OAKLAND — The name alone is often enough to summon fear in the hearts of some Bay Area residents.
"Oakland? I'm not going up there," said Rani Agarwala, 38, a former stockbroker from San Jose, now a veterinarian assistant. "I don't even like to drive on 880 where it goes through Oakland in case I run out of gas and have to exit the freeway and get lost in some neighborhood. I don't wanna get shot."
That perception comes, in large part, from media coverage focusing heavily on the city's homicides.
Murder is certainly an epidemic in some Oakland areas — there have been 53 homicides so far in 2008, compared with 38 at this time in 2007. But in reality, the odds of a random, lost, out-of-towner being murdered on the street in Oakland are pretty slim.
Authorities have long said it's rare that you'll become a shooting victim as long as you are not involved in criminal activity yourself, you don't hang out with other people who are, and you avoid areas known for such things.
"Basically, if you're not coming into town to buy drugs or sex, you should be OK," according to one investigator.
That said, you still might get robbed.
Murder gets the headlines, but — as in any large city — robberies and other crimes rack up the fear factor just as much.
You might not know that from the statistics. Even with several high-profile "takeover"-style restaurant robberies in April, daily crime-report statistics through early May compiled by the Oakland Police Department show robbery was up only 2 percent overall from the same time last year. Armed robbery saw no change, while residential robbery was down 7 percent. Forcible rape was down by 16 percent, and burglary also dropped by 2 percent overall. Carjacking, however, was up 12 percent.
But statistics don't mean much when you're right in the middle of the fray.
"I don't care what the statistics say, the perception (of crime in Oakland) really depends on your particular pocket that happens to be taking the brunt of the crime at any given time," said Christopher Waters, owner of Nomad Cafe at 65th Street and Shattuck Avenue in North Oakland.
"We're experiencing a recent 'cooling' period as far as robberies and muggings in the immediate neighborhood," he saod. "But in the last eight to 10 months, we've had so many muggings immediately in front of or near the Nomad, it's been really disturbing. Four years went by, and there was nothing — nothing — like this at all. Then it spiked."
Waters lives eight doors down from the Nomad, and has been there for about 11 years. He said there was a lot of prostitution and drug dealing on that stretch of Shattuck until he opened the cafe.
"We really changed the face of that part of North Oakland," he said. "But crime doesn't really go away. It just pushes little pockets of crime up and down the main corridor. Nomad effectively pushed the crime past Alcatraz. But the last few months — I don't know if it's the mortgage crisis or economic downturn — but my customers, my staff, me, the residential residents of the building upstairs, have been robbed right and left."
His customers have had their laptops stolen and wallets taken at gunpoint, he said. Robbers have walked into the cafe and swiped customers' personal belongings right off the tables, he said.
Waters and others in the area became so alarmed by crime that they called a meeting with Oakland, Berkeley and BART police. Merchants and residents say there has been some decline in crime in recent days, and they've taken some matters into their own hands.
"We've been proactive," Waters said. "Against better judgment, we've actually chased some of these people down and cornered them and gotten laptops back. We do not make ourselves an easy target. But we're not police-state people. We just want an effective police presence addressing the immediate issues in the short-term, while we work on sustainable solutions — education, better economic opportunities.
"But right now, in our little corner of North Oakland, we need a stop-gap," he said.
That area of North Oakland has had a history of crime. But even in so-called "nice" neighborhoods, some merchants have had their share of problems.
One merchant in the Rockridge district, who asked that his name and store not be mentioned, has had his business here since 1990.
"I would never live in Oakland," he said. "I live in Walnut Creek. The businesses on this street are really good — nice restaurants, bars, right up and down the street. But you still get people in here that you have to run out. Muggings on the side streets.
"I don't go anywhere in Oakland," he said. "I go from here, to my car, to the tunnel. That's it."
In contrast, the manager of a jewelry store across the street said her store, which has been in that location for 10 years, has never had any problem at all.
"Of course, the door is kept locked, and we let people in through a buzzer on the door," said the manager, who declined to be identified. "But customers feel safe going in and out of here with large purchases, valuable items. You hear about (crime), but it doesn't affect us that much."
While street crime may come and go in some neighborhoods, it's a seemingly permanent fixture in others.
Adrian Saavedra, one of the owners of the popular El Hurache Azteca restaurant on International Boulevard in the Fruitvale district, which has been in business for seven years, was relieved spring — and Daylight Saving Time — arrived.
"It's safer when it's lighter in the evening," he said.
But Saavedra still has concerns about crime.
"I have really thought about moving or selling," he said. "The economy's bad, but even more it's the crime. My brother was killed in November, at Fruitvale and International. He was 36. He was coming from work in San Francisco off of BART, and he walked to his house. They went to his house and hit him in the head; they beat him till he died. Also, my 15-year-old nephew was assaulted by gang members. They hit him. They say he didn't belong here. He say, 'No I'm living here.' We had to find another school for him, and his family moved to another part of town."
The city of Oakland has pumped more than $10 million into Fruitvale to revitalize the area, yet it is still plagued by crime — including Latino gang violence, prostitution and robberies of local merchants.
Community leaders hope to transform the light industrial area with several commercial, residential and retail development projects in the works. The 2-1/2-square-mile East Oakland neighborhood is a popular hub for immigrants settling from Mexico and Central and South America.
"Every day there's something," Saavedra said. "Too many things are happening in the street. Most in the evening, but in the afternoons, too. Assault. Robbery. My co-worker was assaulted the other day, leaving here about 10 at night. We always try to move our cars close to the door before it gets dark, but he couldn't move it that day. So a few blocks away, right when he got to his car, three guys rob him and beat him.
"Many customers, they say they didn't come because of this. But the most dangerous time is winter time, when it gets dark early. For us, the crime, it is very real. It's not imaginations."