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The Oakland Firestorm: 30 years ago today

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Today is the 30th anniversary of the Oakland Hills Firestorm, a disaster that impacted all of us who live in the inner East Bay.

I remember the day well. The fire had actually begun on Saturday, Oct. 19, but the Oakland Fire Department showed up, squashed it out, and thought it was over. In fact, most of us didn’t even realize there’d been a fire that day.

It was the next morning, Sunday Oct. 20, that the merde hit the fan; the fire flared up again, only the winds were much more ferocious. I had gone for my workout at the downtown Oakland YMCA and was leaving around noon, when I noticed the sky was turning reddish-brown, and ash and cinders were raining down. I heard sirens everywhere. When I got home, in those pre-Internet days (no Twitter to turn to), I switched on the T.V. to see what was happening, and KTVU was reporting on the fire. I went up on my building’s roof (I’m in Adams Point) and there it was, a huge column of smoke that seemed at least a mile wide. It was the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen; and, of course, back then, we had very little experience with wildfires in the Bay Area.

My cousin, Maxine, was then working as Planning Director for the East Bay Regional Park District, which is exactly where the fire seemed to be. It being Sunday, she wasn’t in the office, but was home in San Mateo. I called and told her her parks were on fire. I gave her the details, as I understood them: the fire had jumped Highway 24. It had jumped Highway 13. It was roaring towards the Claremont Hotel, towards Montclair Village, towards Piedmont.

“Are you going to evacuate?” she asked.

“No. The 580 freeway is between the fire and my neighborhood.”

“But didn’t you tell me the fire has already jumped two freeways?”

Well, I hung up, packed my valuable papers, got the cat crate for Mr. P., and was ready to leave town!

Fortunately, at around 5 p.m. that Sunday, the wind shifted from offshore (fueled by the Diablos) to onshore, which brought cooling winds and fog; and the firefighters (who by that point numbered thousands) were able to establish their perimeter and let the fire burn back upon itself. I reported on all this in a December, 1991 issue of the East Bay Express, for which I interviewed firefighters for their own stories. The firefighters, who included a Battalion Chief, guaranteed me that, had the wind not shifted, it was likely that downtown Berkeley, Montclair, Piedmont and possibly even downtown Oakland would have burned.

A few days after the fire, Marilyn and I drove up Broadway Terrace to survey the damage. (The National Guard had not yet shut down the fire zone to non-residents.) Our tour lasted only about five minutes, before we were hit with a wave of guilt: What the hell were we doing, sightseeing among the carnage? So we turned around and got out.

The first time I saw the Firestorm Tile Mural Memorial, at the Rockridge BART station, I broke down in tears. It still chokes me up, all these years later. For me, personally, the Firestorm had a much greater emotional impact than Loma Prieta had. I’m not sure why; maybe it’s because I knew those hills like the palm of my hand. I had run just about every square inch of them, at the North Oakland Sports Center, above the Caldecott Tunnel, up Tunnel Road and through the woods along Skyline. For many years afterward, whenever I took BART into San Francisco, there was a point in West Oakland where you could see the remains of the collapsed Cypress Structure, with rebar sticking out from torn concrete slabs, straight through to the Hills, with the vicious scars of destruction; and I would think, “These are two of the worst disasters in the history of America, and you can see them both right here.” I still think that, even though the scars and the freeway are long gone. Some things, you just can’t forget.


The truth about Oakland and the Oakland A’s

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Oakland, California—my town—has a lot of burning issues. Homelessness is obviously #1, along with defunding the police. But lately a new brouhaha has erupted: Should Oakland approve a new Bay-side baseball stadium for the Oakland A’s?

If you haven’t been following this news, here’s a brief backgrounder. The A’s have played at the Oakland Coliseum since they moved here in 1968. The Coliseum has advantages: it’s easy to get to, right on the BART (rapid transit) line and next to the I-880 freeway. On the other hand, the structure itself is ugly and crumbling, and the surrounding neighborhood is sketchy, to put it mildly.

