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Oakland is the new epicenter of COVID-19 in the Bay Area

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The big news in Alameda County and Oakland, the county seat where I live, is that coronavirus is pretty much out of control. Infections are rapidly rising, hospitalizations are up, and so are deaths.

The center of the superspreading seems to be Lake Merritt and the adjacent Lakeside Park, which have aptly been called Oakland’s Crown Jewel. Unfortunately, the park continues to draw thousands of people, especially on weekends, who are coronavirus scoffers. They refuse to wear masks or to socially distance; with our beautiful weather, and with so many places of employment shut down, they gather early each day, their numbers swelling, until by afternoon the entire 122-acre park is basically one huge party.

The city and county have already issued requirements for masks and social distancing. The city has outlawed weekend parking around the park’s perimeter, and has instructed food trucks and kiosks that they can no longer do business there. But nobody’s listening. On a walk yesterday, the food trucks were gone, but there were literally hundreds and hundreds of kiosks, selling everything from candy and barbecue to clothing and jewelry. Cars were parked bumper to bumper even though every streetlamp bore an official city of Oakland notice prohibiting parking. Thousands of people were out and about, enjoying the 78-degree sunny weather. Some brought their dumbbells with them and were working out; many had boom boxes blaring loud music. In Snow Park, a smaller little city park across Lakeside Drive from Lakeside Park, some sort of organized activity was in progress: perhaps 500 young people jammed together, and barely a mask to be seen.

This situation naturally has caught the public’s attention. Many people, including me, are asking why the city is issuing regulations if it has no intention of enforcing them. Debate has erupted on social media, especially nextdoor.com. The two sides, if I can summarize their claims, are, one, the city should absolutely ban these gatherings and, if necessary, shut down the entire park. The other side is saying, basically, fuck off. In the words of one person who was replying to me specifically, “Mind your own business.” I don’t reply to such silliness, but someone else did, a woman I don’t know. “This is my business,” she informed him, adding that she’s a person of color and that the “fan effect” of epidemiology means that no one is safe, even if they make a point of staying away from the park.

How sad, how tedious it is that we’re having this conversation. I look around at all the people not wearing masks—young, old, Black, White, LatinX, Asian—and here’s what I see: smug, arrogant people. They may believe themselves to be “liberal” but in fact they’re playing the Trump game. (The person who told me to “mind your own business” even said that claims that Lakeside parties are spreading COVID-19 are “fake news.”) It’s pathetic that the President of the United States of America refused to take coronavirus seriously from Day One, and gave cover to the ignoramuses who don’t care if they’re party to the spread of sickness and death. One wants to approach these unmasked people and ask them what the hell is wrong with them, but one can’t, of course: these people are angry and rebellious anyway, and to challenge them is to risk a physical confrontation. So those of us who venture to the Lake must do so cautiously. And, of course, it’s not just the Lake that is the problem. These same morons who are contemptuous of public health at the Lake must be equally contemptuous in their own neighborhoods and homes.

This virus is spreading uncontrollably in my city and thousands and thousands of people just don’t give a damn. But pressure is mounting on our incompetent, politically ambitious mayor to do something about it. In my judgment the police are going to have to start citing people in large numbers. They have to ticket the illegally parked cars. They have to fine the kiosk vendors. And they definitely have to give citations to unmasked people.

I fully understand that this may not the best use of the police and that, in a city like Oakland, where so many people hate the cops, it could lead to flash points. But who else can stop the virus spreaders from their irresponsible behavior? The city has announced they’ve hired “ambassadors” to patrol the Lake. I go there every day (masked and keeping social distance) and have yet to see one. There can be nobody in the city of Oakland, or anywhere else in America for that matter, who doesn’t know exactly what’s going on. A boob who’s partying by the Lake is not going to suddenly “see the light” because some minimum-wage “ambassador” in an official shirt tells him to please wear a mask.

I fear for my city.


Oakland is waiting…

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“WE ARE UNGOVERNABLE” screams a chalk graffiti on a sidewalk not far from the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building at 1301 Clay Street, in downtown Oakland. The building, one of the city’s largest, was constructed in 1993, in a style that might be called Nineties Moderne. Meant to assert the power and authority of the U.S. government, it is neither ugly, as federal buildings from the 1950s are, nor particularly charming, although it does have a certain whimsicality. It consists of two 268-foot high towers, topped with pyramids and connected by a sky bridge. Its offices house the I.R.S., U.S. Coast Guard, and the Veterans Administration, and also include a federal courthouse and a post office. On May 29, a Black private security guard, hired to patrol the building during one of the protests following George Floyd’s murder, was assassinated; his white murderer has since been apprehended.

