Archive for September, 2009

Today in West Oakland

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Nothing to be said; a few things to be seen.

American Dream

Must Love Dogs

Psycho Patrol

The Wall

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

Some commenters on the last photo I posted were speculating that I have an affinity for the color blue, or that perhaps my camera or the local scenery produced particularly good blues (I assume that the speculation was based primarily on some earlier pictures I’ve taken such as this one and this one and this one—but not this one). I don’t have an answer, but I figured the easiest way to test the hypothesis was to take some pictures and look at the colors, so I took some photos of the most colorful thing I pass by most days of the week, and I’ll let you be the judge (many people in Oakland will probably recognize this wall instantly, even though I’ve rendered it pretty abstractly).

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There are about a half dozen more at my Flickr set titled “Abstraction.”

Department of Dubious Distinctions

Friday, September 18th, 2009

Is Gavin Newsom the first gubernatorial candidate in history to livetweet the birth of his child?

The suspense was killing me!

Patchwork

Friday, September 18th, 2009

Patchwork

East 18th Gets Thrift Store that Lakeshore Spurned

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

I noticed today that an Out of the Closet thrift store is about to open on East 18th Street, in the space that Hollywood Video used to occupy. Employees who were there setting up the shop told me that the grand opening is on Saturday. I normally wouldn’t write a long post about the opening of a thrift store in my neighborhood, but the opening of this particular store says a lot about the city of Oakland.

Out of the Closet

I’ll begin at the beginning. Over a year and a half ago, a GapKids store on Lakeshore Avenue closed (the regular Gap store a few doors down remains open). The landlord entered into negotiations to rent the empty storefront to a thrift store chain called Out of the Closet, which is operated by (and supports) the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. When neighborhood residents got wind of those negotiations from a post at the Grand Lake Guardian website, some of them were not pleased to hear that a déclassé thrift store—and especially a thrift store with a bright pink and blue color scheme—was going to be coming to that shopping strip, which has become a pretty nice little shopping district in recent years, thanks in part to the efforts of some of the same people who objected to Out of the Closet.

My City Councilmember, Pat Kernighan, wrote an open letter to the community in which she said that when she learned about the negotiations, she had “immediately contacted the owner’s broker, Steve Banker of LCB Associates, and told him that a thrift store would not be welcomed by the majority of area residents.” She apparently believed that the majority of residents would not welcome a thrift store because she had been contacted by 15 people who were not happy about the coming of the thrift store, but only by 3 people who approved of the store. I’m very dubious of that conclusion. Anyone who has ever dealt with the public in any way should know that people are much more likely to speak up if they are angry about something, and in this case, that phenomenon was amplified because most of the neighborhood residents who even knew about the negotiations were people who had read about it in an anti-thrift store blog post which encouraged people to call Kernighan to complain. That’s hardly going to produce a representative sample of public opinion.

In any case, Kernighan made clear in her letter what her own feelings were: she wrote that she personally didn’t think the store was a “good fit” for Lakeshore, and that she was trying to get a “more desirable” store to move into that location. She said she had contacted representatives of Out of the Closet and “explained that Lakeshore is trying hard to attract more shoppers with disposable income to keep all the stores in business and that a thrift store would lead in the other direction.” She also expressed the concerns that people would dump stuff in front of the store after-hours, and that the thrift store would create blight.

Many local residents clearly agreed with her, and some of the comments on the post called Out of the Closet a “dumpy, cheap chain” and expressed a desire for locally-owned mom and pop stores, cute boutiques and restaurants, etc. Other people took strong exception to Kernighan’s letter, and interpreted her comments about “good fit,” “more desirable,” and “attract more shoppers with disposable income” as a not-so-subtle way of saying, “we want poor people to stay away from Lakeshore Avenue and keep to their own neighborhoods where they belong.” I was one of those who took offense, and I wrote a somewhat intemperate comment on her open letter reflecting that point of view. In my opinion, the socioeconomic diversity of Lakeshore Avenue is a feature, not a bug, especially as it is surrounded by a wide variety of residential neighborhoods, with upscale single-family homes on side, and some of Oakland’s densest middle-class apartment districts on the other. For a Councilmember basically to be telling a large percentage of her constituents that they weren’t welcome on Lakeshore Avenue really bothered some of us.

