I awoke this morning feeling hung over from another evening of verbal mayhem. The venue: another meeting of the public with officials of Children’s Hospital Oakland. I dread these events because they are stressful and worse, seemingly completely unproductive: residents of the neighborhood voices sharp, hands gesticulating, hospital officials trying to look concerned and sincere, nodding and taking notes.
The back story, for those who have somehow missed it, is that in September of last year the hospital announced it had decided to stay in Oakland. Politicians cheered. It made the newspapers and TV. Soon we in the neighborhood adjacent to the hospital received a letter inviting us to a public meeting to join the hospital in planning its future in Oakland.
Local residents arrived at the meeting place to find a table and an easel. Seated in front of us were the current president and vice president (Frank Tiedemann and Mary Dean). On the easel was a blow up of a Google map of our neighborhood with a big red polygon straddling the block between 52nd Street, the address of the current hospital, and 53rd Street, and completely covering the cross street (Dover). Also covered: our house. Wow.
The vice president got up and said that we would have a frank discussion. The hospital would be “completely honest.” As those words faded into the room we all looked around at each other. We knew—statements like that sound an alarm bell. Reality: the opposite of what you hear. And so it proceeded.
The hospital needed to make earthquake safety deadlines and had made a decision, after long and painstaking deliberation, that they needed to build a new building whose footprint was visible on the Google map before us. It would be a 12-story building (about 200 feet high, as it turned out). To finance this, an initiative had been placed on the ballot to raise $300 million, almost half the total needed. We sat in shock. Curiously, a meeting for public input seemed something else altogether.
Months later, we’ve organized and fought. The ballot measure failed, not by a bit, but resoundingly, nearly two to one against, when it needed the opposite figures to win. Maybe I’m a bit jaded, but afterwards I felt not elation but mild depression. I knew, correctly it turned out, that they would just come back and proceed as if nothing much had changed. They did. And that’s how we got to last night’s festivities, the first meeting since the election.
This hospital is well known for its outstanding work, including taking care of a large number of uninsured kids from low income families. It’s a feel-good place. So why are we fighting so hard to thwart their plans? Why did we all move here? We knew there was a hospital at the edge of our neighborhood. What in the world did we expect? If we don’t want a big building next door, we should move, right? Why are we standing in the way of an institution dedicated to helping often extremely sick children?
I think this is something those who don’t live here have a hard time understanding. The reason is that we are in a sense cornered; for us it’s a life and death struggle.
There are several different types of people living here. There are those who’ve been here for a very long time. Some moved here in the very early 1950s, some even earlier. Some grew up here, having lived in their houses their entire lives. Extended families live close by, a cousin a block away, a sister next door. This neighborhood represents their entire lives. To move is to lose that and a lot more. Then there are those who represent the gentrification that’s been happening all over the Bay Area. Both house prices and rents have been doubling every few years for decades now. For those who make lots of money, this is no big deal. But for the rest of us life is lived with an underlying tension. You can never be sure you’ve gotten ahead because you can’t depend on any predictable future. If you don’t make enough to buy a house, you rent, and you will never be secure. Yes, incomes go up, but so do rents and you’re never sure which will come first. Industries fade, you lose a job, sometimes you can’t get reestablished at the same level—you know this could happen to you any time, now or in the future. You very well may survive by living with ever more roommates or family members in ever shrinking surroundings. Nothing is guaranteed. But if you could buy…
If you suddenly find that you can just afford to buy a house, you will quickly discover that your experience is very different from that of people with just slightly more resources. That house is going to consume a scary amount of your income. If you have kids, you will find yourself with another dilemma. Most affordable neighborhoods in this town are pretty rough. Most of the rest are too expensive. Very few areas provide a middle ground. Never mind the schools, or the hospital up the street. And it will take tenacious work to get a house that isn’t falling down or so tiny your arms can span a bedroom. When you shop it quickly hits you—you will be lucky to find anything. You’ll find lots of others competing to get it. If you succeed, an enormous chunk of your personal financial stake in life will be in that house. It is a very exhausting, stressful experience. So, when that hospital down the street invites you to a meeting to get your input on the tower they then tell you they are building next to your house (or on it, in our case), it quickly strikes you that your very life is in danger. The minute the news gets out, you won’t be selling your house for enough to come out whole. If you move, it will be to less of a house, less of a neighborhood, or probably both. And it’s not just the sale and moving that will cost you. Because of the ever ascending home prices, you will likely find yourself paying property taxes double or even more what you were before. Here, that could mean ten thousand extra a year. If you’ve been here for decades, you may live on limited income; you may not make enough to cover you’re your new tax amount. It’s true certain people are exempt, but many others will not be.
If you don’t move, you will find your really great neighborhood dying. Many who can get out will move, and those who move in will not be happy families with laughing kids. Some houses won’t sell and will sit empty. The area will be in the shadow of a huge towering building that casts an unending shadow day in and day out. Its windows will be lit all night. Helicopters will land and take off at all hours above you. Ambulances will rush up with sirens blazing. When you look up you will see a wall of windows looking down into your home.
When we sit in the meetings, we look at the hospital officials and we know they are thinking “These selfish people, if they just accept things we could avoid all this turmoil and get on with our project. They could just move if they don’t like being near a tall building.” Hopefully you can understand why we don’t see it that way.
Bob Schenker is a North Oakland resident.