The “UNGOVERNABLE” graffiti is but one of thousands of others, expressing all sorts of leftist views, chalked or spraypainted onto sidewalks, shop windows, the plywood that covers shop windows, walls, doorways and bus stops throughout downtown Oakland, which has probably had more violent demonstrations than any other American city in recent years. Starting in the Autumn of 2011, when the Occupy movement was at its height, Oakland can reliably count on three or four tumultuous protests a year.

It’s impossible to know exactly who scribbled the “UNGOVERNABLE” graffiti on that sidewalk, but the person clearly wanted us to know his or her political leaning: the “A” in “UNGOVERNABLE” is capitalized within a circle, the international symbol of anarchism. The “A” stands, of course, for anarchy; the circle stands for “Order.” Together, they are said to mean “society seeks order in anarchy,” a phrase dating back to a French political tract from 1840, when “anarchism” was not against government in general, but against capitalistic banking interests. Our modern day, so-called “anarcho-punk” movement, which arose in the punk rock days of the 1970s, is against all government; it thrives in polyglot cities like Oakland. Actually, “thrive” might not be the most accurate description; since membership, as it were, is secretive and the people themselves prefer anonymity, we don’t know their numbers. But there seem to be—to my observation, anyway—a great many anarchists in Oakland. They tend to wear black, and be surly. And when they claim to be “UNGOVERNABLE,” we must take them at their word. They obey no authority, indeed they flout it. They respect no law, they have no bounds to which they will not go if given the opportunity, and this includes looting, vandalizing, robbing and torching small businesses whose employees usually are low-income people of color.

President Trump of late has famously sent federal troops to Portland, Oregon, and appears about to do so in Chicago, to protect (so he claims) federal property. On Tuesday, he threatened to do it in Oakland, which he called “a mess.” If the anarchists do strike in Oakland—and it’s inevitable that, sooner or later, they will—will they target the Dellums Federal Building, the only federal outpost (other than local post offices and a Social Security Administration unit) in my city of 430,000? If I were an anarchist, here’s how I’d be thinking: It’s the Wee Willie Keeler rule of “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” Willie Keeler was talking about baseball, but his rule applies if you’re trying to break the law and avoid getting busted. Trump has announced that he is prepared to “protect” the Dellums Federal Building with federal troops. Therefore, one strategy for the anarchists might be to avoid that particular hot spot and, if they’re truly intent on causing mayhem in Oakland, find another (non-federal) place to do it. There are plenty of options.

On the other hand, if you’re an anarchist seeking confrontation, then a run-in with federal troops might be just what you’re looking for. There’s already a public outcry against what Trump did in Portland. Our local anarchists might figure that a battle with Trump’s Troops could garner a great amount of sympathy for them, or at least further outrage against Trump. Then, too, if the anarchists are truly courageous (as opposed to sneaky little thugs who get away with their hit-and-run carnage under cover of darkness), they might consider themselves martyrs to stand up to the Gestapo, even if that means putting their limbs and lives on the line.

I walked over to the Dellums Federal Building yesterday afternoon. All quiet. The ground-floor windows were plywooded up, as they have been for weeks. A few employees came and went; a handful sat on benches in the bright, sunny courtyard, eating lunch. There was no sign of security, except for a single private guard off to the side, who looked like he couldn’t have fended off a child. And yet, as I took pictures, I couldn’t help but feel that someone was taking pictures of me. Surely Homeland Security, or the Border Patrol, or the FBI, or whoever these mystery federal agents are, already is scrutinizing the Dellums Federal Building. Surely Trump’s Troops are hunkered down nearby, maybe at the old, abandoned Naval Base in Alameda, ready to spring into action at, literally, a second’s notice.

We shall see. I’d hate to see more violence here. My city is broken and bleeding; what with the pandemic and the economic collapse, we can’t take much more. I went on nextdoor.com to express my prayer—that’s the word I used—that there will be no more violence in Oakland, a city I love. The resulting comments were, I suppose, predictable: I was immediately accused of favoring “property over lives.” Sigh. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother.


Will Oakland Kill Its Infant Marijuana Industry?

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For years, my town of Oakland has been at the center of the commercial marijuana business in America. Downtown is studded with medical marijuana clinics and small shops selling paraphernalia. (I, myself, have had a medical marijuana card for a long time.) Oakland’s pot entrepreneurs were forward-looking visionaries who never doubted that pot would be legal someday. They wanted to be like Henry Ford or Thomas Edison: in the forefront of an industry that would be very, very big.