The owners of the A’s have stated firmly, over and over, that they must have a new stadium, at another site. They’ve looked at the San Francisco Giants’ stadium, a tremendous success, and want the same thing here. They’ve selected a parcel that’s right on the Bay, in an industrial part of Oakland that’s largely used by the Port of Oakland, one of the most important shipping hubs on the West Coast. The A’s have offered a complicated plan that includes a $1 billion stadium, with retail malls, parks and homes.

Now, Oakland is not particularly fond of its sports teams, at least among the political classes. In the last 5 years, the city (which is to say, Mayor Libby Schaaf) has lost the Golden State Warriors basketball team (to San Francisco) and the Raiders football team (to Las Vegas). While both teams had their fanatical fans in town, they never really had the support of city government, particularly on the City Council, which tends to be comprised of neighborhood activists more interested in “social justice” causes than in professional sports, or in job development for that matter.

This came City Council has signaled its extreme displeasure with the A’s stadium plan (known as the Howard Terminal plan). From my reading of the news, the Council is demanding more and more in the way of low-cost housing, and a multi-decade commitment from the A’s to stay in town. The A’s, for their part, say that they’ve compromised as much as they’re able to: the discussions have been going on for years, and they’re getting impatient. There are reports several times a week that A’s management has been scouting different locations in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, a few days ago, the A’s said that they’ve reached their limit: either the City Council approves Howard Terminal, or they’re gone. A vote is scheduled for July 20, this Tuesday.

The Council, for its part, responds that they think the A’s are bluffing. But as a fairly knowledgeable consumer of the news, I’m positive they’re not. They’re tired of dealing with Council’s incessant demands. What’s really weird is that some people on the Council are saying that the A’s should just build a new stadium at the Coliseum site, since it’s so ideally located. At the same time, other Council members are calling for the Women’s National Basketball Association to bring a team to Oakland and play in the Coliseum! But then, this wouldn’t be the first time the Oakland City Council has contradicted itself.

It’s a big deal when a U.S. city loses a major sports team. People opposed to the A’s have come up with the most ridiculous arguments. Someone on a local social network wrote that he doesn’t know anyone who’s ever been to an A’s game, which “proves” to him that no one in Oakland cares about the A’s! This is the kind of mentality we’re dealing with: people who use anecdotes, not facts, to justify their prejudices. The fact is (as even the City Council concedes), the Howard Terminal project would bring thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues into Oakland, and would moreover revitalize a section of the waterfront that’s been dreary and run-down for decades.

If I were a betting man, I’d bet that in the next week or two, the A’s will announce they’re leaving Oakland. If and when you hear the news, please understand the truth: They did not “choose” to leave town, they were driven out.


An Urban Morality Tale

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I was second in line for the register at the CVS, waiting to pay for a bottle of vitamins and a can of Ajax. The lady ahead of me clearly needed extra help. The cashier had come out from her place behind the counter to help the lady consolidate her shopping cart of stuff—mainly junk food and toilet paper—into three large bags. The lady was very short and obese, middle-aged, probably Latina. She was practically naked below the waist, her heavy thighs jiggling, but her calves were wrapped in Ace bandages. She wore a heavy, long black hoodie. Her dark hair, streaked with gray, was neatly pulled into a pony tail.

When she was finished, I stepped up to the register; my transaction was short. As I approached the store’s door, the lady was struggling: as soon as she exited the store, her shopping cart’s wheels had frozen up. She didn’t seem to realize the cart was going nowhere. I went back and told the cashier that the lady’s wheels had locked up. “I told her they would,” she replied, shaking her head. There was nothing she could do.

When I got back out to the sidewalk the lady was muttering to herself, trying to push the shopping cart. It was completely jammed, but the lady didn’t seem to realize it; she pathetically tried to push it along. Well, part of me just wanted to get on with my day, but the other part—my conscience, I suppose—wouldn’t let me.