Anyway, within a week, Kernighan announced that Out of the Closet had withdrawn its effort to take over the GapKids space. I don’t know whether the objections of Kernighan and others were a factor in the collapse of the deal, but presumably they didn’t help matters. Apparently East 18th Street, which tends to attract people with less “disposable income” than Lakeshore, is considered a “good fit” for Out of the Closet, because I haven’t heard any objections from Kernighan (she represents both shopping districts). I look forward to shopping there, and as far as I’m concerned, Lakeshore’s loss is East 18th’s gain.

The little brouhaha over Out of the Closet on Lakeshore is sadly typical of the way business is done—or rather, undone—in Oakland. I’ll give some other examples. Chip Johnson, the East Bay columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, has written several times about a guy he knows who was stymied in his efforts to open a little bike shop in Chinatown because of Oakland’s byzantine zoning laws and expensive permitting process. Johnson points out that the city bureaucracy seems designed to hamper economic development and enterpreneurship, not encourage it (so much for the mom-and-pop stores that Kernighan was so eager to support).

In another example, A Better Oakland wrote yesterday about a City Council “Emergency Ordinance” requiring new nail salons and laundromats to receive a “major conditional use permit” from the city for the next year, until the City can find a more long-term way to deal with the proliferation of nail salons. It costs about $3000 just to apply for one of those conditional use permits, and presumably many of them would not be granted because, as the ordinance says, “the proliferation of nail salons and self-serve laundromats along major retail corridors has become an increasing concern to Councilmembers, retail store owners and merchant associations.” In a city with a high violent crime rate and many vacant storefronts in every shopping district, it’s hard for many people to understand why “emergency” action must be taken to prevent more nail salons or laundromats from filling some of those vacant storefronts.

Finally, the East Bay Express has an article this week about how an Oakland city official discovered that used book and clothing stores could be regulated under a state “Secondhand Dealers” law which is intended to help police track stolen goods. The law is primarily meant for pawnshops, and it requires that all employees be finger-printed and a special annual fee of more than $500 must be paid for secondhard-dealing permits. Most onerous is that detailed records of each item bought and sold must be kept, and the personal information (I assume that means name, address, and driver’s license number) of each customer must be documented. Most cities exempt non-pawnshops from these requirements, but Oakland recently sent letters to 48 second-hand retailers warning them that they had until September 10th to apply for these permits and start complying with this law. Needless to say, it would be a death sentence for used bookstores—which aren’t exactly a booming business these days—if they started having to ask each customer for their personal information in order to buy a dog-eared copy of Wuthering Heights or The Iliad.

I’ve never considered myself especially “pro-business” (it depends on the business!) and in a lot of ways, I’m politically in line with the Oakland City Council: I’m pro-labor, I worry about the fraying of our already-porous safety net, I would like to see less income disparity and more social justice, I support strong environmental regulations, etc., etc., etc. In many parts of the county, I would be at the far left end of the political spectrum. But there’s a joke about how a conservative is a liberal who’s been a victim of crime, and my own version of the joke is that a conservative is a liberal who has lived in Oakland for more than a few years. Oakland seems to be overflowing with examples of how government’s meddling in private contracts, or micromanaging economic development from the top down, can lead to adverse unintended consequences.

Oh, and that former GapKids storefront on Lakeshore Avenue that people were so eager to keep Out of the Closet away from a year and a half ago, because it wouldn’t be a “good fit” for the neighborhood? It’s been sitting empty ever since.

Traffic Calming on Park Boulevard Today

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

I wrote in January about some of the problems with lower Park Boulevard, my neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. One big problem I noted is that cars treat it like a speedway instead of a city street, which makes it pretty scary for pedestrians and bicyclists, and therefore diminishes its potential as a thriving urban street (the closure of the Parkway Theater in March—temporary, we still hope—doesn’t help either). I also pointed out that Oakland, unlike some neighboring cities such as Alameda, does not seem to enforce traffic laws very forcefully. (I’m being charitable here; I almost never see drivers pulled over for speeding or other reckless behavior in Oakland, unless the traffic stop is done as a pretext for checking out a “suspicious” person.)

So I was interested to see more than half a dozen officers near the corner of Park and 5th Avenue this morning, clocking drivers with a radar gun and pulling over the speeders.

No Speeding!

I don’t know whether they were issuing full tickets or just warnings (maybe it depended on how fast the driver was going), and I don’t know what long-term effects these operations have, but I was at least happy to see that someone was aware of the problem. I told one of the officers that in addition to speeding, another big problem on that stretch of road is that drivers almost never stop for people at crosswalks. I was going to ask whether anything specific had prompted today’s operation, but unsurprisingly, the officer didn’t seem very eager to stand around chatting. (He seemed about as interested in my thoughts on crosswalks as cops usually are when I share my opinions with them, which is to say not at all interested—but it never hurts to try, right?)

