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
June 13, 2003

The press secretary for Jerry Brown says that the Mayor is backtracking from his stated goal of replacing the tenants and the resident performing arts companies at the Alice Arts Center with his Oakland School of the Arts.

Or, perhaps more correctly, it seems as if the mayor may not have the five votes needed on City Council to break up one of the best city-owned cultural arts programs in the country.

Or, even more correctly, the tenants and resident performing arts companies have let it be known that if they are going to be evicted from the Alice Arts Center in downtown Oakland it will not be easy, not without a drawn-out political fight that will surely spill out into most of the City Council’s districts.

At least, that’s the sense you get after this week’s City Council Life Enrichment Committee meeting, and after the council’s Community and Economic Development (CEDA) meeting late last month.

Two weeks ago, several hundred Alice Arts Center supporters marched in the midday heat from the center down to Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of City Hall, holding an hour-long carnavál in the plaza circle while the CEDA members inside tried to do their work and ignore the seductive rhythm of the drums. Some folks in the committee audience indicated their desire to go outside and dance, or, at least, watch. At Life Enrichment this week, the Alice Arts folks brought their drums, but their speakers took the mike and hit all the right notes. Ten years ago, the city made a pact with the performing arts companies: If the artists provided classes and services to the Oakland community, the artists would have a permanent home at Alice Arts. The artists lived up to their end of the bargain; why couldn’t Oakland live up to its? Alice Arts was making Oakland famous in performing arts communities throughout this country and in many other places around the world. Why mess with that? While parts of Oakland have experienced an epidemic of youth violence, the arts center has been a consistent haven for youth training and positive development. The performing arts companies were not opposed to the arts school, but if the center was not big enough for the two programs, why should the successful community programs be displaced and scattered in favor of the unproven newcomers? Good points, all.

Dennis Power, director of museum services, reports to Life Enrichment on the conflict between the longtime center participants and the school. No offense to Mr. Power, who runs a pretty good museum, but in the crazyworld structure of Oakland government, the most lively community program in the city gets tossed about the bureaucracy until eventually ending up overseen by the guy who looks after our dead artifacts. “The principal concern at this time,” Power reports, “is how to accommodate the growth of the school [for the arts].” He is pointedly corrected by one of the Alice Arts folk. The principal concern is how to preserve the successful Alice Arts resident performing arts programs, they reply. It’s all a matter of priorities.

Councilmember Nancy Nadel introduces a resolution in support of the arts companies and the tenants. If it passes at the July 15 council meeting it would be a direct and public rebuff to Jerry Brown, something this council has been reluctant to do.

But Alice Arts Center may be different, and if he loses the fight to kick out the tenants and the resident performing arts companies, Jerry Brown has himself to blame, and himself only. This was a dumb fight to take on. At the mayor’s direction, the city put more than a million and a half dollars into the renovation of the arts center basement, to make it accommodable (if that’s a word) for the chartered Oakland School For The Arts. Brown has suggested that the performing arts companies could be relocated to the long-abandoned and rundown storefront area of the Fox Theater building, but has offered no suggestion as to how, in these lean-budget times, the city could come up with the money to make those storefronts habitable. Incredible. Two years ago, when the money was available, the mayor could have taken that million and a half and fixed up those same Fox Theater storefronts for the purpose of the Arts School, and by now we would have had both a continuingly successful Alice Arts Center program and a great start on the much-needed uptown development, with no conflict between the two.

The mayor, having tumbled into this tarbaby and unable to find a way to unstick, falls back on his favorite defense: trashing Oakland. His target is the largely faceless tenants of the 74 single-room, upper-floor, live-in units.

“They’ve had people hanging out there. When you have young children taking dance classes, you have to be careful about the people you have running around there,” Mr. Brown is quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, managing to hit, simultaneously, those subliminal hot-buttons of race and molestation. “You can make an argument [that the Alice Arts upstairs tenants] are not compatible with dance studios and kids.”

Without offering any data to back those contentions up, the mayor comes off sounding awfully sleazy, don’t you think? That is one of the reasons the tenants and the performing arts company folks are winning the public relations battle on this one.

You can make an argument about anything. You can make an argument that pigs have wings.

Making an argument don’t make it so.