Oakland: A City in Transition

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By Dr. Ted Thomas

“Oakland is like a host of other older cities in this country,” says sociology professor Ted Thomas. He examines the city in terms of the economic and physical challenges it faces in its 140th year as an incorporated town.

Sociology professor Ted Thomas (Photo by Bruce Cook)

The sociological study of the American city had its begin­nings in Chicago around 1915, when Robert Ezra Park, a newspaperman, joined the fledgling Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago. Under Park’s leadership, students engaged in the disci­plined observation of human behavior in one of the most vibrant cities of the time. Most of the students were committed social reformers and their research focused on what they regarded as the most salient problems of Chicago. Some used ecological theory to make sense of the seeming randomness of the parts and processes of urban life. Their subject matter was broad-hobos and homeown­ers, politicians and deviants, native-born and immigrant, Gold Coast residents and slum dwellers, bankers and gangsters. Their use of “concentric zone” theory to explain the distinctive settlement pat­terns of different racial, ethnic, and social classes within cities is applied by today’s sociologists in studies of cities throughout the world. The overriding reformist vision guiding these research­ers differed markedly from the anti­-urban themes found in many an Ameri­can writer and politician. For them it was in the city where persons coming from diverse places and of differing races would quickly assimilate into the domi­nant society. The city by providing limit­less opportunities to utilize the unique abilities and strengths each newcomer brought would be a prime example of the American assimilative “melting pot.”

Today, urban sociologists, while acknowledging the legacy of the Chicago School, have evolved new methodologies and concepts in the attempt to under­stand the varieties of the urban experi­ence, contemporary racial, ethnic, and class differentiation, urban social struc­ture, the social dimensions of urban design and spatial form, urban eco­nomics, and urban politics. The use of demographic tools, participant observa­tion, survey research, and secondary analysis is often complemented by research findings in the related disci­plines of economics, geography, history, political science, and urban planning.

However, the student of cities in 1992 confronts a very different “urban reality” than did the students looking at Chicago during the Roaring Twenties. By 1920, more than one-half of all Ameri­cans were living in essentially unicentric, urban communities. Half a century later, in 1970, more than fifty percent of them had moved to the nation’s suburbs. The spatial forms and urban functions of many urban communities have under­gone dramatic transformations as the polis has been superseded by a metropo­lis and in some cases a megapolis. The context in which many of the nation’s older cities exist is a fragmented metro­politan one, where class-segregated
“urbanized villages,” “edge cities,” “out­towns,” and “vanilla suburbs” constitute a fascinating mosaic of fiercely indepen­dent “little worlds of their own making, which touch, but do not penetrate.”

As one studies Oakland in the sum­mer of 1992, we find that it is no longer the single dominant urban community of the East Bay, even if it is, with its 372,000 persons, the largest. Although it lies at the heart of the fourth largest metropoli­tan region in the United States, it is not of central importance to most of the six mil­lion persons living in the area. The city, the sixth largest in California, now finds itself as only one of many competing “players” in a nine-county, politically fragmented region. The city’s linkages with, and roles within, this region are diverse and complex.

Nevertheless, within the metropoli­tan context, Oakland has substantial loca­tional advantages, including one of the most temperate, fog-free climates to be found in the Bay area. It is the hub of five major freeways, the terminus of three railroads, and the site of a major interna­tional airport. It is connected directly to many of the surrounding communities by a seventy-mile Rapid Transit System (BART) and AC Transit bus lines. It is the site of the fifth largest port in the nation, which along with BART, AC Transit, and the airport is one of the largest employers in the region.

The city has numerous educational, cultural, recreational, and social ameni­ties. Among them: two community col­leges, two private colleges, the Merritt School of Nursing, as well as proximity to the University of California and two state universities, diverse performing arts groups, a renowned museum with its exhibits of California history and culture, a zoo, two professional sports teams, five major hospitals, numerous multi-ethnic restaurants, and sixty-four municipal parks as well as several regional and state parks beyond the city’s eastern bound­ary.

Over the past quarter century, Oak­land’s physical form has changed dramat­ically, reflecting major transitions in its economy. The city has evolved as the third largest office market in the Bay area, next to San Francisco and San Jose. New office towers of glass and steel at the city center and west of Lake Merritt serve the needs of the growing “knowl­edge” economy of the region. Downtown office vacancy rates in 1990 of 13.3% were the second lowest in the overall East Bay and well below the national average of 18.9%. Currently, Oakland is the source of 73,000 jobs for non-Oak­lander, East Bay residents who commute to the city daily. Interestingly, only 40,000 Oaklanders commute in the reverse direction to work sites in East Bay communities.

While office employment in the downtown area has increased over the past twenty years, high-paying jobs have declined markedly in the construction, manufacturing, transportation, commun­ications, and public utilities sectors. Major growth has occurred in the serv­ices sector and some small increases have been noted in the FIRS (financial, insur­ance, and real estate services) area. As the urban economy of Oakland under­goes a major transformation, many resi­dents with minimal education and few marketable skills will be unable to find well-paying jobs within the city without additional training.

