So, one my all time favorite posts on any Oakland blog ever is the seventh post on Living in the O, where Becks shares an exercise from a writing class she took. She had to write two paragraphs describing a place (she choose the corner of Broadway and 14th), one from a positive angle, and one from a negative perspective.
First, the good:
The corner’s bustling, as a man in a new suit helps a young mother with a stroller get off the bus. Two young men trade jokes and laugh out loud, stepping aside to allow me to pass by and sharing their smiles with me. Though a cool wind blows through the air, beams of sunshine warm me. The grand buildings of the late 19th and early 20th century watch over the city calmly.
Then, the bad:
The sidewalks and gutters are full of cigarette butts, empty soda bottles, pages ripped from newspapers, and fries spilled out from a McDonald’s bag. Though I try not to breathe through my nose, the smells of urine and exhaust fumes are inescapable. An old man in tattered clothes yells complaints to no one in particular. The tall buildings cast a dark shadow over what would otherwise be a sunny morning.
I’m not particularly sympathetic to complaints about shade, but aside from that, Becks’s post almost perfectly captured my dueling feelings about downtown. Some days, I walk down the street and all I can think of is what a wonderful place I live in, and how much better it’s gotten since I’ve been living here, and how much even better it’s going to be soon. Other days, all I can see are abandoned storefronts, litter, and graffiti. Lately, I’ve been cutting short or skipping entirely my morning downtown walks because I just can’t stand the overpowering and nausea-inducing smells of trash and urine on every corner. I don’t know if it’s getting worse lately, or it just feels like it, but these days, I’m having a harder and harder time seeing the positive side of downtown. I was hoping that would change this weekend, and that getting to watch my beloved Holiday Parade would remind me of what a great place the DTO is after all. But it ended up being just the opposite.
So, something I like to do on weekends is to go out in the morning and kind of just clean up along my street. It’s not a big thing, I just try to pick up some of the litter on the sidewalk for a little while and generally try to make it look nicer. I figured I’d be getting a break on Saturday, cause with the Holiday Parade happening that day, the City would have cleaned up downtown on Friday night. Imagine how surprised I was when I left to get my coffee on Saturday morning and stepped outside to find the street just as, or maybe more, filthy and litter-strewn than usual. I bent down to pick up some discarded bottles and newspapers, then thought “Forget it!” If the City doesn’t care, why should I?” and then dropped them back on the ground and left them there. I know that was wrong, but I was just so frustrated! I’m happy to do my part 50 weekends a year, but when you know you have a major event attracting a huge regional audience downtown, and you can’t even be bothered to make it look moderately presentable, why the hell should anyone else waste their time? Clearly, the City simply doesn’t care how we present ourselves to the world.
After the parade, we walked around downtown a little, and my friends kept complaining about all the trash all over the place and how rude all the parade viewers were. One suggested people threw their trash on the street because there aren’t enough trash cans. I thought it was because they didn’t see any reason not to. I mean, they say you should try to leave a place nicer than you found it. And cleaning up after yourself is one of the hallmarks of a respectful guest. But if you walk up to somewhere and it’s just one giant rubbish bin, why would you bother to show respect and clean after yourself when clearly throwing crap on the ground is just totally acceptable.
Sure, downtown’s wild west atmosphere has some advantages. It’s nice if you want to ride your bicycle down the sidewalk like a psychopath (and don’t mind when you nearly run me over in the process). Or if you want to smoke a joint on the street, or need to get a DVD of whatever the hot new movie that just came out is, cause you really hate going to the theater. But the downside of getting to do all that is that shoppers and retail workers constantly get harassed by aggressive panhandlers, the sidewalks are, at certain spots, literally stained with urine, there is trash everywhere, and nobody thinks twice about taking a can of spray paint to whatever wall they happen to be standing next to, or smashing in storefront windows or my apartment building’s door just for fun.
And THIS is why, despite like, every conceivable on-paper advantage, we’re having trouble attracting businesses to Oakland, why we have a brand new Class A office building sitting empty a year after it opened, why SKS isn’t building their project, and why Levi’s is never ever going to come here. You can rattle off statistics about the relative safety of Oakland and the higher crime rate in SF until the cows come home, and nobody is ever going to care. You know why? Because when you walk out of the BART station here, it looks like someplace you’re going to get mugged and when you walk out of the station in Walnut Creek or downtown San Francisco, it doesn’t. And that’s that.
I’ve been meaning to write about the completely deplorable state of downtown Oakland for a while now, so you can imagine how pleased I was to see Pat Kernighan kind of randomly bring it up at last Tuesday’s Public Safety Committee. Apparently a late November meeting with “business owners and building owners, like, major, major investors in downtown Oakland” put the fear of God in her about the condition of downtown, and she was pretty visibly upset at the meeting, complaining about:
How grimy Broadway looks and how, especially on the East side of the street, which is in my district, the loitering, the drug dealing, the really unpleasant offensive behavior that just goes on there, and which is driving away business. It’s also, that little corridor, is where both BART entrances, the 12th Street and the 14th Street, and as some of those building owners and business owners pointed out, when visitors to Oakland, like from San Francisco or other places come to Oakland on BART, their first view of Oakland is what happens when they walk up at 12h or 14th, and you get a really unpleasant look. I mean, it’s bad.
Larry Reid wasn’t about to let her have all the fun, and jumped in to add:
There is no way we’re going to be able to attract retail in downtown Oakland unless we’re able to clean up that corridor. You know, I’m an adult. But earlier today when I walked down there, you know, it was somewhat alarming to me about the number of individuals who hang out on that corridor – both those who are homeless, who are there, panhandlers. And those who are skipping school, and sitting on top of the newspaper racks, and the use of profanity and the smoking around the bus stops which we have an ordinance that’s not getting enforced. I mean, if I was just coming to Oakland, and saw that, I would go back down the stairs, get on BART, and leave.
He later informed the audience that if his own mother wanted to visit downtown Oakland, he would tell her to go home and stay away, cause things here are just that bad. Even Nancy Nadel jumped in with a productive comment for once, asking why it is, if the department has four walking officers downtown like they say, that nobody has ever seen them? GOOD QUESTION. I’m happy the Council seems just as upset as me over the conditions around here, and I’m happy that Pat promised she would be putting a team together to work on the problem, but I can’t help but wonder how it is that they apparently just noticed what a disgustingly filthy neighborhood they all work in.
If we’re going to attract any business, whether it’s retail or quality office tenants, the City needs to figure out a way to keep downtown clean and to remove grafitti in a timely manner. Maybe the BIDs could use their money to pay for boring things like everyday clean-up, instead of fancy stuff like private security and fixing up parks. It would make a bigger impact. And the City needs to start enforcing the blight ordinance on all the nasty properties around here that contribute to the overall atmosphere of decay. Maybe people would be more inclined to rent space in Center 21 if the building across the street didn’t look like it was about the collapse at any second. Maybe people would be more excited about living in the Cathedral Building if that deserted building across the street didn’t have like, two feet of solid trash locked between it and its permanent fence.
This is not an issue that can wait. It’s a matter of business attraction, business retention, job creation, quality of life, and revenue for the City.