell City’s thriving legacy of Delta Blues led to the founding of the annual Hayward/Russell City Blues Festival. Such renowned blues masters as Big Mama Thornton and Big Joe Turner once played in Russell City.
Decades after Russell City was eradicated, its namesake music festival continues to this day. The Hayward/Russell City Blues Festival will be held this year on July 7-8, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Hayward City Hall Plaza, 777 B Street.
Although Russell City was so close to Oakland, Kenneth McCoy’s childhood resembled growing up in a small country village. His boyhood memories of the little town almost have the flavor of a rural homestead. “We had a farm,” he recalls, “with chickens, pigs, a cow and a horse.”
But it was by no means an idyllic life. There was no urban infrastructure, no indoor plumbing.
“We had outhouses, we had cesspools,” Kenneth says. “The outhouse sat on wooden planks. There’s a deep trench they did for the waste. When it rains, it goes through boards — fills up.”
He recalls the tragic drowning death of his three-year-old nephew who was playing outside a neighbor’s house. “The top of the outhouse had been knocked down so there was just the trench full of water and waste. He was playing out front, then went around back chasing the ball and fell into the trench. They pulled the body out and put the body in the kitchen.”
Kenneth was only 12. It’s a memory that has stayed with him his whole life. “It was a very trying time,” he says.
Several years after that, Kenneth’s family was forced to leave. He remembers the expulsion. “My father finally tore down the shack we lived in and built a home, a nice home. After he built it, that’s when the city came along and told him he had to sell it or they would take it.”
In 1963, Alameda County officials decided to demolish the entire community and redevelop it as an industrial park. The officials created the Russell City Redevelopment Agency to forcibly purchase all the properties, or seize them by eminent domain. In only two years, hundreds of families and individual residents were forced to relocate and leave their homes behind.
His family moved to Oakland, where Kenneth enrolled at Oakland High. He lived most of his life in Northern California working in construction or building maintenance. Listening to him talk, it’s clear he worked hard and sometimes dangerous jobs. He described a couple of serious accidents, the last one landing him in the hospital when he was found to have cancer.
The need for money to pay for his medicine led him to sell the Street Spirit, but for Kenneth it has become a lot more than a job. He speaks with pride about the paper, about how people tell him how much they like the Street Spirit.
“Every time they buy a paper,” Kenneth says, “they say this is the best paper — better than the Chronicle and the Tribune. They are not true words in them, but everything in the Street Spirit paper is true. And they always tell me that.”
Kenneth talks about the man who bought a paper from him recently and then, when he found the front-page article on “The Mississippi Delta: Birthplace of the Blues,” he came back ten minutes later and bought 19 more copies.
Since receiving his cancer diagnosis, he has been able to stay in shelters, but before that he was homeless for some time. He is anxious to describe that experience.
“I’d sleep on the sidewalks in between entrance ways of bookstores, down near the BART station on Shattuck,” Kenneth tells me. “Sleeping on the street —-I never got a good night’s sleep because you would wonder when a person walks past. You’d hear the footsteps.
“As the footsteps disappear in the dark, you try to go back to sleep. By the time you’re halfway asleep, you hear more footsteps. That would keep you (awake) till you couldn’t hear those any more.”
He recalled the time several years ago when news got around of someone threatening to spray lighter fluid on sleeping homeless people and set them on fire. The homeless people in Berkeley got together and “we all decided to take our shopping carts and make a great big circle and sleep in between that circle with the carts around us.” That encampment took place in Martin Luther King Park in downtown Berkeley, and lasted for several weeks.
Kenneth is a regular voter and readily expresses his political views. “I vote every year. I vote Democrat — even if they don’t win, I always voted Democrat. Some people say Republicans give us more. I don’t think so. I think they tend to bury us, tend to bury us and step on us.
“We’re the little ones (and) they look over us. When I’m sitting here at night and one passes by, you can tell if they’re Republican ‘cause they’re looking straight ahead, or looking down. Democrats, they always pass by and face me, at least give me a conversation. But a Republican keeps walking.”
He celebrated his 64th birthday on May 10, 2012. He has a roof over his head now and the income from his Street Spirit sales, so he can buy the medicine to control the cancer. We look forward to seeing Kenneth at the North Berkeley post office with his papers for a long time to come.