Looking for Love From Oakland’s Next Mayor J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday April 15, 2005

A friend from out of town asked the other day if Oakland had a convention center. 

She was in San Francisco for an education gathering, which had gotten somewhat disrupted because of the ongoing hotel strike. She said some of the conference organizers had initially considered moving to Oakland, but the idea got quickly voted down because of what she said was Oakland’s reputation as a “bad” city, and so they moved it to the Moscone Center instead. After we ate dinner, I dropped her off at the nearby Holiday Inn on Third Street where she was staying, and then drove several blocks through South of Market to the freeway, a grim and grimy stretch of the homeless and the hookers and the hooked, quarter-a-minute “adult” sex show shops, papers blowing through stale puddles of beer and vomit and urine and the other assorted human offal, a dreary neighborhood, indeed. Even in its unlit, abandoned corners, Oakland has nothing bad enough to compare. But Oakland has its bad reputation. San Francisco has its great PR. 

I don’t make political endorsements, mostly out of fear that it would only drive voters into the camp of the opposition. But with the first round of a critical Oakland mayoral election less than a year away, it’s important to lay out some guidelines as to what we should look for in a new mayor. 

Considering my friend’s query, and after two terms of Jerry Brown, I want a mayor who loves Oakland, and who is committed to helping Oaklanders get back to loving ourselves. Oakland’s intense sense of inferiority and a nagging, below-the-surface climate of targeted self-hatred is at the root of many of Oakland’s problems and until we face that situation openly, in an adult fashion, we’ll continue to make up the back row in the Bay Area’s parade of cities. 

In its “About Oakland” webpage at www.oaklandcvb.com/media_about_oakland.cfm, the Oakland Convention & Visitors Bureau describes Oakland as “one of the nation’s most ethnically integrated cities, Oaklanders speak more than 100 languages and dialects. Our city’s many faces give us our strength, our civic pride, and our inspired sense of community.” Leaving aside the hype in the second sentence, the assertions in the first are almost certainly true. 

It would stand to reason that if Oakland is, indeed, one of the more diverse cities in the country, emphasizing events and developments that are attractive specifically to Oaklanders would automatically attract visitors from the outside as well, since Oaklanders are representative of just about every ethnic and cultural community within reach. 

And, in fact, we’ve seen that at work with our ethnic festivals. Chinatown’s August StreetFest and the Fruitvale’s Cinco de Mayo and Dia De Los Muertos annually attract tens of thousands of visitors to the city’s two major ethnic commercial centers. We also see it in the continued success of the primarily African and African Diasporan dance classes at Malonga Casquelord Center-formerly the Alice Arts Center-which have survived and prospered over the years despite recent, failed, attempts to dislodge them by the administration of Mayor Brown. (For Californians considering Jerry Brown as our chief law enforcement officer, it may be useful to recall that in order to get the tenant-artists out of Alice Arts, he once accused them of stalking the students at the Oakland Arts School, a charge that withered and died because of…ummm…complete lack of evidence.) 

In any event, our cultural festival experience shows us that where Oakland celebrates Oakland—in all of its corners—without self-consciousness or shame, Oakland succeeds. Most interesting is that while the core constituency of these events are centered in their respective ethnicities-Chinese, Mexican, and African-their appeal crosses racial and ethnic boundaries. 

But just as instructive to our discussion is Oakland’s sorry history with two other annual celebrations—Carijama and the Festival at the Lake. 

Carijama—at North Oakland’s Mosswood Park—was a dance-and-music celebration of the city’s West Indian and African connection, while the Festival of the Lake—on the shores of Lake Merritt—was Oakland’s crown jewel of street festivals, bringing together all of Oakland’s diverse communities and constituencies under one big tent. At their height, both of these annual events were bursting at the seams, so popular it was often hard to find a spare spot to sit on the grass. 

The operative words here are was and were. Both Carijama and the Festival At The Lake fell by almost identical causes—violent disruptions by African-American youth outside of the boundaries of the festivals, and after the respective festivals were shutting down for the evening. There are disagreements to this day as to the exact train of events of these disruptions—and the role of the Oakland Police in either stopping them or escalating them—but that’s a discussion for another day. 

In any event, Oakland’s official response to the problems at Carijama and the Lake Festival were identical—limit their attraction to these “disruptive” African-American youth by limiting their attraction to everybody. The Lake Festival was moved from sunny June to who-knows-what-the-weather-will-be October, also coinciding with Yom Kippur, ensuring that much of our Jewish bretheren would not be in the mix, and further and predictably sending it to a quick end. Carijama was moved from its neighborhood home at expansive, grassy, family-friendly Mosswood Park to the more austere, concrete-surrounded enclosure of downtown’s Frank Ogawa Plaza, a move that both fatally sterilized the festival’s atmosphere and failed to keep out the “disruptive” black kids, thus doubly ensuring its demise. 

I put the word “disruptive” in quotes in describing the African-American youth in the paragraph above because it has never been determined whether those kids came out deliberately to disrupt something they did not like—having participated in such activities myself in my time, I know that this can happen—or whether the disruptions may have flowed from other causes, such as those youth feeling left out of events taking place in their own communities. 

This is more than a mere academic argument. Upon its resolution rests the future of Oakland’s economy and, more importantly, its soul. 

This city spends millions in an effort to get outsiders to like us so they will bring their money here—the Forest City subsidies are only the most recent example—while either overlooking or outright rejecting efforts that might keep Oakland dollars from flowing outside the city limits. A walk through the Jack London Square area on a weekend night shows it teeming with African-American youth ready to spend their entertainment dollars, but with no entertainment venue specifically oriented to their particular tastes (note to planners: think hip hop). In fact, if you judged Oakland’s official attitude on the matter by the actions of the police who stroll or ride around watching these black crowds with wary eyes, you’d think Oakland believed it better if these black kids would just go away. They won’t because, for the most part, they live here. 

Jack London on the weekend seems symbolic of an Oakland that shouts about its celebrated diversity, but gets oddly quiet and hang-doggely when attention shines upon the darker branches of the family. 

The comedian, Chris Rock, once said that if you say you love somebody you’ve got to love everything about them, not just the center of the slice of bread, but the crust part, too. That starts with Oakland’s black youth, but it spreads to other parts of the city as well. 

And so, in Oakland’s next mayor, I’m looking first for someone who loves Oakland—all of us—and sets polices in place to include all Oaklanders in its building and its benefits. How can we get others to love us, if we continue to feel so ill at ease with ourselves?