The Oakland blogosphere is atwitter this week with discussion of the essay by Susan Gluss on why she moved from Oakland to Greenbrae, which I'd never heard of but is just south of San Rafael. Her words appear on page 2 of the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle's Insight section, opposite another column by Chip Johnson on page 3 detailing the impacts of crime in Oakland. The Insight section features a forboding cover photo with the words "Crime and Exodus | When a Lover of Oakland Can't Take it Anymore."
Whatever you think of her decision, it is hard not to sympathize with Gluss. In what seems like a matter of months (she doesn't quite say), her car was broken into twice, her home once, and her wallet stolen. But it is also hard not to notice how dumb she seems. Her wallet was taken out of her purse right in front of her at a local club. She apparently left her doors unlocked at home to allow a thief in without her knowing until she opened her (empty) jewelry box. Finally, her car was broken into after she left her purse inside in plain sight. A dweller of any urban area will tell you that these are all things you just don't do, whether you live in Cambridge, San Francisco, Oakland, or Kalamazoo. Or even Greenbrae.
But her worst offense is that she then goes on to equate these relatively minor, everyday urban cirmes with the stray bullet from an armed gas station robbery that hit a young boy practicing piano at a music studio across the street on Piedmont Avenue. She implies that it was this incident, as well as persuasion from "an eccentric old friend"(?) that finally prompted her move.
In a discussion on the open thread at A Better Oakland, Navigator begins by blaming the SF Chronicle for its anti-Oakland bias, Max Allstadt thinks the problem is the "it bleeds it leads" media mentality, while V Smoothe sympathizes with those who leave Oakland and sees these essays as admonishing the city to get its act together. I think all three of these views have merit, so I'd like to unpack them a bit. Overall, I think V Smoothe is right. The media focus on crime is on balance good for the city, by highlighting real problems it has. Crime in Oakland is higher than other places; it does us no good to look the other way or keep quiet about it.
But the points Max and Navigator make also have validity. The most interesting analysis of crime coverage in Oakland I've heard was a couple years ago by a spokesperson for Forest City Development discussing their Uptown project. She pointed out that when you hear about crime in Oakland, it happens in Oakland. Whereas when you here about crime in San Francisco, it is typically attributed to a specific neighborhood, usually Bayview-Hunter's Point or maybe the Tenderloin. Max makes a similar point in that the reputation of all of Oakland is bad, while those of us who live here know better - there are both good and bad places, but most fall somewhere inbetween.
I don't think this is so much a conspiracy as a function of distance, from which you always see less detail. It would be nice if the SF Chronicle and other news media reported crime in Oakland by neighborhood, but the reality is that a huge majority of people have no idea where Temescal or Dimond is, which is why at best you see Oakland organized into the three broad neighborhoods (which I hate) of North, East, and West. So Navigator is right to recognize the Bay Area media bias against Oakland, but wrong on its origins and thus, on solutions. The solution to this particular media bias is to practice and insist upon greater specificity, which is a good habit to be in anyways.
Certainly this is an uphill climb. I mentioned the cover of the Insight section, which featured the words "Crime and Exodus." Exodus, as commonly defined, involves a mass movement of people from an area. The whole Insight section references just two people, Susan Gluss and Marcus Alvarez, whom Chip Johnson mentions. Two people does not an exodus make. To argue the existence of an exodus from Oakland due to crime, in addition to the helpful but ultimately inadequate anecdotes, the SF Chronicle should offer statistics. Most major cities in the U.S. are holding or even slightly increasing their population, nearly everyone interested in cities knows this. And in approximately 75 seconds of research, I found out that according to the U.S. Census bureau, Oakland actually gained about 2,000 residents between the last official census in 2000 and its estimate for 2007 - hardly an exodus. This is what true lovers of Oakland are up against.
Which brings me to what I think is the best response I've seen to the Gluss essay. It was a letter to the editor that appeared in the SF Chronicle on Tuesday (you'll need to scroll down to the bottom to see it) written by Lori Fogarty, the director of the Oakland Museum of California. Fogarty points out that Gluss didn't seem to love Oakland enough to get involved and improve it, which "is required of citizens in any urban city." And that is the message we should take away from the media's frustratingly vague reporting of crime in Oakland. Big, diverse, vibrant cities like Oakland offer many things other places cannot, but they require something of their residents in return. As Fogarty encapsulates in the last line of her letter, Oakland is "a long way from Greenbrae, in more ways than the commute."