Oakland isn't a city it's a nightclub. It's the seedy dive that languishes near the waterfront for years, then somehow, for fifteen minutes, becomes the Place to Be Seen. The proprietor may be in hock, the sewage lines may be about to burst, and next week, someone here will probably get shot. But for one glorious Friday night, bottle-blond pop stars show up in black Escalades and look fabulous for the paparazzi while the bartenders trade their authenticity for a few fat tips and the breathless exhilaration of finally being noticed.
At least, that's how Mayor Jerry Brown treated Oakland for the last eight years. Watching Hizzoner exploit this desperate city to reinvent his public image and glide back into national prominence has been an exercise in endurance, to say the least. He amassed $500,000 in developer payola to finance a campaign to stack the school board with his cronies, then lost interest as his appointees turned the board meetings into a circus of mediocrity and venality. When the Oakland A's made noises about moving, he yawned and penciled in his next appearance on MSNBC. His City Hall wedding was a spectacle calculated to boost his profile just before the attorney general's race. So it's more than a little galling to acknowledge the fundamental truth about his administration: Jerry Brown was right.
Critics can flay Brown for his absentee-landlord approach, and indeed, the mayor hasn't been around much the last two years. But even if he had been in the trenches tackling crime, the schools, and blight, it wouldn't have made a difference. Brown didn't have millions to set up poverty programs or hire new cops; in fact, Oakland voters rejected his measures to do just that in 2004. At the end of the day, there are basically just two things that a big-city mayor can do: hire and fire people, and sell their city to investment capital. Brown has a poor record as a manager. He did get rid of the incompetent police chief Joe Samuels, but disastrously fired the smart and dedicated city manager Robert Bobb. But when it came to making the city look attractive to people with money the part of the job that really matters Oakland has never seen a better pitch man than Jerry Brown. "He was a rock star," said Bobb, who admires the mayor even today. "Jerry Brown put Oakland on the map."
In fact, all Brown had to do was show up, and his inexplicable charisma did the rest. At Chamber of Commerce breakfasts and neighborhood walking tours, he played his hand: Build things in Oakland. It's right next to San Francisco, traffic's not a problem, we won't let our bureaucrats nickel-and-dime your projects. He distilled dull municipal planning goals into intriguing buzzwords like "elegant density" and his 10K Plan. And it worked: 5,823 downtown housing units have been built or approved. More than nine thousand people are expected to move into his 10K zone. The mayor hit his numbers. "I made it very clear that Oakland wanted your investment," Brown said. "Oakland was in desperate need of this wrenched-up level of investment. And that's exactly what happened."
In addition and this shouldn't be underrated Brown's presence officially made Oakland cool. He moved to a Jack London Square warehouse in 1993, at the height of the last crime wave; today, five-story lofts and tech offices line the streets of that neighborhood. He has since moved to a loft in Uptown, near the dozen or so galleries that have congregated in what was once a sketchy, violent no-man's-land. The artsy hipster crowd that surrounds the Oaklandish scene seldom set foot outside San Francisco's Mission District ten years ago. This new chic both coincided with and fed upon the influx of young infotech workers into the city. Brown deliberately set out to move the middle class into Oakland, and the numbers back him up. Median household income increased by more than 10 percent during his tenure, even adjusted for inflation.
Of course, Brown is hardly responsible for all of this. The Bay Area's real-estate market went into overdrive during his reign, and tens of thousands of white-collar professionals came chasing dot-com dollars. They all had to live somewhere maybe it was just Oakland's time to shine. In fact, some critics argue that Brown's real genius lay in realizing what was about to happen, and moving to Oakland just in time to take credit for it. But at least he did no harm, whereas another mayor might have gotten in the way. In addition, City Councilman Larry Reid says, Brown put in the same effort on behalf of the East Oakland flatlands, which is hardly the most fertile soil for investment capital. "East Oakland certainly is a much better place now than it was before," Reid said, "and it happened on Jerry's watch."
To butcher Robert Graves, Jerry Brown found Oakland in clay, and left her in marble. He will go down in history as the man who catalyzed that great demon of leftist nightmares: gentrification. And Oakland is the better for it.
Brown's administration illustrates one dismal fact of life: Poor people can't solve their own problems. After a ten-year lull, violent crime has returned to stalk the city's streets. The public schools are as bad as they've ever been. Nothing that Jerry Brown did, and nothing that Elihu Harris or Lionel Wilson did before him, ever made a dent in these problems, because their root cause is the concentration of poverty. The only difference Brown made was to bring money and yuppies into town and that has made all the difference. During the last crime wave, of the late '80s and early '90s, Telegraph and Shattuck avenues were littered with the dead. This year, when Oakland as a whole returned to the horrific murders of the past, just a handful of homicides have occurred east of Highway 24. What happened? The middle class moved in.
According to Dan Macallair, executive director of the left-wing Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a little gentrification is one of the most successful means of fighting crime. For decades, Oakland's most squalid neighborhoods teemed with a critical mass of poor people who passed on their idle melancholy to the next generation. It's not the poverty that's the problem, but its uniformity; no one ever has the opportunity to imagine that a better life is possible. "Despair feeds on despair," said Macallair, who lives in Oakland. "Keeping people in isolated communities where there's desperate poverty that means they remain isolated." But once middle-class families move next door, and their children play together, the narrative of their lives will finally include the possibility of hope. "You have people start believing that they can break out of the box," he said. "Having diversity, economic diversity, is a good thing."
Thousands of poor people will be displaced by this process, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. But for the poor who stay behind, their lives will be immeasurably better. After eight years of Jerry Brown, Oakland is no longer shorthand for urban despair. Think about that for a minute, about how remote that prospect seemed ten years ago. As legacies go, that ain't bad.