A Bay Area Journalist's First-Hand Account Of How Mayor Jerry Brown Screwed Over Oakland On His Way To Sacramento



J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
UnderCurrents Column
Berkeley Daily Planet Newspaper
April 18, 2005

It appears that with a full two years still left in his term, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown is going the aging rock star route, giving us a sort of nostalgic, farewell tour, complete with "the best of Jerry" retrospectives by local media as he waves his way out the City Hall door. Our friends at the San Francisco Chronicle have been leading the pack, absolutely gushing over Mr. Brown as they describe the "success" of the mayor's promise to bring 10,000 new residents to downtown Oakland ("Downtown Brown," March 20), his increasingly law-and-order stances as he bucks up his credentials for California Attorney General ("Tough Penalties For 'Sideshows'-Mayor Proposes Curfews For Those Convicted Of Reckless Driving," March 30), or his wedding to Anne Gust (too numerous to mention in one column).

You have to read deep into the Chronicle's "Downtown Brown" article before you get what we used to call "critical analysis": "But experts say that Oakland's urban core won't gain critical mass until new stores and restaurants arrive in meaningful numbers," reporter Dan Levy writes. "The lack of a true urban buzz has been the main shortcoming of Brown's 10k vision. Major retailers have so far shunned downtown Oakland, preferring the big-box stores and shopping centers of neighboring Emeryville, commercial real estate brokers say. The tomb-like Sears department store at 20th and Broadway is a conspicuous example of downtown's retail failure."

Even when they are (slightly) critical of Mr. Brown, local journalists–who should know better–miss the point. In a March 11 column on "Brown Looks To Life After Oakland," Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson writes: "Reviewing [Mayor Brown's online] calendar from May through last week shows why some critics would contend that Brown has reduced his mayoral presence for a law-and-order campaign that would vault him to his next position as the state's attorney general. … Nearly two-thirds of all of Brown's scheduled appearances-106 of the total-were consumed by trips outside of Oakland, radio talk shows in Los Angeles and the Bay Area or media interviews with national magazines, newspapers or television news shows." The problem is, some of us have been reviewing Mr. Brown's online calendar for years (and even written columns about them), and it is difficult to see much change from the beginning to the middle to the beginning-of-the-end of his administration. Mr. Brown has never been as interested in Oakland as he is in the rest of the world, if you judge by the public time he says he puts in our town.

The further you get from Oakland, the gushier it gets. "A Match Made In Oakland" in the Sacramento Bee this week starts out with "Anne Gust must be one heck of a woman," and fills space at the end with speculation as to whether or not Mr. Brown's old girlfriend Linda Rondstadt will be at the wedding (Ms. Gust says Mr. Brown has invited her, and she approves), and whether or not there will be a wedding waltz to one of Ms. Rondstadt's tunes. For Oaklanders who think all of this free publicity is good for our city, they might want to think again. In its only description of Oakland, the Bee article notes that Brown and Gust currently "cohabitate in a loft on a gritty street in downtown Oakland." (Note to Cynthia Hubert at the Bee: there are many areas in Oakland that one might describe as "gritty." However, the corner where Mr. Brown and Ms. Gust live is not one of them.)

And when there have been articles about Oakland's problems, at least recently, they manage to put Mr. Brown in the position of the exasperated father who cannot understand why the teenagers have not gone to sleep after he has repeatedly gone up to their room and urged them to do so. In an article this week on reports of Oakland's 52 percent public school dropout rate, reporter Nanette Asimov of the Chronicle writes: "It's astounding and unconscionable," said Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown. "It's a crisis that's been going on for decades. Oakland is trying hard. They need money. They need leadership. It's quite daunting, and it's going to require a lot more truth-telling and honesty than has been forthcoming in recent decades."


What Ms. Asimov appears to have missed is that for the past five years, since Oakland voters passed Measure D, Mr. Brown has had the privilege of appointing three members to join the seven elected members of the board of directors of the Oakland Unified School District, making him by far the most powerful individual shareholder of that institution (if OUSD were a football team, Mr. Brown would be Al Davis). A fair reading of recent Oakland history might be that before Mr. Brown came on the scene, Oakland schools were solvent and making slow, but steady, progress. After Mr. Brown won the right to make 30 percent of the school board appointments in 2000, the Oakland school system virtually collapsed, went into state receivership, and students and parents are streaming out by the busload. Unconscionable? Yes, indeed. There is an irony there that, apparently, most of our news outlets have not caught.

Other low points of the Brown Administration?

If you're talking development, you might look at the fact that while obsessing with downtown for six years, Mr. Brown has failed to understand where Oakland's commercial potential actually lies. Oakland has a series of marvelously successful local commercial districts that could have used the "star power" and push that Brown gave to his 10k plan: Piedmont and College Avenues, Grand Avenue and Lakeshore, Montclair Village, Fruitvale, the Laurel District, and Chinatown come immediately to mind (we'll return to Chinatown in a moment). Meantime, commercial centers like the Jack London Gateway Shopping Center (formerly the Acorn Shopping Center) in West Oakland and the Foothill Center in East Oakland are hanging on, but suffering from neglect (Foothill just announced its losing its anchor supermarket, Albertsons).

Even if you're talking about downtown development, Mr. Brown's vision appears to have looked the wrong way. He has focused on uptown, helping to win city subsidies for the Forest City project which is (again) slated to attract a lot of "new" residents into Oakland. Meanwhile Chinatown, which long ago figured out a way to successfully mix commercial and residential in downtown Oakland, gets little official attention or notice. A better plan for the last six years than the uptown dream might have been a project to link lower downtown past the Civic Center with Chinatown and the Jack London Square area, figuring out a way to move the depressed and depressing public buildings (jail, police station, coroner's office, et. al) in between to another location nearer to the judicial center around the Alameda County Courthouse on Fallon.

There's more, of course, but we've run out of room, just as the administration of Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown is slowly running out its time.