“Can I help?” I asked. She was very sweet, with a beautiful smile. “Oh, yes,” she said. “Your cart is broken,” I explained. “Where are you going? Can I help you carry your packages?”

“Albuquerque,” she responded. Obviously I couldn’t leave her alone. She needed help. I took the heaviest bag as she started walking down Broadway, east toward the hills. I tried to make conversation. “Albuquerque is a long way from here,” I said. “Are you sure that’s where you’re going?”

“The Post Office,” she said.

“There is no Post Office this way,” I said,

“Oh yes there is,” she insisted. “On 41st Street.” Then I remembered, she was right. But we were on 30th Street. “That’s a long way from here,” I said. “And you can’t carry all your bags. Let me see if I can get someone to help.”

I asked her to put the bags on the sidewalk and wait while I turned away and dialed 9-1-1. I was on hold for maybe a minute and then the dispatcher answered. I told her the situation and described what the lady looked like. She said we were assigned a high priority and someone would be coming to help us.

We were now across the street from Sprouts. It was a beautiful, sunny day. “Let’s just wait here for a while,” I told my new friend, whose name was JoAnne. “Someone will be coming to help you.” She was exceedingly friendly, and while she didn’t have much to say, she answered all my questions; I tried to engage her. Yes, Albuquerque was a nice place. It was hot in the summer and cold in the winter and there were cacti. Yes, she had a son, 44, and a daughter, 22.

“You can’t have a 44-year old son,” I said. “You don’t look 44 yourself!” She smiled. She was leaning on her cane and didn’t look very steady. Just then a man showed up. “Would you like a chair?” He was a developer who was building the new condo building we were in front of. He went inside and got a folding chair and JoAnne sat on it. Then the man went away and said that we could just leave the chair there when we were finished with it.

If you’ve ever waited for a 9-1-1 call to show up, you’ll know what I was feeling. JoAnne kept trying to pick up her bags and walk down Broadway, but since she couldn’t carry all of them, and was unsteady on her feet, and was disoriented, how could I let her go? Why was she out on her own in the first place?

“Where do you live, JoAnne,” I asked.

“On 20th Street.” That was downtown, in the opposite direction from where she was trying to walk.

“Twentieth Street is back there.”

“Albuquerque,” she repeated. I smiled. She smiled. It was almost like a game.

The minutes ticked by. Every so often JoAnne would pick up one or two of her bags and set off up Broadway again. I realized that she was a free, sovereign being, entitled to go where she wanted; but still, was it right to let her go? And what about her third bag, the one she couldn’t carry? Why was the 9-1-1 taking so long? What was the right thing to do?

I convinced JoAnne to sit down again but she seemed fidgety. I made small talk. What was her favorite T.V. show? “Good Morning America.” What was her favorite food? “Burritos,” she smiled, with a wide grin. “And tacos.” “There’s a great taco truck just down the block,” I said. She smiled and nodded. Then I could think of no more questions and we lapsed into silence.

“Do you like music?” I asked. “Oh, yes.” “Would you like to listen to a song?” I took my iPhone from my pocket and went to my iTunes library and believe it or not the first song to play was “She Loves You.” JoAnne immediately recognized it and sang along, and she did a little dance and so did I and we must have made quite a sight on Broadway.

Just then a bus pulled up; we happened to be at a bus stop. JoAnne got very excited and tried to pick up her bags to board the bus while I asked her if that was what she really wanted to do, and wouldn’t she rather stay with me because someone was coming to help her. She didn’t answer and made for the bus but she’d taken so long that the bus driver pulled away and disappeared down Broadway. “Oh, darn it,” JoAnne said.

