Archive for the ‘California’ Category

They say it’s the journey that counts, right?

Friday, July 30th, 2010

I rode my bike (and ferried a bit, since there’s no bike path over the Bay Bridge—yet!) from Oakland to Ross and back today, yet somehow I managed not to take a single picture along the way. In lieu of any photos of, say, the cute mama and baby deer that I saw grazing next to each other on a slope near Sausalito, you get to look at a screenshot of the route from Gmaps Pedometer instead. (I’m going to make myself a T-shirt: “I went all the way to Marin County, and all I got was this lousy Google Maps screenshot.”)

Under the Freeway and Through the Parking Lot, to Amtrak’s House We Go

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

If you want to walk from historic (and tourist-oriented) Old Town Sacramento to the train station, you are directed across a parking area, under two or three freeway ramps, and then through another parking lot. (The yellow sign says “TO AMTRAK STATION” and the sign on the parking lot booth behind it says “PAY HERE.” Indeed, we are paying dearly for the privileging of the automobile in the last century).

To Amtrak Station

(Ironically, this photo was taken about 50 feet from the entrance to the California State Railroad Museum.)

Pedestrian access from the direction of downtown and the capitol isn’t much better—you have to cross this wide boulevard designed to be a freeway feeder, and there’s only one crosswalk at one corner of one intersection. And of course there is a parking lot to traverse on this side of the building as well (the Amtrak station is the brick building visible behind the trees):

I don’t know why I’m continually surprised by all the little ways that American cities have been designed to accommodate cars at the expense of other modes of transportation, but I am. Maybe it’s because I’ve been lucky to spend most of my life in cities which retain a lot of their pre-automobile design. (In fairness to Sacramento, much of it seems like a fairly livable, walkable city, at least in the neighborhoods surrounding the city center, and its flat terrain makes riding a bike easy too.)

Debacle on 34th St.

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

This is the view to the north as you pass down 34th Street in Oakland between Telegraph and MLK, which I finally got around to photographing today:


If you look at aerial photos of Oakland from the 40’s or 50’s, before these freeways and BART tracks were built, then you will find that the land shown here used to be blanketed with small houses. These days many of the surrounding blocks, especially on the western side, are even more depressed—and depressing—than average in Oakland: vacant lots and vacant buildings outnumber inhabited lots on some blocks of MLK, and with a few exceptions, the only extant businesses to be found nearby are liquor stores. It’s no wonder that one neighborhood abutting this thicket of freeway overpasses is known as Ghost Town. (The Telegraph side of the freeway is somewhat healthier, but thanks to these barriers which divide Oakland into pieces and attract blight to the gaps in between, improvements in one neighborhood often have trouble spreading organically into other neighborhoods which sit less than a hundred yards away.)

Interlocking Interchange

As consolation, perhaps, for the razing of hundreds of homes, the empty land under these interchanges was leased by CalTrans to the City of Oakland for use as city parks. And what lovely parks they are!

Grove Shafter Park

When I pass by trash-strewn Oakland parks-cum-homeless shelters like these, then I am reminded yet again of how smart it is for Oakland to ban our dogs from city parks. God forbid that any gamboling dogs should damage the beautiful lawn or disturb any of the families picnicking here, right? (Incidentally, I hope CalTrans has checked the structural integrity of that first column. I know they have their hands full with the Bay Bridge falling apart, but I wouldn’t want to be atop that cracked concrete during an earthquake.)

I was reminded by a column in the Contra Costa Times today that construction of a fourth tunnel for Highway 24 under the Oakland Hills is scheduled to start next year. The BART Board of Directors also gave final approval to the redundant, ugly, expensive and slow Oakland Airport Connector last week, so construction on that will start next year too. Both construction projects are scheduled to last through 2013, so for three years, Oakland will be bracketed by two large public works projects, one at our northern tip and one at our southern tip, both of which are intended to serve the needs of suburban commuters and travelers. Meanwhile the city spread between the two projects will continue to suffer, as parks go unmaintained, bus service is reduced, library hours are shortened, and so on. The story is always the same: cater to suburbanites and drivers, screw the urban poor, and justify it by citing job creation. Job creation is used as a trump card in a city with a 17% unemployment rate, but you can also create jobs paving city streets or increasing bus service or building infill BART stations instead of expanding highways and building elevated cable cars to the airport.

