“May you live in interesting times” —Ancient chinese curse, likely apocryphal
Over a year ago I posted this photograph from a vacant lot along the Oakland waterfront. One commenter suggested that it looked like a relic of the dying American economy. Another thought, more colorfully, that it was “maybe the last known hideout of a gang of Cotton Candy Carny Vendors on the run from the law.”
Whatever it evoked, the scene no longer exists. Construction crews have been working to expand neighboring Union Point Park, so this overgrown, debris-strewn lot has been transformed into tidily landscaped parkland, with a small stretch of the Bay Trail running through it. The graffiti-decorated concrete pipes have been replaced by new lampposts, landscaping and bike racks, and the cool (but deteriorating) boatworks building behind it will also be renovated and put to some use:
This project is funded by Measure DD, the bond measure passed by Oakland voters almost a decade ago—the same measure that is allowing for all the improvements around Lake Merritt, of which the redone parkland along the Lakeshore side is just one example:
Unfortunately, the canada geese have discovered the plush new carpets of grass since these photos were taken, so picnickers and sunbathers aren’t quite as plentiful as they were in the spring, but even so, this side of the park still looks better than it has in decades. (Other wonders of the Lake Merritt work: the smooth pavement and new bike lanes which have turned a bike ride on Lakeshore from a medieval ordeal into a pleasure, and the razing/rebuilding of the 12th street viaduct, which is so exciting that someone has created an entire blog just to document daily developments in the construction.)
And Measure DD projects aren’t the only positive developments around Oakland these days. In fact, there is exciting news on many fronts: Oakland’s plentiful new restaurants are getting approving attention from coast to coast; new bars, clubs and performance spaces continue to open at a furious clip; and the art scene continues to thrive. I see more bikes on the road than ever before, with a wider variety of riders on them. Even with Oakland’s high unemployment rate and shrinking police force, crime continues to be down by double-digit percentages compared with recent years in nearly every category except residential burglaries. In many ways, Oakland feels a lot like a city on the upswing.
Why talk about curses, then? Because despite all this good news, one can’t help but wonder if Oakland is on the verge of collapse. The city’s municipal finances are in terrible shape and projected to get much worse. The unemployment rate is said to be around 17%, but given the wide disparity between Oakland’s rich and poor neighborhoods, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is more like 50% in some areas. Oakland’s precarious financial situation and wealth disparities are, of course, just a microcosm of what we also see on a state, national and global level. And events as varied as the ongoing economic crisis, the BP oil spill, and the rise of Sarah Palin as a prominent political figure have made some of us wonder if prophets of doom like Dmitri Orlov or Jim Kunstler might not only be entertaining cranks, but also correct.
During this moment of instability and pervasive anxiety, here comes the race for mayor. Ten candidates have ultimately qualified for the ballot, and while none of them (with the exception of the minor candidate who openly espouses municipal bankruptcy) seem nervy enough to propose solutions commensurate with the city’s fiscal problems, the race does promise some entertainment value. We have the “Green” Party candidate who wants to abolish parking meters. We have one city councilmember who seems to think that helping to squander all the city’s money during the boom years makes her qualified to lead the city during these bust years. We have a former community college trustee whose best-known accomplishment was using her public credit card for over $4000 of personal spending, some of it in Las Vegas. We have a professor and political analyst who seems smart and sensible, but perhaps more eager to share the details of his preferences in baked goods than the details of his plan to cope with Oakland’s fiscal disaster. We have a veteran politico who was term-limited out of his state senate seat, but apparently held it long enough to leverage it into a lucrative longterm arrangement with the state’s extremely powerful prison guard’s union.
As an under-40 blogger with an interest in “alternative” transportation, I may be demographically doomed to vote for Rebecca Kaplan, but some of her proposals seem fantastical (which is not to say fantastic) and some of her recent actions, such as placing herself between a line of riot police and an unruly crowd after the Mehserle verdict, or voting in support of a liquor store in North Oakland, have made a lot of people wonder if she is perhaps a bit too eager to be all things to all people. (Then again, she’s an energetic and smart lesbian former rabbinical student and transportation wonk who did her undergrad at MIT, on whose campus I spent much of my early boyhood—I mean, what’s not to love, right?)
Despite the motley assortment of oddballs, insiders and longshots who are running for mayor, it’s hard for me personally to muster any enthusiasm about any of them, but the campaign will at least provide a fair amount of drama for the next few months. As for whether Oakland—and the state and the nation—will see a renaissance in coming years, or enter a tailspin of ecological, financial, and social collapse…we’ll just have to wait and see. Interesting times, indeed.