Bad dream or a sideshow?

By Debra Chaplan

Imagine you’re sound asleep. You hear some cars revving up. Soon, shouting comes wafting in. It all becomes part of a chaotic dream. Then the rhythmic pounding of loud car radios and the screeching get louder and louder. It’s 2:30 in the morning.  You’re not sure if it’s your dream or … you suddenly realize it’s a sideshow, and it’s taking place nearby.  Neighbors as far as the Rose Garden are lighting up Next Door wondering what all the noise is about.  Others are calling 911.  Pets are growling, barking, or cowering and running for cover.

Neighbors on the east side of the Grand Lake area have been hearing the sideshows that regularly take place on Park Blvd. near 7th Avenue. It’s only been since last summer that the intersection in front of the Grand Lake Theater has become a chosen spot. Since September, I’ve heard of four sideshows on that corner and there may have been more.     

Cars without mufflers (many of them likely stolen) streak down Walker Avenue from Mandana to get to the intersection, their big engines accompanied by shots – from guns, M80 firecrackers or intentional backfiring. Finally, the cops start arriving, sirens blaring.  When the sideshow is over, the cars come speeding back to get away from the cops. Usually, the whole process takes about half an hour.

I’ve never gone down to see the sideshow in action. I’m told they draw a crowd of onlookers. They’re noisy, they leave tracks of rubber and car detritus covering the intersection, and then they’re gone, until the next time.

Sideshows have their own culture which has to do with the love of old-school American cars, drag racing, and the music created to accompany the cars dancing from donuts to figure eights. Invented in Oakland in the 1980s, for the past 40 years, sideshows have been a regular occurrence across the city, from the flats to the hills, and have spread throughout the Bay Area, and the country. A 2020 article in the San Francisco Chronicle references a 1991 hip-hop track called “Side Show” by the rap group 415 as an anthem to the sideshow events. For at least one semester, you could take a course on the history of sideshows at SF State.

Some of the detritus from the most recent Grand Lake sideshow
Some of the detritus from the most recent Grand Lake sideshow.

But for neighbors whose sleep is disrupted, and for drivers exiting the freeway or coming home along Grand Ave., they’re annoying, scary, and dangerous.

While Allen Michaan, owner of the Grand Lake Theater, says that the sideshows happen in the middle of the night when there are no staff members at the theater, he adds, “Needless to say, I am not happy to see these events occur as I worry about people being injured and cars crashing into the theater.”

Anthony Bennett, President of the Grand Ave. Business Association (GABA) agrees and adds that one of his board members saw some sideshow spectators breaking into cars that had been parked nearby, and other parked cars were hit. “All I have to say is that OPD and civic leaders need to take action and hold sideshow participants accountable.”

City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas explained that sideshows are a top priority for the city. “We’re very concerned when there is a large number of vehicles, people, and gatherings that could include weapons and violence.” That’s why the city instituted the tipline, to proactively head off the sideshows before they begin. If you have information about illegal sideshows, you can send OPD a tip at, or call the OPD Non-Emergency line at 510-777-3333.

Bas says that the city has had a sideshow unit for several years. It currently has three squads of 18-20 officers, which is scheduled every weekend through the end of this year. In addition, the city council passed a law within the last year that could have repercussions and fines for sideshow organizers.

We chatted about engineering and environmental deterrents, such as Bott’s Dots, hardened center lines, and roundabouts. According to Bas, “there is no established best practice in terms of environmental or engineering deterrents, but we’ve been working with agencies throughout the region to develop, test, and implement strategies that will be confirmed to work.”  

OPD says that “the deployment of barricades, high visibility patrols in historical sideshow hotspots, use of plainclothes officers, use of the OPD helicopter are some of the more traditional ways that we have been combating illegal sideshow activity.” When a sideshow is in progress, OPD generally uses several patrol vehicles to block roadways preventing the involved vehicles from fleeing the area. Once the area is secured and vehicles are unable to flee the area, officers methodically begin to cite, arrest, and tow the vehicles depending on the violations observed by the officers.

