Can Oakland Escape San Francisco’s Shadow?

Democratic Mayor Jean Quan explains why the city is another Brooklyn—and the violent Occupy protests are just a blip.

Oakland mayor Jean Quan (D) speaks during a press conference to launch the new Oakland Municipal identification card on February 1, 2013 in Oakland, California. Oakland became the first city in the nation to offer a municipal identification card that also doubles as a debit card. The card is available to all city residents as well as illegal immigrants and will allow people to use the debit card function to avoid check-cashing fees. The city expects to issue at least 6,000 of the $15 cards in the first year.
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
See more stories about...
Sophie Quinton
Oct. 6, 2013, 7:44 p.m.

This art­icle is part of a weeklong Amer­ica 360 series on Oak­land.

*COR­REC­TION: The ori­gin­al ver­sion of this story in­cluded a heav­ily-ed­ited series of quotes that in­ac­cur­ately re­flec­ted May­or Quan’s sen­ti­ments, while also omit­ting cru­cial con­text. It has been re­placed by an un­broken quote from the may­or.

Oak­land is the Bay Area’s Rust Belt town. For years, the city of some 400,000 has struggled to cope with the loss of man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs and the ex­odus of pros­per­ous res­id­ents to the sub­urbs. City and county gov­ern­ment and hos­pit­al sys­tems re­main the largest em­ploy­ers here. Many people as­so­ci­ate Oak­land with poverty and crime.

But the re­gion’s tech boom hasn’t passed Oak­land by. Soar­ing rents in San Fran­cisco are push­ing en­tre­pren­eurs, artists, and young people in­to the East Bay. There’s a high­er rate of new busi­ness cre­ation in the low-cost East Bay than in San Fran­cisco and Sil­ic­on Val­ley, ac­cord­ing to the Bay Area Coun­cil Eco­nom­ic In­sti­tute. Pan­dora, the on­line mu­sic stream­ing ser­vice, got its start in Oak­land and re­mains headquartered there.

When May­or Jean Quan took of­fice in Janu­ary 2011, Oak­land was fa­cing big mu­ni­cip­al debts, a fore­clos­ure crisis, and state budget cuts for everything from schools to pris­ons. Later that year, the po­lice force ini­ti­ated a vi­ol­ent crack­down against Oc­cupy Oak­land pro­test­ers. Na­tion­al Journ­al sat down with Quan in her Oak­land of­fice to talk about her ten­ure and the city’s fu­ture. Ed­ited ex­cerpts fol­low.

What makes you most hope­ful about Oak­land’s fu­ture and what is your biggest chal­lenge?

Oak­land has been in the shad­ow of San Fran­cisco for a long time, but it has a very in­ter­est­ing his­tory of its own, of be­ing very di­verse and a place where in­nov­a­tion takes place. It was the end of the transcon­tin­ent­al rail­road and the home of the Pull­man port­ers. Like New York, it’s a port city where im­mig­rants first come and main­tain ties.

We’re con­tra­dict­ory. I have neigh­bor­hoods in the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munity where more than 50 per­cent of the young men don’t gradu­ate from high school. But we also have high num­bers of gradu­ate de­grees. We’re the ori­gin­al home of the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia; we’re close to the Uni­versity of Berke­ley. You’ve got this im­mense di­versity, not just in terms of eth­ni­city but also in­come. It gen­er­ates a kind of en­ergy and in­nov­a­tion that’s at the heart of the city.

We’re a little bit like Brook­lyn. Be­cause Oak­land is so much more af­ford­able than San Fran­cisco, the whole arts scene has shif­ted over here. The food scene has taken off. Those kinds of cul­tur­al things have made Oak­land very de­sir­able.

* And so, you asked me what my chal­lenge is. Well, my chal­lenge is to let people know what the new Oak­land looks like. Some­body just sent me an email say­ing, ‘Oh, you should have more black po­lice since more than 50 per­cent of your res­id­ents are black.’ And I’m like, ‘Ac­tu­ally, no, 28 per­cent of my res­id­ents are black, but we’re pretty evenly di­vided between blacks, whites, Lati­nos, and Asi­ans these days.’ But that’s their im­age of Oak­land—and this is some­body who lives in the Bay Area.

So if you’re on the East Coast… I was really mad when the Wall Street Journ­al did this art­icle, and they talked about Stock­ton, and they threw us in. Our fin­ances are the best they’ve been in a dec­ade. 

The state of Cali­for­nia elim­in­ated re­devel­op­ment fund­ing in 2012 that helped cit­ies com­bat urb­an blight. How are you cop­ing with the loss of that money?

We’ve been able to get in­vest­ments — par­tic­u­larly from Chinese in­vestors. The Za­r­sion loan in the Brook­lyn Basin is the largest single in­vest­ment in the United States from a Chinese com­pany: $1.5 bil­lion to do about 3,100 hous­ing units. Quite a few down­town build­ings have been bought by de­velopers, ren­ov­ated and re­stored us­ing EB-5 dol­lars [an im­mig­ra­tion pro­gram that grants visas to for­eign­ers who in­vest and cre­ate jobs in the U.S].

Oak­land is this place — be­cause of the high per­cent­age of im­mig­rants, and be­cause we’re a port city — where the con­nec­tions between East and West can really be ex­per­i­mented with. [San Fran­cisco May­or] Ed Lee and I are some of the first Chinese-Amer­ic­an may­ors of ma­jor cit­ies. I think the re­la­tion­ship between China and the U.S. will be the most im­port­ant re­la­tion­ship in this next cen­tury.

