Reviving Oakland's Jazz and Blues Scene, Virtually

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Actual Slim Jenkins

A historical photo shows Slim Jenkins' club in West Oakland during its heyday. Courtesy of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO) hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO)
Virtual Slim Jenkins

A new video game features a virtual rendering of Slim Jenkins' club. Courtesy of the Univeristy of California, Berkeley hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the Univeristy of California, Berkeley
Pawn Shop

In the game, the user is a musician who must complete different "quests" on 7th Street, such as going to the pawn shop to get money. Courtesy of the Univeristy of California, Berkeley hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the Univeristy of California, Berkeley

The corner of 7th Street in West Oakland, California is bleak and deserted, with a windowless liquor store and a job counseling service on one side of the street. But it wasn't always so rundown; in the 1940s and 50s, the street was home to a thriving music scene, with scores of big blues artists such as Lowel Fulson, Ivory Joe Herner and T-Bone Walker passing through.

Now, with the creation of a historical video game, a group of journalism and architecture students at the University of California, Berkeley, is hoping to revive some of 7th Street's faded glory — at least in the virtual world.

Initially conceived as a computer recreation of 7th Street, the students decided that a game — complete with missions and tasks — might be more engaging for young people.

In the game, the user is a musician who comes to 7th Street to play music in the clubs and to seek out a record deal. Along the way, there are a series of tasks to complete.

"We constructed a series of... quests, little things people could do to find out information about 7th Street," explains journalism professor Paul Grabowicz.

Quests include going to the pawn shop to get money, buying fancy clothes or meeting people who tell you how to get ahead in the music business. Another mission is to jump on stage in a club and jam with a guitar and a saxophone.

Journalism students have been interviewing neighborhood elders for the past two years to get a sense of what the street was like during its heyday, while architecture students have been tasked with producing the audio and designing the game.

Architecture professor Yehuda Kalay says that architects increasingly see the virtual world as an extension of the real one. His class has worked on other projects recreating cities in ancient Egypt and Thailand.

"This is really the same thing [that] architects have been doing for the last ten thousand years or so, using brick and mortar. Now we can make environments that are not made of brick and mortar and yet function in similar ways," Kalay explains.

As with any historical recreation, accuracy can be difficult. If the students can't find pictures of a section of 7th Street, the designers may have to make an educated guess based on research about the buildings of the era. And, says Grabowicz, people's memories often vary.

"There's a famous character on 7th Street named Raincoat Jones who was basically a loan shark, but also a patron of the clubs," says Grabowicz. "But one of the questions was, 'Well, where did he get the name Raincoat?' And, God, there were four or five different stories about that."

Bob Geddins Jr., whose father recorded many of the artists who played on 7th Street, says that he's all for this game, even if it can't be 100 percent accurate. His hope is that the game will tell people about how the music scene fell apart and help them learn how to keep their own communities alive.

As for Raincoat Jones, users might just be able to find out the true origin of his name this summer, when the first version of the game is made available online.

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