I can imagine that some people might think it’s a waste of resources to have 8 or 10 Oakland police officers conducting an anti-speeding sting in a relatively quiet part of the city, since the OPD is chronically understaffed and has more serious crimes than speeding to worry about, but personally, my only small complaint about this sting is that it was happening in mid-morning, instead of two hours earlier—I had biked down that exact same stretch of Park at 8:30 this morning, and I literally had to pull over to the side of the road because there were so many cars driving so fast, and I didn’t feel safe “sharing the road” with them. Oh, well: better late than never.

An Awful Message to Kids: Stay in School (but get there in a car)

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

I was flabbergasted when a commenter on one of my Flickr photos back in April told me about an elementary school in San Jose which had (at the behest of the SJPD) instructed parents that bicycles “are not allowed as a means of transportation to or from school,” apparently because traffic patterns around the school were considered too dangerous. And I was flabbergasted again today when I read a post at Streetsblog about a family in Saratoga Springs who were confronted by school officials (and a state trooper who happened to be on the scene) when they defied a ban on students walking or biking to a local middle school.

I don’t have too much to add to the Streetsblog post, so I won’t go on a lengthy rant, but these stories are symptomatic of how schizophrenic our culture is right now when it comes to transportation. On the one hand, we hear a lot from politicians up the entire food chain from city councilmembers to President Obama about encouraging people to walk and bike in order to be more healthy, burn less petroleum, and pollute less. And sometimes they even put our money where their mouths are, installing bike lanes, improving streetscapes to be more pedestrian-friendly, funding new mass transit lines, and so on.

On the other hand, we have a culture that has been built around the assumption that everyone will always drive cars everywhere. That culture is reflected both in the physical design of our towns and cities, and in the mindset of the vast majority of policymakers, including many of those who pay lip service to “green” issues. People making these decisions in school districts from California to New York are presumably worried—with good reason—about the prospect of a kid getting hit by a car on the way to school, but instead of taking steps to make routes to school safer for people on bikes, their solution is simply to ban bikes. This is like dealing with violent crime by banning citizens from leaving their homes, while doing nothing to stop the people who are committing the violence.

Not only is the solution backwards, but it also contributes to a terrible public health problem. The CDC reports that childhood obesity rates more than doubled among kids aged 6-11 in just 20 years, and more than tripled among kids aged 12 to 19. Lack of adequate physical activity is one of the major causes of this increase, and childhood obesity can lead to any number of medical problems. In the face of this public health crisis, it is literally a sign of deep sickness in our culture that schools are discouraging kids from walking and biking to school, instead of doing whatever they can to encourage kids to bike to school (traffic mitigation, separated bike paths, school-sponsored “bikepools” and “walkpools” that would get kids to travel to school with other nearby kids in order to keep them safer, and so on).

I’m not totally naive, and I know that most parents will still want to drive their kids to school, either out of convenience or out of a fear of traffic or abduction. But a change in culture and mindset on these issues doesn’t require that everyone, or even most people, start sending their kids to school on foot or on a bike. All it requires, at least as a first step that could be taken immediately, is that we start making it easier for parents who want to do this, instead of treating them as pariahs or criminals who should be reported to Child Protective Services.

Sunday Lovin’, Oaktown Style

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

Love was in the air today on a walk around Oakland with the dog, from bikes to bread to coffee:

Bike Love For Rent

Challah Love

Ritual Love

The Passage of Time and the Failure of Memory

Friday, September 11th, 2009

This painting by Gerhard Richter is my favorite piece of 9/11-related art or literature; in fact, it might be the only piece of 9/11-related art or literature that I’ve ever actually liked:

September 11 by Gerhard Richter

I first came across it in The Atlantic about 2 years ago, and it resonates with my own changing perspective on September 11th as the years have passed. I was fortunate not to know anyone personally who perished in the World Trade Center towers, but (like millions of other people who lived in New York at the time) I was powerfully affected, perhaps traumatized in some small way, and I felt the effects for many months—indeed, on the first anniversary I felt compelled to write a short essay and email it out to some friends. It was one of the more mawkish things I’m ever likely to write, but apparently it touched a nerve, because the next thing I knew I got a request from a stranger in New Jersey asking if he could share it with his high school students in class. (How much easier that all would have been if I had had a blog back then!)