Much of the new money that will be avail­able from the state for hous­ing will be for trans­it-ori­ented de­vel­op­ment. I’m go­ing to the Twin Cit­ies to look at one of the pro­jects they’re do­ing. It’s a de­vel­op­ment along a thor­ough­fare between the two cit­ies, sim­il­ar to what we’re go­ing to be do­ing over on In­ter­na­tion­al Boulevard [a bus, car, and bike cor­ridor that spans much of the city].

What about ad­dress­ing crime? That’s an­oth­er area where budgets are tight.

You have to have enough en­force­ment to give the neigh­bor­hood some teeth, but you can’t just have po­lice. You have to have an in­ter­ven­tion that will change be­ha­vi­or. And lastly, you have to have some in­vest­ment in pre­ven­tion, and that in­cludes good-pay­ing jobs, good schools, and in­creas­ingly we all be­lieve pro­grams like the Har­lem Chil­dren’s Zone.

We’ve beefed up our po­lice academy, and that should bring us al­most back to where we were [in po­lice staff­ing] in prere­ces­sion days. We’re giv­ing each area a crime re­duc­tion team of eight of­ficers that they can move around to hot­spots. How you use your cops, and not the num­ber of cops, is im­port­ant.

And we’ve built col­lab­or­a­tions. We were able to get the at­tor­ney gen­er­al and the White House to agree to put more fed­er­al mar­shals out here, and we agreed to some joint ac­tions that really helped take out some of our toughest gangs. We’ve tried to do di­ver­sion pro­grams, where we provide coun­sel­ing in­stead of send­ing kids to ju­ven­ile hall. We’ve spent some time pulling in some churches and so­cial agen­cies. I’m pretty con­fid­ent that as we con­tin­ue we’ll be able to bring vi­ol­ent crime down more.

Oak­land has a long his­tory of act­iv­ism. Do you think that his­tory con­trib­uted to the in­tens­ity of the Oc­cupy Wall Street protests here?

I think two things happened in Oak­land. We’re in the cen­ter of the Bay Area, so it’s easy for people to just get on a BART [Bay Area Rap­id Trans­it] and show up here. Since the World Trade con­fer­ence in Seattle [in 1999], there have been groups of an­arch­ists float­ing around.

A lot us agreed with the goals of Oc­cupy—with fight­ing what’s hap­pen­ing in Amer­ica, this huge gap between the rich and poor. I was in the first march. But on that first march, already the an­arch­ists were tak­ing over and wouldn’t let the uni­on lead­ers and oth­ers use their mi­cro­phone sys­tem. And I real­ized we were go­ing to have a prob­lem. The ac­tu­al evac­u­ation [of act­iv­ists from the en­camp­ment in Frank Ogawa Plaza] was pretty peace­ful. Then a very small group of very vi­ol­ent an­arch­ists cre­ated a po­lice ri­ot.

By the end, Oc­cupy had very few loc­al lead­ers. When they smashed the win­dows of the Obama cam­paign of­fices in Oak­land, that was prob­ably the last straw; they showed that they didn’t sup­port any­thing, they were against, against, against. Too many of the Oc­cupy people had not a clue about this city and how much harm they were do­ing to the loc­al eco­nomy. They thought they were be­ing re­volu­tion­ar­ies. We think they were very re­ac­tion­ary. If you want to find people who are work­ing on race, who are work­ing on af­ford­able hous­ing, the en­vir­on­ment—all of that hard work of tak­ing pro­gress­ive ideas and ac­tu­ally mak­ing them in­to gov­ern­ment policy hap­pens in this city every day.

What We're Following See More »
GOP Budget Chiefs Won’t Invite Administration to Testify
1 days ago

The administration will release its 2017 budget blueprint tomorrow, but the House and Senate budget committees won’t be inviting anyone from the White House to come talk about it. “The chairmen of the House and Senate Budget committees released a joint statement saying it simply wasn’t worth their time” to hear from OMB Director Shaun Donovan. Accusing the members of pulling a “Donald Trump,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the move “raises some questions about how confident they are about the kinds of arguments that they could make.”

Snowstorm Could Impact Primary Turnout
23 hours ago

A snowstorm is supposed to hit New Hampshire today and “linger into Primary Tuesday.” GOP consultant Ron Kaufman said lower turnout should help candidates who have spent a lot of time in the state tending to retail politicking. Donald Trump “has acknowledged that he needs to step up his ground-game, and a heavy snowfall could depress his figures relative to more organized candidates.”

A Shake-Up in the Offing in the Clinton Camp?
18 hours ago

Anticipating a primary loss in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Hillary and Bill Clinton “are considering staffing and strategy changes” to their campaign. Sources tell Politico that the Clintons are likely to layer over top officials with experienced talent, rather than fire their staff en masse.

Trump Is Still Ahead, but Who’s in Second?
5 hours ago

We may not be talking about New Hampshire primary polls for another three-and-a-half years, so here goes:

  • American Research Group’s tracking poll has Donald Trump in the lead with 30% support, followed by Marco Rubio and John Kasich tying for second place at 16%. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders leads Hillary Clinton 53%-41%.
  • The 7 News/UMass Lowell tracking poll has Trump way out front with 34%, followed by Rubio and Ted Cruz with 13% apiece. Among the Democrats, Sanders is in front 56%-40%.
  • A Gravis poll puts Trump ahead with 28%, followed by Kasich with 17% and Rubio with 15%.