On the last election day—which also saw the catastrophic election of Trump—California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 64, the California Marijuana Legalization Initiative (sponsored by my old friend, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom). It now is legal for Californians 21 years or older to grow and use pot. The proposition also placed two different kinds of taxes on pot: one on cultivation, for growers, and the other on users, at the retail price end. However, and apparently, Prop 64 does not mandate that other jurisdictions, such as cities and counties, cannot place additional taxes and restrictions on commercial marijuana. That’s where Oakland enters the picture—in a way that does not paint a very flattering picture of it.

A hard-core splinter group of city councilmembers is pushing for Oakland to do things that would effectively kill Oakland’s nascent pot industry, thereby undoing all the work of recent years. These council members are demanding that retail licenses be granted only to people living in districts—largely Black—in which large numbers of residents have been formerly convicted of violating marijuana laws, when weed was illegal. This would effectively limit license holders to those living in minority districts; its proponents call it “an equity permit program” but it’s really race-based discrimination against everyone else who lives in Oakland.

I suppose you could argue that minorities have been disproportionately convicted of drug crimes, although whether that’s true for pot, as opposed to crack cocaine, is arguable. Even if it is true, two wrongs don’t make a right. This is a misguided attempt—when you examine it closely—at a kind of reverse discrimination I find troubling.

As if this proposed rule isn’t bad enough, the rogue supervisors pushing it have another dumb idea: they want the City of Oakland to seize 25% of all pot business profits for the General Fund. Put yourself in the shoes of an aspiring marijuana entrepreneur: your margins are going to be thin enough, what with massive competition (including from Big Tobacco). Now, these morons from Oakland want to take one-quarter of your profits! Are you really sure you want to open a pot business in Oakland?

It’s unbelievable. Oakland is a city badly in need of revenue. The 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake destroyed downtown; it was twenty years before it began to recover, and then, Wham! the Great Recession put us right back into the hole. Since then, however, downtown Oakland has seen an exciting revitalization of restaurants, clubs, wine bars and the like, capped by Uber deciding to headquarter here, in the old Sears building (which also happens to be in the heart of the marijuana district). Revenues from pot dealers would have brought extraordinary sums into the City’s coffers. Instead, selfish, short-sighted councilmembers are trying their damnedest to kill the goose that’s laying the golden egg. Oakland politics has been broken for years because of race, and it’s really time for narrow-minded politicians to think of the City as a whole and put their parochial concerns aside.


Tasting Paso Robles wines in–Oakland!

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The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance held a big tasting at the Scottish Rite Temple

SCottish

(and don’t ask me what those Scottish “rites” are, cuz I don’t know!) yesterday. As this is just a hop, skip and jump from where I live, I took a walk along the Lake to catch up on what’s been happening down in that beautiful part of the Central Coast, whose wines I was one of the earliest national wine critics to commend.

LakeThis is Lake Merritt, across the avenue from the Scottish Rite Temple. My house is just behind that big brown building, which is a retirement community owned by the Episcopal Church.

(Incidentally, thank you to the Alliance for choosing Oakland. This is a great city to have wine events in, and I’m grateful for you for selecting us!)

Since 2014, Paso Robles has had eleven sub-AVAs within its greater borders but, as the Alliance’s communications director, Chris Taranto, told us, it took seven years to make that happen! Which sort of made me shudder, because as you probably know I’m trying to get a new AVA up in Willamette Valley. But I don’t think it’s going to take seven years…

I’m not going to publish all my tasting notes from the event. But here’s one I really liked:

Jada Vineyards 2013 Strayts, $50. This is a blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. The alcohol is a hefty 15.2%, but the wine isn’t at all hot…I’d call it mouth-warming. Black in color, with impressive aromas of dark chocolate, bacon, violets, blackberry jam and smoky oak. A big, thick, dramatic wine with a wonderful texture: caressing and lively. Rich in tannins, sweet in fruit, but fully dry. I thought the wine is best consumed early, to appreciate its fresh, vibrant fruit, and scored it 92 points.

Paso still seems to have that element of experimentalism that always made me admire it. When I was at Wine Enthusiast, I wrote (and blogged) about how some Napa Valley winemakers were migrating there because, they told me, they felt that in Napa their hands were tied, making expensive Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas in Paso, they felt they could be free. Since Paso had no overwhelming reputation for any particular variety or style, they could make anything they wanted, any blend, no matter how weird or unconventional. I think Paso Robles still has that admirable quality: a place that, like the Wild West, lets you be whatever your aspirations envision.

