Oakland has great weather, amazing architecture, extensive public transportation, three professional sports teams, beautiful neighborhoods, miles of parks and hiking trails, and plenty of good restaurants and clubs.
But too often those attributes are not what defines Oakland to the outside world because the headlines that grab national attention usually have to do with crime and violence. The perception that Oakland is unsafe, that its Police Department is corrupt, that it's not the best place to do business or raise a family, makes the East Bay city a hard sell when it comes to wooing new business.
City and business leaders have made strides to overcome that image through regional collaboration, outreach,
But Oakland's image took another hit as the national spotlight zeroed in on the shooting death of an unarmed man by a BART police officer early New Year's Day, caught on cell phone video shown in the media over and over. That tragedy was compounded Wednesday night by a protest that turned violent, with the media airing extensive footage of bands of rioters facing off against police in riot gear and smashing the windows of downtown businesses and parked cars.
It is not the welcoming, open-for-business image civic leaders have tried so hard to cultivate.
Windows were smashed at Fashion & Art Revival, a
Taylor and her neighbors banded together the next morning and decided to put a spin on the incident by decorating the plywood covering their broken store windows with defiant slogans advertising they are open for business. Still, they know anything that damages Oakland's reputation won't help bring business their way.
"Certainly it will make it harder," she said. "Despite being a local independent business, we understand it's the larger stores that bring in the traffic. My friends in Montclair head to Emeryville and Walnut Creek to do their shopping. I (ask) them to come downtown, but they just don't recognize the benefits of shopping locally."
Taylor loves Oakland, but she's often reminded that her home city's tarnished reputation is hard to overcome.
"I struggle when I talk to other friends and relatives across the country," she said. "It's a constant re-education, and it's so important for us to educate our local and national contacts. We all have to do our part, and our little signs will do some of that."
Oakland has rebounded and reinvented itself many times, most notably after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1991 Oakland hills fire.
Before the bottom fell out of the housing market early last year, downtown Oakland was a boomtown of residential construction. Although those new condominiums have been hard to sell in the current economic climate, the new apartments are filling up, and the promise of thousands of new residents downtown has spurred the opening of several popular restaurants in neighborhoods that, until recently, were virtual ghost towns after dark.
The long-anticipated reopening of the Fox Theater will happen next month with hopes of enticing more people to experience Oakland.
Will it help? Ken Meyersieck, senior vice president of Colliers International Oakland office, thinks yes, but not overnight. He likens the new restaurants to canaries in a coal mine. If they succeed, more will follow.
"We're not going to convince Nordstrom to put a store in downtown Oakland right now, but if you continue to build infrastructure with the housing and restaurants and arts, and attract more office development so you have a daytime and nighttime population, ultimately that is what will be attractive to those retailers," Meyersieck said. "They need critical mass for those types of stores."
Meyersieck is a commercial office broker who represents businesses that want space and property owners who are looking for tenants. He said the biggest hurdle to selling Oakland is getting the decision makers to visit. Once they are here, they like what they see. But the events of the past week won't make his job easier.
"Obviously yes, it will be harder to market Oakland," he said. "Unfortunately, it's a continual battle of dealing with negative perceptions. It's a great place to work. "... I'm here every day, and crime isn't the problem."
Reesa Tansey handles retail leases for Colliers and worked on the city of Oakland's retail strategy project. She said Oakland has the right ingredients for retail — population, buying power, need — but the perception of crime, and actual crimes such as last year's run of takeover robberies, are a challenge to overcome. The BART shooting and the violent protests add to Oakland's reputation, and not in a good way.
"When you don't know about something and you're far away and hear the news, it's easy to think the worst," Tansey said.
"I had a friend who picked somebody up from the airport, and she asked if it was safe to come into Oakland," Tansey said. "Do (the headlines) hurt? Of course it hurts. But the reality is we have a jewel here."
Tansey said city leaders and business leaders have to work harder to educate people about Oakland's qualities.
Aliza Gallo, business development manager for Oakland's Community and Economic Development Agency, said the quick response by Mayor Ron Dellums to provide financial aid to the shop owners whose windows were smashed during Wednesday's violent protests will do just that by demonstrating that Oakland stands behind its business community.
"As part of our solution to come out of this situation, we have to make a really big effort to have residents, employees and visitors know that one, we are open for business, and two, that we help our businesses when they are in trouble," Gallo said.