31 December 2007

Mom And I Go To Oakland

Saturday being my next to last day in California, I asked Mom if she'd like to go with me on a little outing. She can still drive, but won't do so on freeways or major highways, so it's not too often that she gets out of the orbit of church, shopping mall and senior center, all of which can be found in about a ten-block radius of her house.

She was up for it, but we had a little trouble deciding where exactly we should go. Downtown San Francisco didn't make sense because of the traffic. I suggested BARTing it instead, but she said, "I can do that anytime; we should go somewhere I can't drive to on my own. She wasn't at all interested in going someplace scenic like the Marin Headlands or the San Francisco Presidio. "I'm not in the mood for the country. I want to go somewhere in town."

"Ever been to San Jose?" I asked half-flippantly. "Yes, a couple of times," she replied, which is at least one more time than I've been there. But no, that wasn't it, either. Finally she decided on Oakland. She and my dad lived there for a while in the early 90s, and they both had happy memories of that time, before he broke his hip and the two of them could still get around by public transit and walking.

So we decided to revisit some of their old haunts. "It must be ten years since I was here," became the afternoon's refrain. First we stopped in Rockridge, which was in walking distance of their old house, and she pointed out the restaurants and cafes they used to stop at, all of which were either packed out with Saturday afternoon shoppers without a free table in sight or had long ago gone out of business. I did my requisite bit of bitching about Oakland a dysfunctional city administered by baboons recently escaped from the insane asylum, this time (it's always something) triggered by the unsynchronized traffic lights and the one-hour parking limit on College Avenue, i.e., enough time to get seated at one of the local restaurants, but not enough to finish your meal before being hit with a $50 parking ticket.

We finally gave up trying to find anywhere to eat in Rockridge and migrated over to Piedmont Avenue. Here we had some better luck, both in parking (several blocks away, but it was free and we had two hours) and in finding something to eat. Nothing fancy, true - just as in Rockridge, the nice restaurants were oversubscribed or unaccountably closed for the day - but certainly adequate. By then we'd covered a couple miles on foot, and Mom was getting a bit tired - she is 89, after all - so we embarked on a driving tour of the less salubrious parts of Oakland, i.e., pretty much everywhere else.

We cruised along Broadway for a while, which she remembered from when my dad and she used to take the bus downtown. I pointed out the many vacant storefronts, the shopping center that more or less isn't there anymore, the spot where Dr. Frank got attacked by racist thugs in broad daylight a year or two ago. Then we were downtown, also littered with vacant or under-utilized buildings and storefronts, but also punctuated by new construction, presumably the residual result of former Mayor Jerry Brown's plan to build apartments for 10,000 new residents, most of whom haven't showed up yet.

"Looks kind of like Detroit before they burned it down," I suggested, but Mom, who grew up in Detroit, wasn't seeing it. In some part of her world, Detroit will always be beautiful regardless of what's happened to it in more recent years, and so, I suspect, will Oakland.

She was especially keen on seeing Jack London Square, which she and Dad frequently visited in the 90s, but that turned out to be the biggest disappointment. I myself hadn't been there in years, and while it's still picturesque, it suffers from the same disease as much of Oakland: half the storefronts are vacant, and those that were occupied were doing little or no business. By the time we'd strolled around a few blocks, it was beginning to get dark and the few shoppers/tourists/hangers-on still on the scene melted away. It was as though everyone had to get off the streets before nightfall and the zombie attacks began.

One thing that puzzled me was the plethora of reasonably decent hotels in the vicinity. Why on earth would someone want to stay there, in a back corner of Oakland not particularly well served by public transport and cut off from civilization by the couple miles of terribleness that are downtown, West Oakland, East Oakland, etc.? I know (or so I've been told) that Jack London Square offers a fair bit of night life, but I'd been led to understand that it too frequently involved gunplay for most conventioneers to find it appealing.

After leaving JLS, we took a rambling route through many of the parts of Oakland you're probably better off avoiding, as State Senator Don Perata found out that same afternoon when he was carjacked at gunpoint on the corner of 51st and Shattuck. I would say that it could have been us instead, but I rather doubt that our '95 Buick would have the same appeal to thugs as the Senator's fancy-pants Dodge Charger. But that reminded me that during our entire time in Oakland, during which we covered quite a few square miles, I never saw a single cop. Well, I did see one, but he was an Alameda County Sheriff's Deputy on official business, not an Oakland cop on patrol. Come to think of it, it's been so long since I've seen an actual Oakland cop that I don't even remember what their cars look like (black and white, I'm thinking, but as I said, it's been a long time).

Mom enjoyed the outing, I think, and I did, too, both because of her company, and also because the nice bits of Oakland were, um, nice, and the rotten bits left us unscathed. But quite apart from that, I found the overall sight and spectacle of Oakland rather deeply depressing. It's a failing city suffering from corrupt and/or incompetent government, and while its resemblance to Detroit - a failed city on a scale similar to several West African states - is mostly superficial, it's not unimaginable that it could follow a similarly dismal trajectory.

It probably won't, thanks to its being surrounded by a somewhat more healthy metropolitan area, and to the force of gentrification, which might - just might - eventually produce a more responsive and responsible city government. But at present I could see it going either way, and my one overriding thought is one of gratitude that Mom doesn't live there anymore and that - with any luck - I will never have to.


joseph said...

I knew the Don Perata carjacking would catch your attention. And it had to happen on Shattuck Avenue no less.

Enjoy every minute of your mother's company. I would give most anything to spend just one more day with my mom - especially around the holidays. Happy New Year!

Blog Gently said...

I know and love-hate the Oakland you described all to well, from the people running it to the people sleeping on its streets. And I live blocks from JLS - you describe it exactly as it has been for years now. Blame the clueless developers who look after its real-estate - they claim that space can't be filled until the have more space... but it was certainly a lot more bustling when I first moved here in '94. The best time to visit is a sunny Sunday morning when the farmer's market is on. Then take the ferry to SF embarcadero and BART back. Here's hoping that JLS and Oakland may one day have its heyday back again...