Anyone who read the Chronicle's Sunday Insight section ("Crime and Exodus: When a Lover of Oakland Can't Take it Anymore") would come away thinking Oakland is a wasteland of gangsters shooting it out on the city streets — when they're not too busy robbing people.
The paper relied on an opinion piece ("Long Commute Better than Living in Oakland") by Susan Gluss, director of media relations at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, about how crime forced her to flee to Marin.
Instead of offering other opinions about the issue, Chip Johnson added a column to the section, "Violence — Oakland's Most Dubious Honor," in which he claimed that many people are forsaking the city because of the rampant violence that is terrorizing them.
Gluss and Johnson didn't back up their arguments with facts about any kind of exodus. And Johnson, arguing that overall crime has been increasing steadily since 2006, dismissed Oakland Police Department statistics and a recent ranking of Oakland as the nation's fifth-most dangerous city — down from the No. 4 spot the previous year.
Fear is powerful, whether based on facts or perception. I admit this city is not for everyone, but I just don't see an exodus.
Oakland's 1980 population was 339,337. On Jan. 1, it was 420,183, according to the California Department of Finance. (The U.S. Census only has 2006 numbers right now for Oakland.)
Restaurants and cafes are opening at a jaw-dropping pace, including several from San Francisco that have opened or are planning new Oakland locales. Ozumo restaurant celebrated its downtown opening last week with Sumo wrestlers and Taiko drummers outside on Grand Avenue and Broadway and a party inside. The Fox Theatre recently flipped the switch on its marquee lights for the first time in decades.
On the business side, an Alameda company and a San Francisco company are expanding operations to Oakland. Oakland has everything, the finance director of the Alameda firm said when asked why Cerexa Inc. decided to make the move.
Gluss had some harrowing experiences with crime. I understand. I was burglarized four times in two years in Berkeley. I was awakened once at 3 a.m. so officers could search my backyard for an armed gunman who had held up a home with children three houses down at the corner of Dana and Blake streets.
Crime is why I left Berkeley to return to Oakland, in which I had lived in just about every corner, including East Oakland and Lake Merritt. I don't feel entirely safe alone at night on some streets, but no less so than in San Francisco, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. — cities I know as intimately as this one. That said, I can't speak for everyone. My experience is influenced by my race, class, gender and career.
I'm not trying to make excuses for Oakland. As one of the Tribune's crime reporters, too many times have I had to talk to sorrowed families on the wrong side of the yellow crime scene tape to dismiss the city's well-chronicled violence, which often is not random.
But as the entertainment writer, I see that Oakland is a multifaceted city. Perhaps we could engage the city in its entirety to assess whether fencing ourselves off behind cynical attitudes or suburban exile makes Oakland a safer, saner place. In other words, it's time to step back and ask, What is wrong and what are the solutions? Why are some corners of Oakland thriving and others struggling?
Urban-planning master Jane Jacobs wrote, "The bedrock attribute of a successful city district is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among all these strangers." It does not take much to make people fear the streets, she continued in her book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."
In a very simplified nutshell, Jacobs said a busy city street — not solely a heavily policed street — is a safer place. Without people out shopping, dining, walking, gossiping or snooping, a neighborhood can be dangerous. And city planning can work against safety with sterile configurations that don't lure people.
"To build city districts that are custom-made for easy crime is idiotic," she wrote in 1961. "Yet that is what we do."
Unfortunately, urban planners in Oakland, San Francisco and elsewhere kept on doing just that until high-density was back in vogue. Crime breeds in dark, empty spaces with which we are still stuck. Even the rash of restaurant robberies happened after closing hours, or the thieves struck in vulnerable locations.
Several suspects eventually were arrested by police, who had increased their patrols, and merchants made changes, including lighting and hiring private security.
The Rockridge district, which got the most attention when Pasta Pomodoro was hit by the robbers, didn't skip a beat, despite what some headlines claimed.
That's all for now, ladies and gentlemen. If you have a cool shindig, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.