Recently, the city of Modesto ended a large sideshow by confiscating about 30 cars; that proved to be a successful deterrent. City Councilmember Bas also told me about the city’s response to the sideshows at Pine Knoll Park, a small hill off of Lakeshore and Hanover that regularly saw ATV and motorcycle sideshows. “We closed the park and fenced it off so that we can restore the grass and infrastructure there. When the park is restored and ready to re-open, we’ll carefully monitor it to ensure that the sideshows don’t return.”

Click here to learn more about sideshow hotspots and OPD / OakDOT’s pilot prevention program.

Below are a few tips from OPD to help keep you safe if you encounter a sideshow:

  • If you encounter sideshow activities or if you are caught in the middle of sideshow, look for a safe alternate route that will allow you to bypass the sideshow activities.
  • If you are involved in a vehicle collision with a sideshow participant, do not confront the individual; instead, call 911 to report the incident.
  • Please don’t engage with individuals participating in the sideshow. Do not try to stop the sideshow. Do not risk your life.
  • If there is an emergency or immediate safety threat, call 911.
  • To report information regarding illegal sideshows, as well as vehicles and individuals involved in this activity, email And report a sideshow in progress to the OPD non-emergency line: 510-777-3333. 

Oakland’s 12 Pilot Projects

Oakland’s pilot project focuses on installing engineering treatments to try to prevent sideshows at locations identified by OPD as being heavily impacted. (These were set before any sideshows near the Grand Lake Theater started taking place.) Here are the 12 locations and their status, as of May, 2023.

  1. 35th Avenue/MacArthur: OakDOT’s installation of hardened centerlines and Botts’ dots was completed on July 9th, 2021.
  2. Fairfax/Foothill: OakDOT’s installation of hardened centerlines and Botts’ dots was completed on August 18th, 2021.
  3. High/MacArthur: OakDOT’s installation of hardened centerlines and Botts’ dots was completed on October 15th, 2021.
  4. *42nd Avenue/International Blvd: OakDOT’s installation of hardened centerlines was completed on October 19, 2022.
  5. *42nd Avenue under I-880 (known as “the Pit”): Caltrans’ installation of hardened centerlines and Botts’ dots was completed on June 16th, 2022.
  6. 106th Ave/MacArthur: Installation of hardened centerlines was completed on September 28, 2022.
  7. 55th Ave/Foothill: Installation was completed on August 31st, 2022.
  8. 82nd Ave/MacArthur: Installation was completed on August 23rd, 2022.
  9. Seminary Ave/MacArthur: Installation was completed on August 29, 2022.
  10. *98th Ave/International Blvd: Intersection is in Caltrans right-of-way and treatments are subject to state approval
  11. 16th Ave/International Blvd: Installation is planned for Spring 2024
  12. 66th Ave/Coliseum Way: Installation is planned for Spring 2024

Debra Chaplan

Debra Chaplan became the publisher of the Splashpad News in February 2024. She’s lived in the Grand Lake neighborhood for 30 years. With a career doing communications and educational programming for several unions, she’s pleased to use those skills for the neighborhood and city that she loves.



4 responses to “Bad dream or a sideshow?”

  1. Well there was another one last night but the police shut it down quickly and there weren’t that many spectators. Maybe next time I can do down and interview some of the attendees. What are folks interested in learning from them? I’ve already got a list of social and car related questions for them.

    1. Debra Chaplan Avatar
      Debra Chaplan

      I almost went down there last night, but I was a weather wimp. If you do go down and get some interviews, I’d love to publish that story!

  2. David Cohen Avatar
    David Cohen

    I am 100% against the so-called sideshows. Not only dangerous, of course, but also profoundly disrespectful of Oakland residents. I’d say, let’s not study this forever and issue mushy pronouncements: go for the Modesto option of confiscating vehicles.

  3. Lorrie Fink Avatar
    Lorrie Fink

    Thank you for this informative article!

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