What a difference eight years makes. If you had asked me in late 2001, when the smell of smoke drifted up the Hudson to my apartment and soldiers with machine guns stood guard at my local subway station, or in late 2002, when I wrote that essay, I think I would have told you that the events of 9/11 had forever altered the way I viewed the world. I suppose that they did, strictly speaking, but I don’t think I would have predicted how quickly other events (wars, elections, tsunamis, droughts, recessions, whatever) would overtake 9/11 at the forefront of my consciousness, and how quickly memories of that period would fade. Sure, I still think about 9/11 sometimes, and occasionally I even feel a momentary twinge of panic when I hear a plane close overhead, but for the most part, the terrorist attacks of 2001 have settled in among a lot of other horrific geopolitical/historical events in my mind, with little special prominence except that they happened to occur in my city and my country (and that the tragedy of those lost lives was compounded by the tragedies of the wars that have followed).

For me, Richter’s painting of the iconic smoking towers captures that phenonemon well. A mere eight years after a period when I was almost obsessed by the events of 9/11 (or am I misremembering that too?), it now all feels like a fuzzy memory. The passage of time, and the failures of memory, have a way of distorting and obscuring the past so much that it is almost unrecognizable. It sounds odd, maybe even ghoulish, to suggest that I feel a kind of nostalgia for such a traumatic period when so many people were experiencing such intense grief, but when I look at the painting, it evokes a yearning to reverse the distortions of the image—that is, to reverse the very passage of time that has allowed most people to “move on” more quickly than anyone expected. A somewhat similar (albeit less tragic) feeling of loss hits me when I look at another piece of art showing a very different iconic image—Warhol’s large National Velvet, which hangs at SFMoMA. It shows the young Elizabeth Taylor, the very picture of beauty and vigor and innocence, literally fading before our eyes, as Warhol manically tries to stop time by furiously reproducing the image over and over and over. Or at least that’s how it always seems to me when I stand in front of it, and it is surprisingly poignant.

All this naturally makes me wonder which of my current feelings and convictions will dramatically alter with the passage of time. I generally approve of taking “the long view” when it comes to current events, because it’s far too easy to become consumed by the fleeting minutiae of the moment, but the danger of the long view is that if your view is too long, then it’s hard to really care about the present. As John Maynard Keynes pointed out in rebuttal to more laissez-faire economists who argued that the economy would work itself out fine on its own in the long run, “This long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.”

Who knows, maybe in the long run my feelings about the Richter and Warhol works will change too—I guess I’ll have to revisit them in eight years to see how I feel then.

Outlaw Cyclists Run Rampant on City Streets

Friday, September 11th, 2009

I didn’t realize until now that I break the law nearly every day:

12.60.010  Bicycle license required.

It is unlawful for any person to operate or use a bicycle, as defined in Section 39000 of the California Vehicle Code, upon any street in the city of Oakland without first obtaining a California Bicycle License therefor

I’m glad to see that I’m unlikely to do any jail time if I get busted:

12.60.080  Violation of Sections 12.60.010 through 12.60.060–Fine.

Any person who violates or fails to comply with the provisions of Sections 12.60.010 through 12.60.060 shall be subject to a fine of not more than ten dollars ($10.00)

The Trouble with Washington Political Reporting

Friday, September 4th, 2009

The New York Times had a brief write-up last night about James K. Glassman being appointed as the founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute, an “action-oriented think tank” which will be part of the GWB Center at Southern Methodist University. Glassman is a former journalist and pundit who also served in the State Department in Bush’s second term, so there is nothing particularly surprising about his appointment.

What is a bit surprising is that the Times, in three paragraphs of biographical information about Glassman, somehow failed to mention the thing he may be most famous for: writing a book in 1999, on the eve of the collapse of the dot com bubble, called “Dow 36,000,” which argued that stocks were undervalued and that the Dow Jones Industrial Average would more than triple within a decade. Needless to say, he was wildly wrong, and many people who followed his advice presumably lost a lot of money by doing so.

It’s not shocking to me that being completely wrong didn’t seem to hurt his career. (In Washington political and policy circles, particularly in the GOP, being conspicuously wrong often seems to be considered a virtue.) Neither is it shocking that his infamous book is not mentioned in the press release announcing his appointment (it is amusing, however, to see that the press release touts his experience as an “investment columnist” for the Washington Post in the early 90’s).

