Column: Undercurrents: The Problem Behind Oakland’s Liquor Store Problem J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday December 02, 2005

In one of the recent articles on the recent West Oakland liquor store attacks, the San Francisco Chronicle quotes Mayor Jerry Brown as condemning the incidents—including the trashing of the two stores—and adding, “If there are issues, and there are issues in Oakland with liquor stores, people can come together to discuss them.” 

Discuss them with whom, one wonders, and to what end? Let’s walk down that sidewalk a ways, and see where it takes us. 

A number of Oakland activists have been trying to reduce the number of liquor stores in the city for years. And recently, there appears to be a consensus among most residents and city and police officials that there are too many liquor-only or liquor-mostly outlets in the city, particularly in the West Oakland and East Oakland areas, and that these liquor-only and liquor-mostly outlets are often magnets for community problems. 

In May 2004, Oakland City Attorney John Russo in fact flatly declared that “Oakland just has too many liquor stores.” Mr. Russo also released, at the same time, a report that listed 11 problem liquor stores that the city attorney deemed “ugly,” that is, with multiple serious violations reported by the Oakland Police Department’s Alcohol Beverage Action Team or the state ABC office. The majority of those “ugly” liquor stores (to use Mr. Russo’s phrase) were in West Oakland and in East Oakland beyond the Fruitvale District. 

The problem, as I see it, is not with the selling of liquor itself. But liquor—being a substance that is often abused—tends to attract people who are prone to substance abuse. This, in turn, attracts people who make money off of providing other abusing substances, such as drugs, prostitutes, etc. etc., ad infinitum. Without close attention, particularly in low income areas, liquor stores can become a magnet for litter and crime of all sorts and a drag on the entire community. A conscientious liquor store owner—or the owner of a neighborhood store that sells food items as well as beer and/or liquor—can keep the area around their stores clean and clear, and many of them do. But the more liquor and the less milk a business sells, the more the owner has to pay attention to the potential problems. And too many of these owners in low-income black or brown areas neither pay attention, or care. 

So if there is a consensus among residents and city and police officials that there exists some sort of problem surrounding some of these liquor outlets in the low-income areas of Oakland—including the fact that there are far too many of them concentrated into too few areas—why hasn’t much been done about it? 

Several years ago, but long past the days of legal segregation, I lived in a small, Southern town where the sidewalks ended right where the white neighborhood stopped and the black neighborhood began. I went to the mayor’s office one morning to talk about the inequity of this situation—we being as much taxpayers on the black side as they were on the white—and the mayor told me with a sad smile that he realized how bad this might look, but the situation was the result of decisions made in the old segregation days and as much as he would like to correct it, the city had no money at present for sidewalk building and so—unfortunately, in the mayor’s mind—the situation of inequity must remain, at least for the present. 

Oakland, which has a lot of small, Southern town in it, still, exists in much the same situation. 

At one point, many years ago, West Oakland was the center of the black middle class in the East Bay, and East Oakland beyond the Fruitvale was a community made up mostly of white families living in neighborhoods of single-family homes with wide front lawns and big backyards. Black families who moved out to East Oakland in the ‘40s—including my newlywed parents—did not do so because they were looking for a place to set up a “ghetto.” They wanted a nice, safe neighborhood in which to raise their children. But as black families moved into the far ends of East Oakland, most white families fled, first to the hills and then—when the hills opened up to black residents—over the hills into Castro Valley, Pleasanton, and much of what today is the heart of Contra Costa County. 

As East Oakland rapidly rolled over white to black through the ‘50s, official city neglect of the area rose in direct proportion. At the same time, Oakland City Hall “urban renewal” decisions devastated the heart of West Oakland, driving out many of the black middle class and working class families that had been its anchor. One of the results of these twin paths of official “benign neglect” and active community destabilization the west and the east was the allowance of liquor stores to flood the two neighborhoods, fueled by business owners who saw a way to make a quick buck among the poor blacks, and encouraged by city officials who either didn’t care what happened in black neighborhoods, or were getting kickbacks. (One always has to remember that in living memory, at least as far as I know, there has never been a case of neighborhood people getting together in Oakland, coming down to a City Council meeting, and demanding another liquor store in their community.) And too many of the liquor stores that settled in west and east Oakland were of the we-don’t-give-a-damn-about-what-goes-on-just-outside-our-doors variety. 

Thanks to the actions of a coalition of community activists and receptive public officials, there is a moratorium on new liquor licenses in Alameda County. But that still leaves a proliferation of such businesses throughout East and West Oakland, too many of them continuing magnets for community problems. 

In April 2004, the Neighborhood Law Corps of the Oakland city attorney’s office issued a “Report And Recommendations Regarding A Report Card On Oakland’s Liquor Stores: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly” to the Oakland City Council. This was the report in which the 11 “ugly” liquor stores were listed. 

That report said, in part, “During the past two years, Neighborhood Law Corps Attorneys have attended over 200 community meetings. The single most consistent priority from neighborhood to neighborhood was problem liquor stores. Community complaints about these stores range from excess litter and loitering to accusations of alcohol sales to minors, drug dealing, prostitution, and shootings. We found that while many neighborhoods were focused on trying to abate local problem liquor stores, there has not been a comprehensive analysis of the impact liquor stores have city-wide.” 

Perhaps Mayor Brown missed the report—it’s still available on the city attorney’s website, if he’s interested—or missed the 200 community meetings that preceded it. But it seems that in reference to Mr. Brown’s comment “If there are issues, and there are issues in Oakland with liquor stores, people can come together to discuss them,” Oakland residents have already come together and discussed the problems related to the liquor stores, many times over. 

For seven years, the Jerry Brown administration has been fascinated with creating new downtown neighborhoods for people who don’t like Oakland and have to be enticed to move here, while often that same administration ignores many of the needs of the existing neighborhoods and the Oakland residents who already live there. In the past few days, there has been widespread condemnation of the vandalism at the two West Oakland liquor stores. I am not suggesting that Mr. Brown’s benign neglect of the city’s liquor store problem made that vandalism necessary. I am only wondering what might have happened if Mr. Brown had used the enormous influence and resources of the mayor’s office towards solving the liquor store problem as he did towards, say, his two charter schools. 

Instead, that’s going to have to be left to the next mayor, whoever that turns out to be.