When I graduated from college in the late 90s, I moved to downtown Oakland. A few suburban expatriate posers I knew back then gushed that Oakland had culture.
Next to my apartment building stood a halfway house, and residents loitered at the entrance 24/7. The neighborhood was a bit sketchy, but, I figured, they didn’t want trouble. Plus, a receptionist sat in the lobby, so it felt safe. Across the street was a ghastly one-story building housing a sex shop. A middle age man who looked like he walked out of a John Waters film was doing the sales.
Shortly before I moved in, the building manager kicked out the drug dealers, which was not an easy undertaking in the tenant rights-crazed Oakland. My studio, converted from a 19th century hotel room, certainly had character. The 14th and Broadway BART station was a few blocks away, and so were Transbay buses and the 51A that back then went all the way to UC Berkeley where I still had a job. So it was convenient, and the rent was cheap.
Papers were sold on the corner near the BART station. Either a group of white nerds were peddling the Socialist Worker or several black gentlemen hung out with The Final Call, the Nation of Islam paper. From what I understand, The Final Call was not always available to whites. One of the gentlemen ran a little second hand shop a block away. He had some nice vintage coats, but a large portrait of Malcolm X adorned the wall, so I was weirded out.
There was yet another vintage clothing shop in the neighborhood. The owner was an African immigrant with blood-shot eyes. He told me that Jewish people and the Illuminati ran the world. Then he quickly acknowledged that when he was a crackhead living on the streets of New York, a Jewish social worker saved him. So now he’s forever indebted to the Jewish people.
I wasn’t too impressed with the local coffee shops. There was one a few blocks down, in a building housing some sort of an arts center. I went there once and saw a fat fellow in an IWW logo cap talking to his buddies. I usually got my coffee at a deli owned by an elderly West Bank Christian couple. Their daughter lived in New York, married to a Jewish man, who, they said, was a great husband. They were really nice people, but the coffee sucked.
After a while a few new restaurants opened up, and hipster bars, too. One night I when I walked to Ruby Room, a nearby hipster bar, two cops in a car offered to escort me; they were worried for my safety. That’s back when Oakland had a strong police force.
Jerry Brown was the Mayor then. In his mayoral reincarnation Brown was a gentrifying, tough on crime guy who also went to raves — a kind of Democrat answer to Rudy Giuliani. But Brown’s mayorship ended, a bunch of gangsters completed their terms in prisons and returned to the streets, and, more recently, in an attempt to deal with budget shortfalls, the police force was downsized. The city adopted instant ranked choice voting, and the woman few voters liked was elected the Mayor.
Ever since I moved there, the big idea in Oakland has been civic pride. I always found the idea odd. Repeating ten thousand times that you love your city won’t change the reality. If every time somebody bought an Oakland pride t-shirt the city got a cop, Oakland would be a decent town.
Oakland never felt like home, was never that much fun, and I consider it a huge personal failure that I didn’t move out of that 14th and Broadway studio on my own. I got stuck there because of rent control, and only left to share an abode with my now husband whose apartment was a 15-minute walk away. A half a block from it was a vacant trolley car station where we once shot a video for his band. The Whole Foods that replaced that station recently became world-famous when anarchists vandalized it in the course of the recent #Occupy riots.
And no, not all neighborhoods in Oakland are like that; Oakland has some posh enclaves, particularly in somewhat isolated Oakland Hills. But think who lives there — the very people who coddle racists and communists! Still creepy.
The Bay Area is suspicious of new ideas, and the people who sent Barbara Lee to Congress would never elect a Republican Mayor, like New York elected Giuliani. Nor are they serious about keeping their city safe. Oakland is currently the 5th most violent city in the US, and it’s not looking to improve policing. In fact, the wimpy Mayor believes that providing young people with positive alternatives will prevent murder.
Oaklanders themselves are a bit confused about what it is, other than the old Oakland architecture, that makes their community so great. Sure, some nice eating and drinking establishments opened up in dangerous neighborhoods, and there is a stray art gallery or a boutique here and there. Oaklanders are trying so hard, they are — oh — experimenting with making themselves a tourist destination for “medical” marijuana. But there are no good museums, theaters or anything that can pass for a vibrant city life. And, given the mentality of the residents, it can only go downhill.
Last year, when a white BART cop accidentally shot and killed a black thug, Oakland racists and leftists rioted. It all culminated in a run on Footlocker at 14th and Broadway.* The store never reopened, but for some reason other merchants felt safe. Now that occupiers are taking over the downtown area, some business owners are trying to keep a stiff upper lip re socialism. Some downtown Oakland corporate stores, like Men’s Warehouse and Whole Foods, broadcasted their support for the self-proclaimed champions of the 99%.
The Oakollectiv boutique is more in tune with the local mood than Men’s Warehouse. It managed to evoke both the hometown and socialism in its name, and it demands justice for the above-mentioned thug on its website. The locals love their products, so the store was looted by the occupiers. Oaklanders are mean to each other.
“If we go two more months like this,” Best [a restaurant owner] said, “it’s a wrap.”
Their restaurant is five blocks from the encampment. Businesses closer have suffered more, and not only from a loss of customers. Windows have been broken, street fires have been set, and graffiti has become part of the landscape, block after block.Best and Rasche, West Oakland residents, don’t want to leave.[…]For a downtown that held such promise just a decade ago, it’s been a painful journey.”We own this restaurant because we love Oakland,” Rasche said. “You want to believe in it so bad.”
West Oakland is a ghetto, and the “promise” of downtown Oakland was always a bit tentative. Public mood was way too socialist to sustain any serious economic development. In the 90s, when major US cities revitalized and the crime rate was falling, Oakland followed the lead. Some dotcoms, like Ask, headquartered in Oakland where business taxes were lower than SF’s. In retrospect, it seems like a very temporary reprise in the area that still prided itself for it’s radical heritage. It had now reverted to the form. Mr. Best and Ms. Rasche should be encourage to continue on their spiritual journey until they reach another dead end.
There is a glimmer of home, though. Developer Phil Tagami stopped the mob with a loaded gun:
Tagami [called] the Occupy Oakland encampment “basically concealment and cover for anarchists who are doing this to our city.”
“We’re very concerned that a group of people can be allowed to do this type of destruction to our town and to our image without any repercussions,” Tagami said. “They need to be held accountable.” He rejected assertions that the anarchists were a small minority, saying, “No, you can’t have it both ways.”
Tagami added, “I support a peaceful protest. But it was a siege situation last night, and quite frankly, I’m glad we were here. But I never want to have to do that again.”
In any event, Oakland has a lot of soul-searching to do and seriously consider new ideas if it wants to get out of the pit it’s in.
*Oscar Grant’s best friend was gunned down earlier this year — and what, no riot for him?