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
May 9, 2003

The Germans, or maybe it was the Swiss, used to tell a fable about a peddler who strayed into a forbidden forest, angering the troll who guarded those woods. The troll was about to kill the man, but the peddler begged so hard for his life that the monster took pity and devised another punishment. “I’ll send you back home on one condition,” the troll said. “You must walk the high road into town, and every person you see, you must give a gold coin from your sack. I will follow in the woods behind, and if you break this vow, I will pounce on you and eat you up in one bite.” The troll thought this was a fit punishment because he knew that the peddler loved his gold more than he loved his own life. The peddler agreed to the arrangement and walked out of the woods with the troll close behind, but when the peddler came out on the high road he stopped and tied a scarf around his eyes. In that way he walked all the way home, passing many but seeing none, and keeping all his gold.

One wonders if Mayor Jerry Brown walks through downtown Oakland with his eyes purposely covered, so that he cannot see the people he insists are just not there.

According to national columnist George Will, the mayor once described downtown Oakland in the late nineties as consisting of “a concentrated, homogeneous population — the elderly, parolees, people in drug rehab, from mental hospitals, transients. This is not the vibrant civic culture some might have in mind.” Since we doubt Mayor Brown would describe Oakland’s Chinatown as a community full of junkies and criminals, we can only assume that he has never actually seen that portion of downtown during the several years he has lived in our city.

So, too, it must be with the mayor and the Alice Arts Center.

First, the mayor. He came into office on a platform that emphasized revitalization of Oakland’s downtown, saying that it needed an influx of new residents to bring it back to economic and cultural health. He spoke often of the fact that downtown Oakland pretty much went dead on weekdays after five, with few places to eat or shop or gather for casual conversation.

Now, to Alice Arts. The center is a city-owned property just off 14th Street near the lake — converted in 1993 from an exclusive women’s club. For 10 years it has been one of Oakland’s success stories. The facility houses several regionally and nationally recognized dance companies, including (but not limited to) Diamano Coura and Dimensions (two Afrocentric companies), AXIS Dance (which blends disabled and non-disabled performers) and the Oakland Ballet. Koncepts Kultural Gallery, which has offices at Alice, was bringing major jazz talent into the Jack London Square area as far back as the late 1980s, helping lead the way to that district’s revival as an entertainment center. Evening and weekend dance classes, sponsored mostly by Citicentre Dance, bring in thousands of participants a year.

The city’s own Web site describes Café 1428, which sits next door to the Alice Center auditorium, as “a cozy, intimate cafe reminiscent of those found in New York’s Soho district.” This is probably an understatement. With a stream of people coming in and out from the dance classes and other activities at Alice, 1428 is probably the only place in downtown Oakland where you can drink coffee at an outdoor table, play chess or hold political discussions in four (or more) languages.

In addition, the Alice building has some 70 apartments on its top floors, which the city encourages as residential rental space to “local artists, art students and individuals with careers in the arts.”

But now comes trouble in the camp.

A year ago, helped by a million-and-a-half-dollar renovation financed by the city, Brown moved his Oakland School For The Arts charter academy into the basement and unused ground floor office space at the Alice Arts complex. At the time, there was a lot of community concern that the unstated city plan was for the arts school eventually to take over the entire building, leaving no room for the present occupants. The Oakland Tribune, however, reported assurances from city staff back then that the arts school would “not displace any of the dance, music and performing arts groups that call the Alice Arts Center home.”

Assurances, assurances.

This week, we learn that the arts school needs more room, and Brown is considering giving it the whole center, scattering both the Alice Arts residential tenants and the various performance groups to other parts of the city. Or out of the city, if they can’t find space in Oakland.

There are presently some 100 ninth-grade students enrolled at the arts school, which is able to operate only with an annual quarter-of-a-million-dollar city subsidy. If the school eventually reaches its long-term goal of a ninth- to 12th-grade student body (which is no certainty), it would reach a maximum enrollment of about 500, coming downtown each weekday morning, and leaving when the school closes at five.

The arts school could be relocated, with little harm to its programs. Instead, Mayor Brown is willing to risk the dismantling of a proven Alice Arts Center program, successful over a 10-year period, that annually brings what the Tribune estimates as “tens of thousands” of people into the downtown area, daytime, evenings and weekends each year — what should be a cornerstone of the mayor’s downtown revival.

You think maybe it’s ‘cause he just can’t see it? Or is there something else going on?