Before the big tasting, they had a seminar, and, having been on a zillion of those in my time, it brought back memories of sitting on panels and hoping to have an excited, happy audience. I must admit to thinking there’s got to be a better format for these things. As it is, everybody sticks the winemakers at a table on a dais in front of the audience. There’s a moderator, the audience tastes wines in turn, and the winemakers talk about their wines, usually in technical terms. You can see people zoning out, in some cases, as the winemakers go on and on about clay and fog and barrels. I wrote, “We need a new conversational model for these things. How can we make them more lively and interactive?” I admit I don’t have any good answers. I’m good at diagnosing the problem but the solution, if any, is eluding me. Maybe there is no solution; it comes down to personalities. Some speakers are more exciting than others. And some audiences are more participatory and more willing to get involved than others. Whenever I’ve been on a panel, I try to stir things up a little bit, and whenever I’m in the audience, I feel like I have a responsibility to make this thing a success, so I ask a few questions and make a few remarks. It takes a village to pull of a successful wine event.

Have a lovely weekend!


San Francisco and Oakland: Not-so kissing cousins

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I’ve spent a good part of the last three days in San Francisco on winetasting missions, a lot even for me, although I live just 3 subway stops away from Embarcadero Station and Ferry Plaza.

I’ve been in Oakland now for 28 years: nearly ten years before that in San Francisco. So you’ll have to forgive me for making comparisons.

When I lived in S.F., in the Eighties, Oakland was a Herb Caen joke. It was Brooklyn to Manhattan—and this was before Brooklyn’s current hipster revival: old, blue collar, conservative Brooklyn, New York’s version of the boring ‘burbs.

The only thing Oakland had going for it was way better weather, which is why the Oakland Tribune used to publish its logo in orange: A reminder that, on any given summer day, while San Francisco was cold and foggy, Oakland was sunny and warm.

Other than that, San Franciscans felt icky about Oakland. Crime, violence, racial politics. That’s how they viewed the city on the eastern side of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

As for Oakland’s perception of San Francisco, it was a weird combination of “Who cares?” and envy. Oakland prided itself on being different: grittier, more real: the Raiders versus the effete Forty-Niners. But on Saturday night, everybody went to San Francisco because it was, well, San Francisco. There was a scene there that Oakland just didn’t have.

Now here we are today. Oakland is enjoying its greatest renaissance in decades, on every level: culinary, cultural, artistic, tech, home value, income, diversity. We Oaklanders are enormously proud of this: it’s a great leap forward following our low point, the post-1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, from which downtown never recovered.

But I still don’t think San Franciscans give a thought about Oakland. They may have heard about some “boom” thing happening here, but whatever it is, it pales alongside what they see and experience every day throughout San Francisco. The building development! The incomes! The stores! The excitement! The sense of being someplace Important at an Important Time. And the beauty of the people, so young, healthy and in-shape. Oh, all that disposable income! Call them what you will: yuppies, techies, hipsters—they know they live in frigging San Francisco, the most magical and romantic of American cities. They know they’re only young once: If San Francisco had an official slogan, it would be Carpe Diem. Many of them won’t know what that means, of course, so let me translate: How lucky we are!

But I celebrate these differences. It would be easy for the Bay Area to homogenize into one bland soup, but each part of it—of us—maintains its identity throughout our periodic crises: earthquakes, economic shakeups, demographic revolutions, wildfires, crime sprees. Neighborhoods change color, ethnicity and culture with alacrity, yet somehow maintain their fundamental identities. I guess you could call this our terroir: the terroir of Noe Valley or Adams Point, of the Sunset or Kensington, of Crockett or Cupertino.

As for alcoholic beverages, well, both sides of the Bay like their quotient of booze. The currant rage right now is, of course, the mixed drink. Beer is huge; wine, perhaps less so—at least it doesn’t feel like it has that frisson of excitement compared to its sister boozes. Oaklanders probably drink more beer per capita because we’re poorer and more working class, but that doesn’t mean we drink bad beer. The local micro-breweries do good business here. San Francisco is no doubt way ahead of us in wine, both per capita consumption and price. Oaklanders still hesitate to drop much on a bottle: They’re not into the snob thing. They want something good, with a good story; but they’re not slaves to somebody else’s score or review.

* * *

Have a good weekend!


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