The New York Times, however, is supposed to be doing more than just passing on information from press releases. Even if the reporter somehow didn’t know that Glassman wrote a much-discussed bestseller called “Dow 36,000,” a cursory glance at the first paragraph of Glassman’s Wikipedia entry would have clued him in. While the Times report omitted Glassman’s dramatic public failure as a soothsayer, it did point out that Glassman “has also been writing a blog largely critical of the Obama administration. He argued that its economic proposals ‘are dangerously off-course and the result will be a huge debt burden that will slow American growth for many years.’ ” One would think that Glassman’s glaringly abysmal history when it comes to predicting economic developments might be worth mentioning if you are going to air his predictions about the effects of Obama’s economic policies.

Glassman’s appointment to run Bush’s think tank is not an especially important piece of news, but the Times’s handling of the announcement is very telling. To most Washington reporters, the political back and forth between Republicans and Democrats is the relevant and important part of any story. Whether or not someone is telling the truth, and whether or not someone has been proven completely wrong in the past, to the point where they have no credibility on a particular issue, is considered a non-issue that needn’t be mentioned at all.

For another example of blinkered political reporting, see today’s Times article on Betsy McCaughey, who is providing pseudo-intellectual cover for the false assertions about what health care reform would involve. The Times article starts with an irrelevant anecdote about how Erica Jong (Erica Jong!) was bamboozled into thinking that McCaughey was a serious public intellectual, then says that “Ms. McCaughey’s role as a central, if disputed, player in the national health care debate has surprised friend and foe alike.” Has it really? From what I have been reading, people who remember McCaughey’s role in spreading falsehoods about Clinton’s health care plan in the early 90’s were not at all surprised that she is reprising the role 15 years later. The only surprise is that anyone in the media still treats people like her and Glassman as if they are serious thinkers.

And in fact, despite the sentence I just cited, the Times article doesn’t actually quote anyone except Jong who seems “surprised” by McCaughey’s role—it quotes some other people, such as McCaughey’s college roommate, who seem disappointed that she has a habit of indulging in publicity-gaining smear campaigns, but none of them actually sound surprised. Perhaps only newspaper reporters, who get so caught up in the daily rough and tumble of media and politics that they can’t remember McCaughey’s role in defeating “Hillarycare” or Glassman’s role in promoting the late 90’s stock bubble, are surprised when people behave the way they have been behaving for years. (The Times article even carried the headline “McCaughey, Unlikely Critic of Obama’s Health Care Plan” until it was later changed to the less idiotic “Resurfacing, a Critic Stirs Up Debate Over Health Care.)

Incidentally, Peter Baker, who wrote the Times item on Glassman, also had an article in the paper yesterday about an incorrect rumor that Chelsea Clinton was going to get married on Martha’s Vineyard last month. In the article, he writes that “The persistence of the rumor despite the lack of tangible evidence says something about the Internet-driven media culture, where facts sometimes do not get in the way of a good story.” His then proceeded to mention that the rumor was first published in the Boston Globe, then spread to New York Magazine, the Daily News, Fox News, the Washington Post (where Baker used to work), and finally, to the Times itself in a Travel section feature on Martha’s Vineyard. It must be nice for people like Baker to have the internet as a convenient scapegoat when they spread false rumors, but it would have been useful if he had explained how the “Internet-driven media culture” caused editors and reporters at respected papers like the Globe, the Times and the Post to report unconfirmed gossip in their pages.

Live and on Tape: Art at Awaken Cafe

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Some of you know my friend Pablo Manga. Some of you know the Awaken Cafe and gallery on 14th Street in downtown Oakland. Some of you may know both, and some of you may know neither. Whichever category you fall into, you should check out a show of Pablo’s recent work at Awaken this month, with an opening reception during “First Friday” festivities on September 4th.

Mare Serenitatis by Pablo MangaThe show will feature the “Linescapes” series produced in the last few years, which is something of a departure from Pablo’s earlier work. While adhesive tape is still his material of choice, and while not-quite-parallel lines are still in abundance, “Linescapes” dispenses with the vivid colors of his earlier pieces in favor of much more muted hues. I love the older work, whose bright colors delight one immediately, but in an odd way, the stark and minimalist newer work ends up offering a richer experience for the viewer—the subtle tones force you to take a closer look, and another closer look, and it is in those closer looks that the nuances of the work more fully reveal themselves.

Anyway, don’t take my word for it; you can see for yourselves when you stop by the show. The reception, which will have wine, hors d’oeuvres and music, begins at 5 pm on Friday, Sept. 4th. If you can’t make the reception, the show will be up through the end of September 30th. (Go for the art, and stay for the coffee! Or vice versa!) You can check out more of Pablo’s work at his website and see the reception’s event listing at Facebook here.