Maybe ten minutes went by and I was getting antsy. Was I doing the right thing or the wrong thing? Was I wrongly detaining this perfectly nice lady from going where she wanted? Was I, in fact, breaking some kind of law? But all I wanted was to help her. She wasn’t capable of being on her own, or so I thought. And where was the damned police car anyway? It had been at least 30 minutes since the dispatcher said we were high priority.

Then another bus approached. I told JoAnne. Excitedly, she picked up her two bags and hobbled over to the curb on her cane. I took her third bag. The bus pulled up and the door opened and JoAnne began to try to get up the stairs with the bags. The driver, behind his plastic shield, was not amused. The look on his face said, “Great. Another one.” As JoAnne struggled up the steps I said to the driver, “She’s a little disoriented.” He clearly didn’t want any part of it, and I couldn’t blame him. It wasn’t his problem. JoAnne trudged to the middle of the bus, found a seat and put her two bags on the floor, while I followed her with the third bag, telling the driver not to pull away because I wasn’t taking the bus, I was just helping this lady with her package. The poor driver…

“JoAnne, here’s your other bag. Keep an eye on it, okay?” “Okay,” she said. I left the bus, troubled.

Forty-five minutes later my phone rang. It was the Oakland Police. Two cops had arrived at 30th and Broadway, across from Sprouts, but there was no one there. Did I still need help? I tried to explain what had happened—I couldn’t stop JoAnne from boarding the bus. But the dispatcher plainly didn’t want to hear a story. She just wanted to know if I still needed help.

“No,” I said.

I don’t know what happened to JoAnne. I’m not blaming the cops. OPD is severely understaffed because the city won’t adequately fund them. There’s a lot of talk, in this “Reimagining Policing” era, of replacing cops with social workers in responding to situations like JoAnne’s. But nothing has been done and I don’t know what can be done; I mean, would a social worker show up faster than the cops? Is JoAnne the new normal, a nice, sweet, peaceful lady with mental impairment who thinks she’s going to Albuquerque, or maybe it’s the Post Office? Is there no one to help her? Or was I, perhaps, out of line? Maybe she was perfectly capable of getting to where she thought she was going; maybe I was a meddling old fool. Maybe she’s still out there on the streets, wandering around with her bags, naked from the waist down. What would you have done?


Defund the defunders, or how a truly stupid slogan is destroying the Democratic Party

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(I also posted this today on my blog at the Coalition for a Better Oakland.)

Barack Obama is against it. Joe Biden is against it. Two-thirds of the American people are against it.

What is “it”? Defunding the police—surely the stupidest, most damaging political slogan in recent American history.

No one is sure where the slogan originated. According to one version, it started in Minneapolis, after the George Floyd murder, when a group called Defund MPD” [Minneapolis Police Department] was formed. The group describes itself as “a Black-led multi-racial coalition of people and organizations in DC who share a common vision of a city without prisons and police.”

No more prisons and police! Imagine that. This swords-into-plowshares vision surely is as old as human aspiration itself. Isaiah prophesized, “And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.” But he also based this prayer on a proviso: it would not happen until a time when “a king will reign in righteousness, and rulers will rule with justice…[and] My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes.”

Have we reached that point, here in America? Are we living “in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes”? Far from it. “Violent crime is rising in American cities,” The Economist wrote just two days ago. Here in Oakland, we know all too well that “The city of Oakland is in the midst of a violent crime wave,” as the Oakland Police Officers’ Association reported last week. We can debate the causes of this spike in violent crime, which is happening across the country, but what is not debatable is the public’s alarm. “78% of Oakland residents want more police officers,” according to a poll cited by Mayor Libby Schaaf when she presented her 2021-2022 budget, which would largely protect Oakland Police Department funding.

In modern American politics, nothing ever gets 78% support, so for Oaklanders to want a fully-staffed police department is historic. But the will of the people apparently counts for nothing among the defund crowd on the City Council, on the Police Commission, and in radical cults like the Anti Police-Terror Project. In those bastions of woke-ness, an attitude of “We know better” prevails. Damn the public’s desire for safety! Damn the public! We elites of the Left know better. Leave everything to us, and the lamb shall lie down with the lion.

