Oakland–the Next Brooklyn?

Someone walking today through Brooklyn might be hard-pressed to envision its rougher eras. Much of the borough is now defined by cafes and renovated brownstones, and a new basketball arena. But in the 1970s Brooklyn was, along with the burning Bronx, a national showcase in urban blight. This continued through the 1980s crack epidemic, when neighborhoods like Bushwick suffered crime and abandonment, and some intentional fires of their own. It wasn’t until New York City’s overall reemergence the last twenty years that Brooklyn became trendy, full of these amenities, and a bunch of postmodern writers named Jonathan. Just last year it was labeled by GQ the “coolest city on the planet”.

It might be equally hard to imagine, while walking through Oakland, a similar transformation into what Brooklyn is now. The Bay Area city regularly ranks near the top in the nation in crime, and in 2010 was California’s most dangerous city. These rankings were validated by what I found when visiting one Sunday in early September. Main boulevrds like Foothill and MacArthur were marked by empty storefronts and cracked pavement. Many of the detailed craftsman homes that would sell for over a million in nearby cities were boarded up, their yards overgrown with weeds. And the public spaces were strewn with trash, right down to the very square outside city hall.

But despite this Oakland, like Brooklyn before, has experienced a recent revival downtown. This has caused one local publication to call it the “next” version of that hallowed borough—a comparison that invited ridicule from the digital peanut gallery, but that seemed feasible to me even while walking some of its more uninviting streets.

The comparison begins with location. Oakland and Brooklyn are unique from other U.S. cities, in that they’re the main satellite ones for the two that define America’s urban culture—Manhattan and San Francisco. They are intertwined with these cities not just geographically, but through housing and transit. When NYU began pricing out artists from Greenwich Village, for example, those artists formed communities in Williamsburg and the aforementioned Bushwick. This is also happening in the Bay Area, where techies from Silicon Valley have pushed lesser-income—but certainly not poor—professionals and artists out of San Francisco. Many of them have moved to Oakland, adding life to the streets, and to once-dilapidated amenities like Fox Theatre and Lake Merritt.

Of course these professionals could live elsewhere, but choose Oakland for another of its similarities with Brooklyn—the built fabric, or what some call the “bones”. Indeed people like Brooklyn not only for its brownstones, but for how these brownstones fit together contextually. Most were built before automobiles, side-by-side, within rows that wove together along the borough’s hills, forming a maze of dense neighborhoods. Mixed into these were parks and elevated church steeples, which provided focal points from afar. These neighborhoods also pressed against industrial uses, like warehouses and docks. To a bureaucrat, this might emphasize failures caused by that era’s lack of zoning regulations. But to locals it has given Brooklyn a gritty and organic feel. These same features, like a dense layout, historic housing, and the mixture of commercial and industrial uses, also define much of Oakland.

Another similarity the two have is diversity. Along with a strong Asian presence, the portions of Oakland that are white, black and Hispanic are rather close by percentage—something unusual for America. This has resulted less in ghettoization, than in little ethnic pockets which preserve existing cultures—from the Chinatown along International Boulevard; to the Mexican markets in Fruitvale; to progressive whites who spill from Berkeley into the city’s hills; to storefront churches on the eastside, where black preachers can be heard screaming into their microphones from down the street.

So why hasn’t Oakland, with all these advantages, become Brooklyn already? Likely because of its inability to provide basic services, which at bottom is what determines the success of any city. Before Brooklyn was renewed by culture, a la Mayor Bloomberg, it was by the reestablishment of such services under Mayor Giuliani, namely law enforcement. But along with paved streets and clean sidewalks, Oakland fails even at these. In 2010 it cut 10% of its police force, causing crime to rise. Its schools are still ranked near the bottom for cities in California. Both of these are problems in a region divided by municipalities that compete for exiles from San Francisco. Oakland will have to improve its services if it wants to win this competition, which given its resources, should be in its sight.

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1 Comment

  1. What a great topic for your post, not just for those from the Big Apple or Bay Area, but for everyone interested in the revitalization of cities.


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