Activists in Oakland, California continue to protest the effects of capitalism on their city.
I’m sure they’re also criticizing Jonathan Mahler’s story on “the last refuge of radical America.”
Why? Because in traditional New York Times fashion, Mahler both identifies a real issue and then proceeds to trivialize it.
The real issue is that Oakland has a longstanding tradition of radical protest, and the city itself is a capitalist disaster:
It’s strange to think of Oakland, with its 19 miles of coastal waterfront, as a rust-belt town, but that’s exactly what it is. In the late 19th century, Oakland Point was the western terminus for the transcontinental railroad, which, coupled with the city’s access to the sea, made it an ideal destination for factories, canneries and warehouses.
During World War II, Oakland’s factories and shipyards churned out warships at a furious pace, providing jobs to tens of thousands of black migrant workers from the South. From 1940 to 1945, Oakland’s African-American population more than quadrupled. The influx of blacks ultimately drove many white residents either to the suburbs or north into the hills. Over the course of the ’60s and ’70s, the jobs disappeared, and the city spiraled downward.
Oakland is now a sprawling and diverse but segregated city of about 400,000, a real-life Monopoly board that operates on a de facto economic principle of urban design: it gets poorer and more dangerous as you descend from the eucalyptus-scented hills into the urban flatlands. Its downtown is still lined with architectural masterpieces, decaying reminders of the city’s haute bourgeois past amid unmistakable signs of a diminished present — like grand prewar hotels that have been converted into Section 8 housing.
Oakland’s civic core, such as it is, is shrinking. The city has three professional sports teams. One team, the A’s, are trying desperately to relocate to San Jose. Another, the Raiders, may wind up in Los Angeles soon — again. (The city continues to pay about $20 million a year for the deal that brought them back to Oakland.) The third, the Golden State Warriors, who conspicuously refuse to include “Oakland” in their name, are preparing to move to San Francisco.
Oakland is $2 billion in debt and counting. To balance its precarious budget, the city has been reduced to crude accounting tricks like selling the Kaiser Convention Center — shuttered in 2006, when the city could no longer afford to maintain it — to its own redevelopment agency for $28 million.
But having identified a real set of problems in Oakland (not unlike many other U.S. cities), Mahler can’t grant the protest movements any real legitimacy. Instead, he focuses on some of the more bizarre characters (which all protest movements, left and right, attract) and seems to want to conclude with a celebration of the coming capitalist miracle.
“For years, Oakland has been the black hole in the middle of the great galaxy of Northern California as it shimmered its way into the electronic age,” says Richard Walker, an urban-geography professor who recently retired from the University of California, Berkeley.
In this context, May Day — and Occupy Oakland, more broadly — looks less like an expression of the city’s indomitable radical spirit than the last gasp of a protest movement overmatched by the encroaching forces of capitalism. Oakland is simply too geographically well positioned and financially underexploited not to absorb the creative, professional and entrepreneurial overflow from more expensive places like San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Berkeley. And as it continues to develop its own gritty-chic cachet, there’s a good chance Oakland might become more than just a default option for some of the Bay Area’s nouveau riche.
But then, finally, reality can’t simply be ignored:
What will this transformation mean for Oakland? It should produce a bigger tax base that can help improve city services and maybe even create a more effective police force. But gentrification is not a recipe for job creation. In the end, Oakland’s income inequality can only grow, making it not so different from so many other American cities. “You will still have poverty, decay and decline in the midst of immense plenty,” Walker says.
And thus the protests will continue to grow.