Sorry. We, the public, aren’t buying it. The defund crowd is on the run, and they know it; but, ironically, that makes them all the more dangerous. Like a cornered rat, they bare their teeth and make snarling noises, threatening anyone who comes near with a mauling. We know that the defunders have already cost Democrats scores of seats at the local and Congressional level in the November, 2021 elections. We know, also, that “Democratic operatives are warning lawmakers to steer clear of any defund-the-police rhetoric since it could hurt them in the midterms.”

Is that what the defunders want—a Republican wave that destroys the fragile Democratic majority in Congress and leads, frighteningly, to a Trump restoration? The defunders claim to be liberals, but honestly, what they sound like is nothing less than crypto-fascists.


Shelters vs. encampments: “entirely different”

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Mike Coffman, the mayor of Aurora, Colorado’s third-largest city and a suburb of Denver, has written an essay that helped clear up some confusion in my mind.

I’d long wondered at the incongruity between two competing narratives concerning homeless people. Homeless advocates say that most of the people on the streets are fine, upstanding citizens who just happened to get caught up in economic disaster. “We’re all just a paycheck away from homelessness” is their mantra.

On the other side is the impression that many campers don’t seem to be “fine, upstanding citizens.” This impression is usually found among people like me, who actually live in neighborhoods cluttered with encampments, as opposed, say, to wealthy white liberal suburbanites who take up the homeless cause even though the nearest tent may be many miles away.

What Mayor Coffman did was to spend a week among the homeless, dividing his time between an encampment and a shelter. What he discovered, to his surprise, was that while members of both communities shared the experience of homelessness, the two groups were “entirely different.” Those in shelters were by and large a sympathetic, law-abiding group, who were “using the shelter as a temporary means to save enough money to get back on their feet.” Those in encampments, on the other hand, frightened the mayor. “I never felt safe, no one ever wore a mask or even concerned themselves with social distancing, and I had a number of items stolen.”

Mayor Coffman also realized something about the fundamental dishonesty of homeless advocates. “The advocates for the encampments,” he wrote, “want us to believe that the reasons why the encampment inhabitants never access shelters are because they are afraid of the congregate living arrangements during a pandemic, are concerned about having their few possessions stolen, or fear for their safety.” Indeed, we hear this theory all the time in Oakland. But, says Mayor Coffman, “Nothing could be further from the truth. The real reason why the encampment inhabitants refuse to access the shelters is simple—the shelters have rules. One rule, in particular…is that drugs and drug use are prohibited.”

When I read that, I understood my thoughts as I walk around Oakland and see the filth and degradation of so many encampments. These people don’t seem fine and upstanding, I think. Why would anyone say they are? So often their tents are surrounded by junk, rotting garbage, litter and trash. Cans, bottles, food containers and discarded clothes are strewn about and lay there until someone—not the camper, but a city worker—removes them. Why can’t a tent inhabitant at least keep the area around her dwelling neat? Is cleanliness just a middle-class concept for sheltered people?

Mayor Coffman has cleared up this conundrum for me. Yes, there are fine, upstanding homeless people, but they’re living in shelters. For the ones in the camps, as he points out, “the common denominator [is] drug use…the dominant drug [being] crystal methamphetamine.”

In the encampments, then, we have a community of dysfunctional, often sociopathic drug addicts who have chosen to “drop out of society” (Mayor Coffman’s words). Were they to do so out in some remote wilderness, like the hippies of old who moved to rural enclaves (as I did), it would be one thing. But for them to set up their camps in our neighborhoods, undermining everyone’s health and safety, and compromising our peaceful enjoyment of our environment, is an outrage. This is why we demand that the city of Oakland must immediately implement their Encampment Management Policy.


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