Column: Undercurrents: Brown’s Downtown Entertainment District Failure By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday March 10, 2006

Opportunities either mishandled or long left neglected during the Jerry Brown administration are now rapidly catching up with the mayor, threatening to give him a rocky send-off on his way out of Oakland’s door. (If you don’t get the pun, ask somebody.) 

One of these mishandled opportunities is a downtown entertainment district, which Mr. Brown has said was one of his administrative goals. 

When Mr. Brown took office in January of 1999, he was presented with a great chance to solidify an already-existing downtown entertainment center. Starting with Sweet Jimmy’s on 17th and San Pablo, there was a string of popular nightclubs within walking distance to Lake Merritt, running down 14th Street from Geoffrey’s Inner Circle to the old Club Caribé to several Southeast Asian clubs down around the Oak Street area. That is in addition to the city-run Alice Street Center (later renamed the Malonga Casquelord Center), which was regularly holding Friday and Saturday night cultural programs in its theater. San Pablo Avenue/14th Street at the turn of 2000 was nothing like the legendary Seventh Street during the war years, but it was a solid start, a multicultural scene that had started to get the feel of New Orleans to it, certainly in keeping with what Mr. Brown has always said he wanted to prevent the downtown area from being “dead” after dark. Entrepreneurs had done most of this on their own. All they needed was a little city help for it to take off. 

Why that San Pablo Avenue/14th Street downtown entertainment district never fully materialized is a story too long to tell in a single column. Some have suggested race (the San Pablo Avenue/14th Street venues all attracted a darker clientele into the downtown area); some said it was that in his drive to create a “legacy” in Oakland on which he could run for statewide or national office again, Mr. Brown generally promoted things that he could say he initiated on his own, rather than supporting things which Oaklanders had already developed. But it was always clear that for whatever reason, the Brown Administration never warmed up to the concept of an entertainment center along lower San Pablo and 14th Street, and so a partnership between the city and the entertainment business owners in that area never seemed to develop. Instead, we have seen an adversarial relationship, in which the city has repeatedly criticized the owners of those entertainment venues and sought to shut a number of them down, rather than help them solve their problems. In addition, Mr. Brown once sought to break up the successful Casquelord Center and replace it with his Arts School, a maneuver which was opposed by cultural groups across the city, and eventually defeated by City Council in one of its rare oppositions to the mayor’s proposals. 

A snapshot look at how sour the relationship between the Brown administration and the San Pablo/14th Street entertainment business owners was evident in an Oakland Tribune article two Sundays ago, which reported that police had to be called to break up disturbances outside of Geoffrey’s Inner Circle. (For the purpose of full disclosure, Geoffrey Pete is my cousin.) 

“A sideshow was reported around midnight Sunday morning at Club Planet Soule at 14th and Franklin streets,” the Tribune article reported. (Club Planet Soule is a venue inside Geoffrey’s Inner Circle.) “Police said Oakland-based rapper Too Short was performing at the venue, and his act attracted a crowd of at least 550 people. Several hundred others were standing outside the club and surrounding areas when the sideshows started. All of the city’s sideshow units were needed to silence the crowd, stop the reckless driving and lighten up traffic in the area. Shortly after the nightclub closed, sideshow activity resumed in the area.” The article reported that “sideshow activity” later spread to the Jack London Square area, and then out to High Street in East Oakland. 

But according to Mr. Pete, there was no “sideshow activity” outside of his club during the Too Short concert. 

In an open letter released in the week after the Tribune article appeared, Mr. Pete wrote that “the entire Too Short concert … was totally without incident. When capacity was reached at approximately 11:30, there was a line that numbered a maximum of 100 people who were informed that we had reached capacity and were no longer allowing entry. Within 15 minutes of said announcement approximately 70 percent of the individuals waiting in line dispersed while the other 30 percent lingered in hope of being admitted. There were not 200 people loitering outside. … There was no sideshow at anytime during the course of the evening. … If everything is a sideshow, then nothing is a sideshow, thus nullifying the very definition and accuracy of what a sideshow is. Any correlation between Geoffrey’s Inner Circle and sideshows is preposterous.” 

Mr. Pete has always been notoriously fussy about decorum and security at his club, which is a regular stopping ground for entertainers and sports figures when they come to Oakland, the modern replacement for the legendary Slim Jenkins’ club (one popular story—who knows how true it is—is that his security personnel once turned away a white guy who showed up at the club with a posse of enormous black men because the white guy had on sneakers and khaki pants; according to the story, Mr. Pete had to later explain to his security that the next time then-Warriors coach Don Nelson showed up at the door with team members, they should be allowed in regardless of how the coach’s attire violated the club’s dress code; apparently, the security men had not recognized Mr. Nelson).  

One would think, therefore, that both Mr. Pete and the Brown administration would have a common interest in a solution to the problems of holding violence-free downtown entertainment events. 

But maybe the problem is that Mr. Brown doesn’t really want these particular clubs in this particular area, and so has done little to help them out. 

This week, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Matier & Ross political columnists reported on an incident with the mayor outside of @17, a club near Telegraph Avenue not far from Sweet Jimmy’s (both @17 and Jimmy’s, just like Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, attract a predominantly African-American clientele). Mr. Brown had gone to the area of the club, apparently, to see what happened when the club let out for the night, and got there just after a disturbance had occurred. According to the Chronicle columnists, Mr. Brown reportedly remarked to a woman who had been injured in the disturbance “that is what happens when you come to a place like this.” When a friend of the injured woman said she asked the mayor “You really think that an innocent bystander who comes to a club deserves to get hit?” the friend says Mr. Brown replied, “What do you want us to do when you people come to a place like this?” 

It is not clear what Mr. Brown may have meant by “a place like this.” 

A Brown spokesperson denied in the column that this is the way the conversation went, but the column did not offer the mayor’s version of what was said. 

There has been trouble outside of downtown entertainment venues. But because of confused reports coming out of Tribune articles and the police department and the mayor’s office, it’s often hard to tell how much trouble is actually going on, how much of the actual trouble is the fault of the entertainment venues themselves, and how much of it is completely out of their control. 

Sorting all of that out is going to be one of the (many) unfinished tasks left by Mr. Brown for the new mayor to tackle.