I’ve wondered in some of my earlier posts whether our new New Deal would leave a legacy of enlightened infrastructure like enhanced bike paths and more extensive mass transit infrastructure. How naive those musings seem now: it should have been obvious that CalTrans and BART and the other relevant authorities would use much of their American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds ($197.7 million in the case of the Highway 24 tunnel, $70 million in the case of BART’s airport connector) to fund long-planned projects that will either encourage car commuting (the fourth tunnel for Hwy 24) or duplicate an existing airport shuttle at the expense of local bus and rail service while creating additional overhead eyesores over the streets of Oakland (the airport connector).

Oh What a Tangled Web We Weave

As it happens, both Highway 24 and the BART tracks leading from suburban Contra Costa County toward the Oakland airport are shown in the photos above. While those freeway drivers or BART riders speed from Walnut Creek to the airport under the 34th Street crossing, bypassing Oakland almost entirely, people will continue to be shot to death on that blighted stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and few people will feel any need to take notice.

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!

Lessons from the Obama Campaign for Prop 8 Opponents?

Monday, July 27th, 2009

Today’s New York Times has an article about the debate among supporters of marriage rights over whether to pursue a reversal of Proposition 8 in 2010, or to wait until 2012 when there will have been more time to recruit large donors, shift public support, build a broader grassroots movement, and so on:

Marc Solomon, marriage director for Equality California, said he spent June and early July asking the opinions of nearly two dozen California political consultants and pollsters and had been surprised by the almost unanimous opinion that a 2010 race was a bad idea.

“I expected having watched the protests and the real pain that the L.G.B.T. community had experienced that there would be some real measurable remorse in the electorate,” Mr. Solomon said, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. “But if you look at the poll numbers since November, they really haven’t moved at all.”

A major factor in any California balloting, of course, is money; campaigns here are remarkably expensive, with a number of costly media markets. The Proposition 8 campaign, for example, cost more than $80 million, with opponents spending some $43 million.


The argument against 2010 was expressed by a new coalition of groups known as Prepare to Prevail, which announced in a statement on July 13 that going back to the ballot next year “would be rushed and risky.”

“We should proceed with a costly, demanding and high-stakes electoral campaign of this sort only when we are confident we can win,” the statement read.

The issue of timing has increasingly divided gay rights advocates, with larger, more established groups seemingly favoring a more cautious approach and grass-roots groups — some of them formed since the November election — more vocal in support of a quick return to the polls.

John M. Cleary, president of a Los Angeles group called the Stonewall Democratic Club, said many younger activists were particularly eager to fight Proposition 8. “I find the language of some of the organizations really self-defeating,” Mr. Cleary said. “And I think we have a moral obligation to overturn this.”

When I read these quotations, I can’t help but think of the 2008 Presidential campaign, specifically the Democratic Party’s nomination fight, and the debate about whether it was “too soon” for Barack Obama to run for President. Before Obama announced his candidacy in early 2007, and even into early 2008, many of the “larger, more established” voices in the party were arguing, based on expert advice from “political consultants and pollsters,” that Clinton’s nomination was inevitable, that the country was not yet ready to elect a black guy with the middle name “Hussein” as President, that Obama would not be able to compete financially because “major donors” would not invest in a risky candidacy, etc., etc. Meanwhile, many “younger activists” believed that the establishment of the party had been too cautious, too ready to concede defeat on matters of principle, and too willing to believe that poll numbers were set in stone.

Throughout 2007, Obama hovered betwen 20% and 25% in nationwide Democratic nomination polls, while Clinton began at 35% and was over 40% in the last months of the year. Obama did not lead Clinton in a single major national poll until after he won the Iowa caucuses. Let me emphasize that: no major national poll showed Obama with a lead over Clinton until after the voting had already begun. (He did lead in some state polls, although even in Iowa most polling showed Clinton with a lead up until the end, which shows that, yes, “community organizing” and get-out-the-vote efforts can be decisive, especially but not exclusively in caucus votes)

2008 Democratic Nomination Polls

That polling situation, combined with the overwhelming support of the party establishment, led many political consultants to believe that Obama simply couldn’t win the nomination. They might admire the guy’s political skills, and they might tell reporters that he could be the future of the party if he waited for his time to come, but many were convinced that he had run too soon and would go down in history as 2008’s Howard Dean, able to raise a lot of money online and excite a certain young, educated, urban slice of the base, but unable to actually win the nomination. Is there a lesson here for supporters of same sex marriage?

