Editorial Oakland’s Charms Often Unappreciated By BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday January 27, 2006

Today’s letters column contains an indignant response from an Oakland booster to a recent commentary from a Berkeley man who seems to think that Oakland will be getting a lot of new residents who won’t have much to entertain them. And also, that Berkeley’s much-hyped new Arts District is entertainment central, but there are not enough downtown residents to enjoy the fun. Oakland has every right to be annoyed.  

The letter-writer lists the many new restaurants and other attractions which have been added to downtown Oakland in the last few years, but leaves out many more amenities which have drawn people to the city over the years and still do. For example, there’s Lake Merritt and the park around it. It’s a great place to take the kids: Children’s Fairyland, the nature center and bird sanctuary, lots of open space to run around in and good playgrounds. Most of Berkeley’s parks are either in the hills, just about inaccessible to those without cars, or on the waterfront, windswept and cold for much of the year. Oakland’s warm sunny microclimate is unbeatable. 

Then there’s the entertainment scene. Oakland has a terrific venue in its glamorous restored historic Paramount Theater, home to an enormous variety of programs, most notably the Oakland Symphony, which plays to an enthusiastic full house of diverse residents for every performance, and whose conductor Michael Morgan is tirelessly active in civic endeavors, especially educating kids. 

Oakland has lots of avant-garde music too. The Oakland Opera Theater puts on exciting programs in a converted bar on Broadway near Jack London square, and has featured works by the likes of Phillip Glass which have gotten world attention. And the city is the cradle of many kinds of ethnic music in pop, folkloric and classic genres, such as the Purple Bamboo orchestra for Chinese instruments. 

And how about museums? The unique Oakland Museum manages to combine art, history and nature study into a harmonious whole in an architecturally delightful building. The new African American museum is a splendid addition. And for the museums of the future, Oakland’s industrial districts are home to many artists driven out of other cities by gentrification.  

Or food? In addition to the obligatory (and increasingly formulaic) California cuisine restaurants which Berkeley also boasts, Oakland’s ethnic diversity gives diners the chance to travel around the world at dinnertime. Right next to the Oakland Museum, there’s a Nigerian restaurant, and a couple of blocks away the best dim sun in the Bay Area. Out on International Boulevard there’s block after block of Latin American eateries from many different countries.  

But there’s that D-word again, a warning to Oakland that it might be in danger of destroying the city in the guise of saving it. What Oakland really has going for it, what Oakland has had going for it in the 33 years we’ve been around here, is Diversity with a capital D—all those folks from just about everywhere in the world living together in relative harmony and making the city more interesting. The 10,000 new downtown residents that departing Mayor Jerry Brown, our Berkeley writer and the Oakland booster are all so proud of could end up diluting Oakland’s exciting mix with too many dull whitebread yuppies (and that term “whitebread” can include some dull African-American and Asian-American yuppies too). It’s clear that Brown and his allies don’t really appreciate Oakland’s many existing treasures—they’re trying to change the traditional name of downtown Oakland to Uptown, a place which no one seems to be able to find on the map. They’ve even tried to push the blandly homogeneous Uptown concept into the lively Temescal neighborhood by using the destructive mechanism of redevelopment, though the residents there seem to have headed that off just in time.  

The most pernicious of Urban Legends are those born from the unproven dogma that planners can design a great city. Most of the great cities of the world have grown organically, and when they’ve declined, it’s been because of wrong-headed planning. Even Paris, which was re-planned to somewhat good effect in the mid-19th century by Baron Haussman, is now suffering from the effects of subsequent bad planning in its ring suburbs.  

The millennial belief that global warming will be prevented by mass transit is the Urban Legend that’s causing a lot of grief at the moment. Big buildings are being plopped into areas (where, granted, there really ought be opportunities for living without cars) with no reality check to see if it’s actually possible to get around on buses from the target location. Within blocks of the Planet office on Shattuck we see the notorious “flying cottage,” a small home being expanded to enormous size under the ideological supervision of the City of Berkeley’s Planning Department, and at the same time the bus stop at its doorstep is being removed by a different set of ideologues, the planners at AC Transit, who think that more people would ride if buses went faster and didn’t stop as often.  

Another theory that’s headed for big trouble is the belief, expounded by the Berkeley commentator, that the new downtown apartment dwellers are necessarily going to want a lot of excitement near home. Zoning, which arose in the early 20th century, was a response to the earnest desire of many city dwellers of the time to be insulated from the hustle and bustle of commerce and transport. It turns out that many today want the same things they wanted in the suburbs where they grew up: no noise from either revelers or buses, and plenty of free parking so they can drive to the same shopping malls they patronized before they moved downtown. They won’t be bringing that Ikea furniture home on BART, and they’ve already started objecting to music clubs staying open past midnight. And the building boom in Tracy and Fairfield hasn’t slowed down at all.