20081210

Oakland Exodus

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."

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

yes, if everyone weren't overworked or a wage slave, we'd all have more time to contribute to community, activism at city hall and beyond. better times are coming, tho. layoffs = opportunity

V Smoothe said...

I think the criticisms of Gluss for not getting involved are slightly unfair. Obviously, it's laudable to try to be a force for positive change wherever you live, and yes, concerned residents should organize and try to make a difference. But you can't expect everyone to be a leader or a civic superstar, and it seems reasonable to me for someone to just want a neighborhood where they can just make a home and go about their daily life in relative safety. Being an activist is admirable, but it shouldn't be a prerequisite for residency in a city of 400,000+ people.

Navigator said...

Forbes Magazine has just announced in their December Edition, that Oakland made the top ten list of "comeback cities" in the Country. This means that Oakland is among a few major cities which have gained population. An exodus in Oakland, is a figment of Chip Johnson's imagination and wishful thinking on the part of San Francisco interests.

Coolhand Luke said...

I have to disagree with V on this point. Yes, ideally you could be able to just live in a decent area and have things be hunky dory, but this is often not realistic. One doesn't have to be an activist superstar to help her neighborhood and city progress, simply an involved citizen. I think citizenship is something that we don't adequately understand in this country. We have certain rights, but we also have certain responsibilities. Little positive happens by default in Oakland, and yes that sucks, but that's also real.

V is right that one shouldn't HAVE to do this, and you can find places where this is the case, but in Oakland you get out what you put in. If Gluss wants to give up and take pot shots without working towards progress, then that is her prerogative. But I think it is all of our responsibility to make Oakland better.

It is easy to sit back and be upset about the plight of Oakland, as many Oaklanders are, but if we don't seek to better the situation, then we have to right to complain. None of us should be entitled to being above helping push Oakland forward, whether that is on a neighborhood or city wide scale.

Raymond Johnson said...

Nav: I put little stock into most magazines rankings of place. Typically, their research could not be thinner.

Over at ABO, you wrote that Chip Johnson should, "...stop generalizing about Oakland and stop rehashing old crimes along with creating the false impression of some sort of exodus..."

It isn't clear to me that is what he is doing, but maybe you can make it clear. Can you provide examples?

One of the things I like about Chip's writing is that he tends to not generalize; he typically develops a fairly concrete narrative based on anecdotal evidence. Crimes from just a couple years back are fair game in my mind. It isn't like they happened 7 years ago under some other administration. And I'm not sure Chip himself gives the impression of an exodus. He likely had nothing to do with that cover.

Chip Johnson gives voice to what a lot of Oakland residents think and feel. And his column Friday was over the top; he exposed an almost Nixonian paranoia in Dellums, one that is crippling Oakland government. I want that written. I don't want it swept under the rug with some demand of 60/40 false equivalence.

I actually agree with you that he may be a bit too negative, but you weaken your argument with these conspiracy theories and elitism screeds.

Navigator said...

Raymond, you have to look at the Oakland/San Francisco situation from a historical perspective. My point is "fairness" in the media.

When Gertrude Stein returned from France and realized her childhood Oakland home had been demolished and was no longer there, San Francisco interests took her phrase of there being "no there, there" referring to her childhood Oakland home being gone, out of context, in order to impugn the city of Oakland as not offering anything of interest to possible visitors. Herb Caenn would always try to marginalize and make jokes about Oakland. I recall him writing, "Oakland can't even hold up it's side of the Bay Bridge." referring to the flat toll plaza area on the Oakland side. I also remember when Lionel Wilson was competing over the current Federal Building on Clay Street with San Francisco. Diana Feinstein, who was Mayor at the time, maintained that San Francisco should get the Federal Building because "federal employees would be demoralized if they had to work in downtown Oakland."

The idea has always been to marginalize Oakland as an unacceptable alternative to San Francisco. There is no question that the media, which is mostly headquartered in San Francisco, interprets and delivers the news from a San Francisco centric viewpoint.