Before I get any angry comments about how Obama himself has ended up being too cautious, has been too ready to concede defeat on matters of principle, and has betrayed the GLBT community by putting gay rights on the back burner since he was sworn into office, please understand that I am not making any ideological analogies between the nomination battle and the fight for marriage rights. I’m only addressing the political strategy and tactics. Obviously every campaign has its own dynamics, and perhaps Obama would have gone down in history as just another Howard Dean if there had not been such an overwhelming appetite for a change from business as usual. Both sides of this internecine debate make pretty compelling arguments, but I personally come down on the side of moving quickly and continuing to try, try again.

Who can forget the criticism that Gavin Newsom received from establishment political consultants when he took the sudden step of allowing same sex couples to get marriage licenses in San Francisco in 2004? People said he had moved too quickly and too boldly, had not laid enough groundwork, and had set the larger gay rights movement back with his rash, unilateral action. More than five years later, despite some backlash and some setbacks, I believe he ultimately advanced the cause of same sex marriage, and I doubt that same sex marriage would have been legalized in six states (not including California’s brief moment of sunshine) if Newsom hadn’t forced the issue into the national debate. Sometimes politics, and leadership, requires setting out to actively change public opinion through pressing an issue, over and over and over if need be, rather than assuming that the state of public opinion is an immutable given. Back to the Times article and John Cleary:

He and others who support a 2010 campaign say they have a number of factors in their favor, including a newly galvanized base, a decline in advertising costs in a depressed television market and two potential Democratic candidates for governor — Attorney General Jerry Brown and Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco — who have been outspoken in support of same-sex marriage.

But some national leaders are dismissive of such arguments.

“A slapdash effort based on wishful thinking, rosy scenarios, and passion, is not enough to win on,” said Hans Johnson, a board member of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

That may be true, but how about a non-slapdash effort based on wishful thinking, rosy scenarios, and passion? The Obama campaign showed us that wishful thinking, rosy scenarios, and passion can be a winning strategy if it is carried out with discipline, perseverance, and intelligence. Proposition 8 is a stain on California’s constitution, and anyone who has ever spilled anything on a tablecloth knows that the sooner you wash out the stain, the less likely it is to remain forever.

Hunger in America

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Breadline USAMy friend Sasha Abramsky has just come out with a book about hunger in the United States, called Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It. I picked up a copy yesterday, and while I’m only about 50 pages into it so far, I can already highly recommend it to anyone interested in “food insecurity” (to use a current buzzword) and the myriad ways that increasing inequality has bred increasing hardship in modern society.

There have been a number of worthy and well-known books about American food culture in recent years, such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and those two in particular were revelatory to many of us in their own ways. Those books, however, tend to focus on the perverse consequences, both social and medical, of an abundance of cheap calories, due to corn-based industrial agriculture, fast food chains, and so on.

That’s an important story, to be sure, but Sasha’s book addresses the flip side of our food problem, which is not a surplus of affordable food, but a deficit, and the fact that growing numbers of Americans—including people with full-time jobs—struggle to feed themselves and their families. As housing costs, medical costs, transportation costs, and food costs increase, while wages stagnate (or vanish altogether as jobs are lost), more and more people are forced to choose between medicine and protein, or between paying for their housing or paying for their dinner.

To say that Breadline USA is about food is like saying that Anna Karenina is about adultery: while food insecurity is the thread that stitches the book together, one can’t discuss hunger without delving into the larger economic forces that have put us in a situation where people working full-time at low-wage jobs often rely on food banks to keep their refrigerators minimally stocked. It’s no fluke that the first chapter is more about energy costs than food, describing the difficulties faced by residents of rural Siskiyou County, in the shadow of Mount Shasta, as transportation costs rise, public transportation is skeletal at best, and jobs in one’s own town are often nonexistent. Food banks, pantries, and soup kitchens these days don’t only serve the homeless or the unemployed—more and more, they are the last resort of the working poor, retirees, or others who had previously prided themselves on never having had to accept a handout from anyone.

The book is a compelling mixture of on-the-ground reportage backed up with data and policy discussion, interspersed with personal narrative—a combination that will be familiar to anyone who has read Sasha’s earlier books on the criminal justice system or voting rights. The bulk of the reporting for the book was done before the implosion of the housing bubble caused our house-of-cards economic system to teeter so frighteningly, and it’s safe to say that the hardships faced by the poor and the lower middle class are now much more dire than they were when the book went to press, as jobs continue to disappear and government safety nets fray. You can get a taste of what Breadline USA is all about by listening to Sasha’s interview at Truthdig or reading some of the articles at his website or for the Guardian newspaper (California readers may be interested in his Guardian articles on our state’s economic problems as well).

