Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA




January 12, 2007

Walking around my old neighborhood—it is also my current neighborhood, as well, having returned to the place where I grew up—used to be a pleasure, but in recent years it has become something of an obstacle course, with most blocks having at least one car pulled up on the sidewalk, lengthways or crossways, blocking the way.

I used to think this was terribly inconsiderate of the owners, making pedestrians walk around their cars and out into the street, but I have since come to realize that this is a necessity. There simply is not enough room on our neighborhood streets to park all of the cars owned and operated by the people who live in the neighborhood. Residents who want to be able to keep their eyes on their vehicles at night—a necessary practice hereabouts—and who also don’t want to have long walks in the dark to get to and from them, Even in Deep East Oakland, virtually untouched by the dotcom housing boom of the last decade, we are slowly but steadily running out of room in which to live.

You see the phenomenon in other small ways, as well. Driving up to a stop sign on International Boulevard from any one of the back streets in the avenue 80 ’s in the middle of the day, it is virtually impossible to make an immediate left turn because of the oncoming traffic. I have learned to be patient in my eldering age, but for young drivers it must seem interminable, waiting for the long line of cars to go by, and so you have to be constantly vigilant as you drive the International Boulevard corridor to watch for the cars suddenly darting into traffic, not to joyride, but simply to get where they are trying to go.

At the same time, in some of the rare stretches of International that have experienced the recent boom, such as the Fruitvale, traffic virtually comes to a standstill during the “rush” hours. It can sometimes take you as much as twenty minutes just to navigate the six blocks between 29th and 35th avenues, making any attempt to avoid the 880 gridlock pretty much meaningless.

Meanwhile, my good friend, journalist Sanjiv Handa, is fond of pointing out that the people who put those sleek new double-length AC Transit buses on our streets neglected to also provide for the lengthening of the bus stops where the buses are supposed to pull out of traffic, so that the buses routinely block one lane while they hover at the stops, and instead of helping to eliminate the city’s traffic problems, the new buses tend to exacerbate. Sigh.

There are other, many examples, which you can think of yourself, if you travel Oakland’s streets for any length of time. It is almost as if someone in City Planning either forgot to plan for these things, or thought them not important enough to bother with.

For the little frogs in our particular pot of water, the temperature slowly rises over the years, tensions build, and sometimes boil over.

It is said that enough material passes by you in the course of an hour or two to fill several good-sized novels, the trouble being that it’s all jumbled together like a ball of grandma’s old yarn, so that the individual storylines are hardly recognizable, one from the other. Let me pull out a couple of revealing recent bits of string for you, in case you missed them or their connection.

On Tuesday of this week, both of our local daily newspapers reported a similar conclusion, that Oakland’s third murder of 2007 occurred following a dispute over a parking space. “Cops say man killed over a parking space,” reads the headline in the Oakland Tribune. “Oakland man killed over parking-space argument,” says the Chronicle. According to papers and police, Samuel Navarro was shot and killed by a fellow tenant at his Adam’s Point apartment building near Lake Merritt after a car Navarro was riding in pulled into the parking space reportedly set aside for the suspected shooter.

The Chronicle quoted investigating homicide sergeant Tony Jones as saying getting killed over a parking space was “just silly,” but by the time he got to the Tribune, Mr. Jones had modified that diagnosis to concluding that “this is just madness,” the police sergeant adding that the shooting was “almost unbelievable … It was a parking space. A parking space."

Of course, no-one gets shot and killed only over a parking space, just as nobody ever got killed only over a watermelon, despite what the old segregation-era Southern papers used to assert in their nigger-stories about hot-times in old darky-town. What eventually triggers the violent act is only the last in a long series of events and pressures and buildup, few of which get bothered to be investigated or fully reported by the local media. Even the Oakland police admit that there may be more to the story than a parking space murder, with the Tribune noting that “since the suspect has not been arrested yet, [Sgt.] Jones did not want to get too specific as to the details, like whose car was involved or if the men knew each other.”

But let’s accept, for the sake of advancing the discussion, that tensions over parking played a significant immediate part in Mr. Navarro’s murder. That is given a bit more context by the Chronicle, which wrote that “there are only eight spaces for the apartment complex [in which Mr. Navarro was killed] and there sometimes are tensions over parking. [The apartment complex] is [in] an area known for its lack of street parking.”

Which, of course, one might say for most parts of Oakland, which has seen a steady increase in automobiles over the past years, but little increase in spaces to put them.

Let’s pick up, now, the second thread in the story.

On the day before the murder of Samuel Navarro in an Adams Point apartment complex parking lot, the Chronicle reported on the inauguration to the post of California Attorney General of the man who served as mayor of Oakland over the past eight years: Jerry Brown.

During his inaugural address, Mr. Brown spoke of a number of things, including how his views on urban development have been by his experiences as mayor of Oakland, some of which touch on the present matter.
"There are people who try to block density in built-up urban areas,” the Chronicle quoted Mr. Brown as saying, “so the attorney general may consider joining on the side of intensified density,. We have a lot of lawsuits in Oakland trying to block what I consider intelligent development. If you want to protect the open spaces and the far reaches of California, you've got to have more people living in other areas, it's that simple.''

We have seen development in Oakland over Mr. Brown's eight-year tenure. Whether or not it was intelligent, I suppose, depends upon one's point of view. But "intensified" seems a more honest way to describe it, rather than "elegant," since "intensified" morphs easily into "intense" and then into "tense," which is certainly one way Oakland can be described these days.

One of the criticisms of Mr. Brown’s development binge, such as it was, is that in trying to pack more and more people into the finite geographic space that is the Oakland city boundaries, not enough attention was paid by city officials to what effects that packing in was going to have, and how to mitigate those effects so that the city remains livable. Scientists concluded long ago that this is not a wise course of action even when it involved crowding monkeys into a cage, and we are more restless than monkeys. “Elegant density,” Mr. Brown used to call his development policies, in one of those cutesy flying phrases so loved by the press, but void of meaning in the real world. There is nothing elegant about packing more and more people into confined spaces, until the spaces become unbearable, and the people explode.

Does this mean that Jerry Brown is ultimately responsible for the shooting death of Samuel Navarro in the parking lot of his Adams Point apartment complex? That would be true, only if this were a novel. But this is real life, our lives, and Oakland’s task now is to understand the mistakes of the past years, and to slowly correct them and make sure they are not repeated.