“We’re more than just movie stars and surfers!”
(from a Chevron ad promoting CA…or was it a CA ad promoting Chevron?)
If you live, as I do, in Oakland, CA, you probably took one look at the title of this post and thought WTF? OAKland for tourists? According to the New York Times it is. The newspaper of record recently named Oaktown #5 (out of 45) of the Best Places to Visit in 2013. They adore the restaurants, and they’re willing to ignore crime statistics in order to enjoy a fine meal.
Oakland toted up 131 murders in 2012, the most since 2006 when 148 people were taken out by their fellow citizens. For a California comparison, in the same year 46 people in San Jose met the Grim Reaper through acts of violence, and in San Francisco the number was a mere 68.
Most geographical areas around the globe go generally unnoticed—towns and cities with no outstanding distinctions. Some gain reputations for one or more defining characteristics. Oakland is unusual in that its rep varies depending on who you’re talking to. When I first moved here from high-rent SF 20 something years ago, my sister convinced my mother that I was surely ducking bullets night and day. After my mother came and saw for herself – and canceled her SF hotel reservation when she didn’t see any bullets – she told my sister I lived in “a nice neighborhood.” My sister’s response was “There’s no such thing in Oakland.” At the other extreme, my politically active NY friends think it’s “cool” to live in Oaktown. Me? Let’s just say I’d move back to SF in a New York minute if I could afford it. In fact, had I the time, energy and head space I’d reverse the equation and move back to New York in a San Francisco minute. And it’s not bullets I’d be fleeing; it’s piles of garbage and dog shit on cracked sidewalks. It’s the drunks, crazies, and fights on the bus. It’s the loud musical sounds blasting from idling cars outside my building. I cannot imagine anyone purposely taking a trip here to see…what? A replica of Jack London’s cabin on JL Square? Fairyland, overstepping piles of goose turds along the way?
The article didn’t actually name Jack London or Fairyland, it heaped praise upon Oakland’s restaurants and cocktail bars. Where? I wondered, running through my mental data base of one Chinese, one Mexican, and a dozen sushi places. To be fair, I don’t eat out often enough to make an appraisal—so I’ll take the newspaper’s word that Hawker Fare, “a casual spot serving Asian street food” and Plum, with its adjacent cocktail bar, serve food delicious enough to travel for.
To my mind, however, delicious food does not a great vacation make. There’s little to see in these parts, and violence lurks, barely beneath the surface. Oakland’s a poor and broken city. Not that I adore the state of California itself–I’ll always be a New Yorker at heart. But my personal bias isn’t what made the place dysfunctional; it’s the other way around. Even during my first 8 or 10 years here, when I was having a blast with new people, new work, new ideas and ways of being, I could still see the dysfunction. It’s in the state initiative process, as many political analysts have pointed out. It’s in Proposition 13, which deprives California of much-needed funds. It’s in corrupt governmental agencies, and less-than-rigorous honesty on both an individual and collective level. It’s in a failing school system and a crumbling infrastructure. Precarious bridges. Feuding neighbors. Honking horns, sideswipes and even shootings on the freeway. Unsafe walking conditions, with drivers running red lights and hitting pedestrians. In 2009 California led the nation with over 550 death-by-drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. That same year, four states–California, Florida, Texas and New York–together accounted for 41% of U.S. pedestrian fatalities.
Some of my information comes from random, unsaved newspaper stories. Some of it comes from bartenders and cab drivers. Speaking of which—it’s bad enough that AC Transit (the bus system) is barely functional, but you can’t even count on cabs in this burg. I’ve been stranded on street corners with my grocery bags because the cab I called found a more lucrative fare on the way to pick me up. I’ve had drivers get hopelessly lost and expect me to pay for the extra mileage. I come from New York, where if I want a cab I step off the curb and raise my arm. Here the drivers aren’t ambitious enough to ride around looking for fares; I have to take a bus to a BART station, where the cabs line up and wait. The reason for this? From what the drivers tell me, it’s a crooked system under which the many company names—Friendly Cab, Veterans, Yellow Taxi—are actually all part of the same conglomerate run by the city and manipulated to line certain pockets. I’m not accusing anyone of anything here; I’m just repeating information given me by several different drivers.
A young woman I know visited NYC for the first time when she was 15. When she came back I asked her what she liked best. “The pizza?” She shook her head. “The museums?” No again. Suddenly her face lit up, and she said with obvious admiration, “The public transportation system!” In a similar vein, last year in Costa Rica I took cabs everywhere for a mere pittance and no tips allowed. Taxicabs were everywhere–outside grocery stores, cruising past bus stops–they even outnumbered personal vehicles.
Imagine a family from New York trying to wave down a cab to take them to one of Oakland’s much-touted restaurants. But then again, tourists are insulated almost everywhere—here in Oakland they’ll stay at the Marriott downtown, or at a bay front hotel on Jack London Square, and the front desk will call for their cabs as needed. After all, a lot of tourists visiting New York see nothing beyond the Disney store on 42nd Street.
One thing you can’t miss in Oakland, though, is its diversity, which attracted me from the get-go. I remember the first time I ate at Scott’s on JL Square, and was pleasantly surprised to see a variety of people of different ethnicities. In most cities it’s not that common to see people other than white ones at middle-class venues, and I really liked Oakland’s mixed atmosphere. (For breakdowns of ethnicity among Oakland’s population, see Wikipedia.) After two decades of living here though, the most tangible result I can identify from this diversity is isolation: my neighbors–primarily Hispanic, Afro-American, and Filipino–don’t understand me and I don’t understand them. In terms of daily reality, they are completely uninterested in me: they don’t say hello in the morning, and sometimes look away if I do.
Meanwhile I’ve detected a slight thaw lately in black-white relations. It helps that we speak the same language. Warning: Here comes a RANT! Unlike most liberals, I am a staunch believer in learning the predominant language of the country in which one chooses to live. I cannot stress how strongly I feel about this. It’s discourteous and dismissive not to learn the language of the land you live in; I wouldn’t go live in
France without speaking French. My own grandparents, who came here from Poland via Ellis Island as teenagers, never learned to read English. They spoke it, but for their entire lives the only newspaper they read was the Daily Forward in Yiddish. I remember being appalled even as a child: they were the only people I knew who couldn’t read English. I thought they were stupid because of it. I no longer think they were stupid—but I do think they were wrong. Very wrong.
So, in closing this post, I just hope the Oakland City Council doesn’t sue me for unsubstantiated allegations. And, as much as I like receiving comments on my blog, I hope hate mail doesn’t come pouring in. I hope my activist friends don’t tie me to a chair and lecture me for my political rehabilitation. And I hope I don’t have to flee Oakland, where I can at least afford the rent, and where I feel a kinship with some of my financially challenged neighbors. Now that I’ve ranted and got some stuff out of my system, I realize I kind of like it here after all; there’s a free-floating artistic vibe here, evident, for instance, in the colorful street murals. So I hope I haven’t scared off any tourists—we need their bucks. Come on down, people! The weather’s fine!