The Ongoing Legacy of the New Deal

Monday, April 27th, 2009

As someone with a casual interest in local history, I was interested to learn from another Oakland blog about the Living New Deal Project at UC Berkeley. In addition to producing a book and collecting testimonials from people who worked on (or witnessed) New Deal projects, the Berkeley scholars are compiling a searchable database of the New Deal’s legacy around California, complete with an interactive map.

Lux et LexOne appealing aspect of the project is that members of the public are encouraged to contribute, by submitting projects that are missing from the database. (The best-known local sites are already included, including the somewhat stumpy Alameda County Courthouse alongside Lake Merritt shown here.)

Given how much the New Deal changed the physical character of cities, towns, rural areas, and parklands in the United States, I was surprised to learn that no one had previously tried to compile a comprehensive online database of New Deal sites. Some other websites have collected information about WPA art, and San Diego State University hosts a database of California WPA murals, but apparently no effort had been made to compile an exhaustive online database of buildings, infrastructure projects, and so on. The scholars at Berkeley are hoping that their California project can eventually be a model for a nationwide database.

Sausal Creek culvertWhile the list of sites is extensive, there are surely still some local New Deal projects which aren’t yet included, so if anyone happens to know of any others, the folks at Berkeley would be grateful for whatever help people can give. I noticed, for example, that the culvert holding a section of Sausal Creek, which bears W.P.A. stamps from 1939 and 1940, was not in the database, so I submitted it to the project and it now appears on their map. I wonder if they would be able to include some of the W.P.A. sidewalk and gutter stamps that have been documented at the Oakland Sidewalk Stamps blog. (Yes, there’s an Oakland Sidewalk Stamps blog—why shouldn’t there be?)

I’ve mused before about whether the current economic downturn will produce a legacy akin to that of the great depression, and one reason the Living New Deal project interests me is the parallel—or lack thereof—between that era and our own. In the 1930’s, many parts of the west, including the East Bay, were just becoming major population centers, and the need for civic buildings, bridges,and other basic infrastructure was pressing. Even if the Federal government were to fund public works projects on a similar scale in coming years, the physical legacy would presumably be very different from that of the New Deal.

There are also some New Deal projects included in the database which don’t have any photographs to accompany them, and the scholars seem to welcome help in that area too. For instance, that there were no photos of the Park Street and High Street bridges between Oakland and Alameda, and since I ride my bike across both bridges on a pretty regular basis, I offered to take a few photos which may end up being added to the website.

Those two bridges are both drawbridges, and although they were built 4 years apart, they have nearly identical designs and were constructed by the same general contractor. The only differences seem to be that the Park Street Bridge is twice as wide (4 car lanes instead of 2), and it is painted green while the High Street Bridge is silver. I created a new set on Flickr as a repository for shots of New Deal projects that I happen to have photographed, and here are photos of the Park Street Bridge (1935) and High Street Bridge (1939), respectively:

Park Street Bridge

High Street Bridge

The general public cannot add information or photographs to the Living New Deal site ourselves, a la wikipedia—we can only submit things for the consideration of the gatekeepers running the site. If anyone happens to know of other New Deal projects around Oakland (or anywhere else in California) which aren’t included in the database, I encourage you to submit them, or to let me know in the comments, because I am eager to know about them myself. The potential for this kind of collaborative project is one of the things I appreciate about the internet, but it only works well if enough people get involved.

State of Emergency

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

California’s official motto is “Eureka.” Our official nickname is “The Golden State.” Has any thought has been given to changing one of these to “State of Emergency”?

The most recent state of emergency was proclaimed by Governor Schwarzenegger on Friday, regarding the ongoing drought. (Our current heavy rains, although helpful, have only been a drop in the bucket, so to speak.) Three weeks earlier, the governor had declared a state of emergency because of the state’s projected $42 billion deficit. And every fall, we see numerous states of emergency proclaimed due to wildfires (four separate states of emergency in November alone.) Add to all these the potentially catastrophic emergencies caused by large earthquakes or failure of levees in the Sacramento River Delta, and I can’t help but wonder if “State of Emergency” would be a more apt nickname than “The Golden State.”