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
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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.

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