The crime coverage of the two cities being case in point. Homicide and crime coverage in San Francisco has it's own characteristics. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle, and by extension it's partners, KCBS radio, and KPIX television, rarely include the updated corresponding homicide number for the year for San Francisco homicides. The homicide is not put into context as +/- from previous year. The homicide is identified as occurring in a neighborhood such as "Tenderloin, Hunter's Point, Mission, Western Addition, Excelsior," etc., and NOT San Francisco. The updated San Francisco homicide number is rarely ever used in a headline. CW Nevius, who is Chip Johnson's counterpart as the "on San Francisco" columnist, never includes homicide in San Francisco in his columns as an "issue." CW Nevius writes about the homeless, the vagrants, etc. This is an almost "folksy" issue for people who are visitors to San Francisco. This folksy crime coverage does not carry the stigma and fear of murder and mayhem which is what the Chronicle perpetuates regarding Oakland.

On the other hand, the crime and homicide coverage for Oakland is a fear generating feeding frenzy by the media. The Chronicle does feature stories on Oakland such as "Oakland: A Plague of Killing," and "Oakland War Zone." The Chronicle includes Oakland's current homicide number in its articles. Many times the headlines will feature a murder count with "Oakland's 40th, 52nd, 65th, etc. homicide." The homicides are not identified by neighborhoods such as "Melrose, Eastmont, Elmhurst, Prescott, etc." as is the case for San Francisco. The homicides are identified as being committed in "Oakland" or at the very least "East Oakland."

The Chronicle uses a running scorecard for Oakland homicides. The Chronicle will also emphasize when Oakland is ahead of the previous years count, but, will not put the number in context when Oakland is doing better than the previous year. In other words, homicide is made an "issue" for Oakland but not for San Francisco.

If that, along with the "no there, there" quote, won't keep residents, businesses, and tourists on their side of the Bay, nothing will.

Let's get back to Chip Johnson for a minute. Chip Johnson likes to play up the negatives in Oakland. Chip Johnson played up the takeover restaurant robberies to no end. The Chronicle and the SF media did an incredible amount of damage to the Oakland restaurant business by using selective reporting. There were takeover robberies in Hayward, Emeryville, Daly City, San Francisco, San Jose, Castro Valley etc. There was even a takeover robbery of a Pizza Parlor in Martinez, AFTER the apprehension of the three suspects in Oakland, that the Chronicle showed absolutely no interest in. The media frenzy was to the point that whenever someone robbed a restaurant, whether or not it was opened, or whether or not there was a customer inside, it was deemed an "Oakland takeover robbery ." Some guy robbed a Pizza Parlor on High Street in East Oakland after it had closed, with no customers inside, and this was deemed a "takeover" robbery. It happens that the location has had a robbery problem for many years.

Chip Johnson will always bring up any study which reflects poorly on Oakland. Chip puts great faith in the fact that Oakland is ranked number four or number five in certain crime rankings but CW Nevius doesn't care that San Francisco is ranked number one in a different study. Chip will insinuate that people are leaving Oakland, and "rightly so." Chip likes to plant the seeds of fear and of relocation in regards to Oakland in the minds of his readers. There is nothing positive about Oakland in Chip's world. The fact that he uses his Oakland residency as a tool to add legitimacy in his denigration of Oakland is appalling. Here is a man who came out against the movie studio, theme park, and a hotel once proposed at the foot of the Bay Bridge, not because he didn't think it would work on it's merits, but because it would constitute a threat to the San Francisco tourist industry. This man is no friend of Oakland. This man is a shill for San Francisco interests.

Coolhand Luke said...

Damn Nav u went in! I have to say I agree with you. The legacy is important, as is understanding that Chip's residency doesn't single-handedly validate his claims. My folks had dinner with him last night and took him to task a bit. He insists he does in fact love Oakland, but fatalism is typically not something I typically equate with love.