Hear from our audio producer about how she transformed Oakland’s diverse history into an immersive audio walk.
As a documentarian and Oaklander, Sarah Holtz felt a personal connection to the story she was setting out to tell.
In the introduction of her audio walk, Migration + Memory, in Old Oakland, Sarah's voice guides listeners through the noise of the city’s streets. She immediately prompts listeners to search beyond sounds of the built environment and instead to keep a discerning ear out for the sounds of the local birds.
These birds end up playing an important role in her story. Their migrations prompt our own journey through the history of how Oakland came to be and the migration patterns of the communities that contribute to its identity.
Through GPS-triggered audio, listeners’ movements unlock stories about the indigenous history of the Ohlone people, the Great Migration of enslaved African Americans fleeing a post-Civil War South, the origin stories of local businesses like G.B. Ratto’s Deli and Maya Halal Taqueria, the discrimination faced by the Chinese Diaspora, and more.
Reflecting on the audio walk production process, Sarah shared a few insights she developed along the way:
What inspired you to make the Oakland walk?
I moved back to Oakland during the pandemic, and I was struck by a contrasting feeling. Things felt both familiar and novel. I’d go on walks in my neighborhood and pass places from my earliest childhood memories. But each time I'd walk there was also this element of discovery. Whenever I think about place, I think about psychogeography — how we find meaning in the places we inhabit. In downtown Oakland, I saw migration stories everywhere. Most cities are built at the intersection of several immigrant groups, and I wanted to learn more about what that meant in Oakland’s past and present.
What was the process, from initial concept to finished walking tour, like?
To begin with, I took maybe a half dozen scouting walks. I took notes and a lot of pictures for reference, so I could look up things I was curious about later. As I scouted, I considered the route. Starting and ending points are really important on these walks, because they should serve the narrative while being a pretty place to stand or sit while the narrator establishes the story.
Once I had the route mostly mapped out, that’s when research began. My source material came from local history books and the 99% Invisible City book. The rest I culled from articles and blogs. I kept my tour outline in mind while filling in the gaps using this research. I paid attention to chronology without letting it limit things. Because Oakland’s my hometown, I could also leverage the local knowledge of my friends and family — with appropriate fact-checking of course!
Then, I started distilling everything into a rough draft. That’s when Gesso's creator tool came in. As I drafted and revised, I was able to use the tool to easily create more stops along the route, move them around, and upload rough voice-over each time I had a new version. The creator tool allowed me to iterate quickly and get a bird’s eye view.
What takeaways do you get from exploring a city in this way?
Looping back to psychogeography, I find that listening to these walks allows us to catch glimpses of the smallest details on city streets and extract meaning from them. I start to notice these sensory cues in daily life and my understanding of these cities evolves. As a medium, I also think audio walks are both cinematic and personal. A lot of thought goes into the narrative and structure, but the experience of listening and walking still feels spontaneous.
How did your own understanding of Oakland evolve?
It’s a complicated city. I’ve always had a lot of pride as a native Oaklander, even when I’d meet people in other places that only knew Oakland in relation to San Francisco, or for the Raiders, or as a place of crime — that’s all reductive, of course. Like all diverse cities, beauty and suffering are always present. And like everywhere else, Oakland has changed so much since I was a kid, especially since tech exploded, but it’s also largely the same. Oakland gets billed as second banana to San Francisco but Oakland’s charm is more hard-to-get. It's just as bewitching.
What advice do you have for other creators who want to start making these types of walking tours?
Become super familiar with your route and take lots of notes and photos. If you have a feeling that something might have an interesting backstory just by sheer intuition, follow that lead. Each time you walk, look for something different. Also, listen to sounds and pay attention to textures. Make sure you have something site-specific to point to on each block if possible. Simplify your language for audio, and make sure you have a strong takeaway that’s universal.
If you’re in Oakland or nearby in the Bay Area, you can access Sarah’s audio walk on the Gesso app. Towards the end of the route, she’ll leave you with an important reminder, “Listen to your city as you move through it.”
Gesso is an audio AR platform for creators to share their ideas with the world. If you're an Oaklander with stories to tell, history enthusiast, audio producer, or other creative professional interested in working with us to create location-based audio walks, join our creator community to get started.