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Interesting Times

“May you live in interesting times” —Ancient chinese curse, likely apocryphal

WeedsOver 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 The graffiti-decorated concrete pipes have been replaced by new lampposts, landscaping and bike racks, and the cool (but deteriorating) boatworks building behind it will also be renovated and put to some use: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.

The Long March



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

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.”)

Sport Utility Vehicle

I rode past this custom build on Telegraph Ave last week, and of course I had to stop for photos:

Big Wheel

Yet Another Candidate Enters Oakland’s Mayoral Race

I happened to mention the bakery Arizmendi in a brief post about electoral politics on Monday. The only stranger I have ever recognized inside Arizmendi is Joe Tuman, a professor at San Francisco State and a regular political analyst on CBS’s local TV and radio news. I wouldn’t typically write about a year-old sighting of a local TV personality, but little did I know when I posted on Monday that I would get a press release the next day saying that Tuman will be announcing his candidacy for Mayor of Oakland at the Lake Merritt pergola on Wednesday. For all I know this is old news to political insiders in Oakland, but it was new news to me.

What do I think about his candidacy? It’s too soon to think much of anything: my own vote is certainly up for grabs, since my feelings about the current crop of candidates range from mild disappointment to horror, but Tuman’s most compelling attribute at the moment is what he lacks—that is, complicity in the fiascos which pass for state and local government in California these days. Tuman comes off as a fairly intelligent and well-spoken guy from the little I’ve seen of him on TV, but there’s more to running a municipal government than being smart and articulate. His website’s “issues and solutions” section is, in my view, unobjectionable but thin. (Increasing the Oakland Police Department’s size by more than 50% to 1100 officers is a nice goal, but on a day when more than 10 percent of Oakland’s police force was laid off, with further layoffs looking likely in a few months, it’ll take more than vague statements about reviewing compensation packages for new hires to convince me that Tuman has any great ideas for reversing the trend.) It’s mildly interesting to listen to him discussing the possibility of police layoffs on KCBS in late June, when he was commenting on city politics in his role as a disinterested analyst while he was presumably planning his entry into the Mayoral race behind the scenes at the same time.

At this point, I feel the same way I did in December: the only prospect that excites me in Oakland’s mayoral race is the possibility (a slim one, but a boy can always dream) that I might be ineligible to vote in it because I’ll no longer live in this mess of a city. There are some things I really like about Oakland—Arizmendi and the Lake Merritt pergola are apparently two that Joe Tuman and I share—but the more I pay attention to the city’s politics, the more disheartened I get. Maybe I’ll walk the dog down to Arizmendi in the morning, then head over to the Lake to see if Tuman has anything new or interesting to say at his press conference.

Arizmendi, the Grand Lake Theater, and…the Whitman campaign?

This storefront on Lakeshore Avenue is frequently rented by political campaigns, but I was still a bit surprised to see that Meg Whitman’s campaign had moved in, with a cooperative bakery down the street in one direction and a ferociously anti-Republican movie theater in the other (and just a few hundred yards from where I saw Jerry Brown jogging around Lake Merritt recently). There are more conservatives and Republicans in Oakland than our leftier-than-thou reputation might lead one to believe, but I think it’s safe to say that the Grand Lake area will be fairly solid Brown territory come November.

I wonder if the Whitman campaign’s incursion into Oakland is less about trying to win Oakland votes and more about sending a message to the Brown campaign that the erstwhile eBay CEO is prepared to spend whatever it takes to be the highest bidder in California’s gubernatorial auction—not that those two things are mutually exclusive, of course.

Sun Rays

Sun Rays


Many people own Kryptonite U-locks; some unfortunate people own Kryptonite figure-8-locks instead:

A Cautionary Picture

(Incidentally, something doesn’t seem to quite add up here. The lock, while bent out of shape, is unbroken. So why did the thief even bother trying to break the lock, if he was able to steal almost all of the bike without worrying about the lock at all? Or am I missing something?)

Gone Fishin’

No, I didn’t go fishing myself (although that might make a good excuse for the lack of blog posts recently), but some fishermen and sailboats made for a nice scene on the Oakland estuary early one evening last week:

Regatta de Blanc

Everything Else is Purple Prose

“The ball is round; the game lasts 90 minutes; everything else is pure theory.”
— Attributed to Sepp Herberger

The World Cup begins tomorrow. This means, of course, that it’s time for romantics worldwide to abandon themselves to a monthlong orgy of self-indulgence. For most of us, this just means plopping down on barstools before 7 am, or sneaking out of work for a long lunch in order to get worked up over a match between two countries that we couldn’t confidently find on a map, but for professional writers, such as novelist Rabih Alameddine, the urge to channel this quadrennial folie à deux billion into published prose is apparently irresistible:

A soccer game is a Wagner opera. The narrative sets up, the tension builds, the music ebbs and flows, the strings, the horns, more tension, and suddenly a moment of pure bliss, trumpet-tongued Gabriel sings, and gods descend from Olympus to dance—this peak of ecstasy.

During these moments, I no longer am my usual self, no longer human. I am connected to life. Call it bliss, call it ecstasy, call it what you will.

In that moment, I not only see God, I am God.

I am not only connected to life, I am connected to my TV!

Of course, not every game has these moments, just like not every opera is Wagnerian. Some games are delightful Puccinis, others are Verdis.

None are a Lady Gaga song.

The TV and Lady Gaga remarks suggest that his tongue is in the general vicinity of his cheek, but when a soccer fanatic gets on a roll like this, no amount of ironic self-awareness can dilute the pathos. (“I always considered the 1812 Overture to be the best allegory for the male orgasm, while Wagner, with its peaks, more female,” he goes on to say.)

I plan to join in the global madness too, but it may be prudent for me to keep this blog football free, lest I start waxing operatic myself…

Over AA

On my way to work today, I stumbled upon this amusing juxtaposition in Union Point Park:

Off the Wagon?

Dr. Strangebike

I seem to see more odd customized bikes in Alameda than anywhere else. This was down the block from where the family bike was parked last month, and across the street from where I spotted the tiki bike last year

Dr. Strangebike

The guy who was riding this did have a cowboy hat on, but it wasn’t Slim Pickens.