Like a host of other older cities in this country, Oakland faces serious economic challenges. In the heart of the city today, there is a virtual absence of significant retailing activity. Except for the reno­vated Emporium, many of the stores that formed the retail core along Broadway have gone bankrupt or left for the subur­ban malls and the downtowns of the “edge cities.” For the past twenty years, Oakland’s leaders have tried repeatedly to interest investors in building an attrac­tive Renaissance-type center in the downtown area which would revitalize retailing activity, and lure local residents as well as suburbanites away from the region’s many malls. To date, their efforts have proved futile.

Nevertheless, such efforts continue. Though yet unoccupied, Victorian Row on Ninth Street has been renovated to its former splendor. Elegant Victorian houses have been moved to Preservation Park from Eleventh to Fourteenth Streets, and are occupied by primarily small businesses and non-profit organiza­tions. The newest high-rise under con­struction in the City Center project is almost completely rented at this point.

Thriving commercial activity con­tinues to be a feature of some areas, such as Chinatown, Montclair Village, and along Fruitvale, Piedmont, Grand, and Lakeshore Avenues. However, the decline in retailing and other service activities is evident along historic East Fourteenth Street as well as along stretches of Foothill and MacArthur Bou­levards, where abandoned, boarded-up buildings, barred windows and doors, high wire fences, and guard dogs, numerous bars, struggling Ma and Pa stores, street-front churches, and run-down motels remain. On some blocks there are signs of renewal where small entrepre­neurs, as if in defiance of the forces of decay, establish thrift shops, produce markets, coffee houses, and cafes. One measure of retailing activity is per capital sales tax revenue. In 1990, Oakland received $62 of sales tax per capita, while San Leandro’s was $180, Pleasanton’s $145, and Hayward’s $161.

Driving through the city’s res­idential neighborhoods one is struck by the richness and variety of architectural design in housing, reflecting both the era in which the homes were built and the social classes that inhabited them. Italianate, neo-Classical, Spanish, Queen Anne, Georgian Classic, San Francisco Stick, Prairie School, California Bungalow, wartime tract, and post-World War II ranch houses provide unparalleled visual variety in marked contrast to the blandness of many a recent suburban housing tract.

However, much of Oakland’s hous­ing stock is aged and in need of repair. Some is obsolescent in terms of size and design in view of expectations of today’s would-be home buyer. About 2,000 resi­dences were damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, and over 2,500 homes were destroyed by the Oakland fire of 1991. It is not known how many of the quake-damaged homes will ever be repaired or replaced. It is estimated that 60-70% aired of the burned-out area will be rebuilt over the next several years. The loss of city property tax revenue has been substantial. According to a recent report of the Association of Bay Area Govern­ments, 41 % of Oakland’s housing owner-occupied. This rate, which is is sig­nificantly lower than one finds in the sur­rounding suburbs, is not uncommon for older inner cities. With prices and rents about 25% lower than those in the more affluent communities of the region, for many newly arrived immigrants, lower­ income residents, singles, retirees, and the “urban underclass” Oakland’s aging housing stock provides the only hope for affordable shelter in the region.

Demographically, Oakland is very much a multi-racial, multi-ethnic city. As of May of this year, ABAG reported that 44% of the population was black, 28% white, 14% Hispanic, 1.5% Asian or Pacific Islander, and .6% Native Ameri­can. The city can be proud of its history of race and ethnic relations. In spite of the tensions that exist among different groups within the city, Oakland has expe­rienced neither the rioting, looting, or burning experienced by other multiracial cities during the past 25 years. As Amory Bradford wrote in the aftermath of the urban riots of the sixties, “Oakland is Not For Burning.”

Oakland is also a poorer city than many of those in the metropolitan area. Eighteen percent of the population relies on some form of public assistance. Fifty percent of Oakland’s households have annual incomes below $25,000. The annual per capita income of white per­sons fifteen and older is $26,780, while that of blacks is $14,624. Mean house­hold income in Oakland is $32,700 com­pared to $44,610 for the entire metropoli­tan area. Within the city are to be found many of the region’s “truly disadvan­taged”—permanently unemployed, uned­ucated, unskilled, homeless, and in need of health care.

As is the case with all inner cities, in addition to rebuilding an aging physical infra­structure, Oakland is faced with many of the intractable “people problems” such as high rates of unemployment especially among the young, the special educational needs of the children of the “truly disadvantaged” as well as those for whom the mother tongue is not English, high rates of crime among the city’s young males, need for better housing, the need for preventative health services and health care for the many. Apart from the usual civic institutions which exist to cope with the problems besetting urban families and individuals, numerous churches, neighborhood organizations, and committed residents do work to mitigate if not elimi­nate some of the problems.

In the past, the political response to the “plight of the cities” at the local, state, and federal level has tended to be both piecemeal and disjointed. The mixed results of many former programs have muted politicians’ enthusiasms for new ones. Locally disagreement exists between those who want further invest­ment in the city center area and those who believe it is time to pay far more attention to neighborhood redevelop­ment. The California state budget crisis of 1992 will in all probability result in less money for most of the programs directed at the alleviation of poverty and its consequences. At the national level, neither political party has proposed any bold new initiatives which would address the needs of the inner cities. Budget problems at the local, state, and national levels do not bode well for new initia­tives focused on the nation’s cities.

There is, however, a more fundamen­tal, contextual reason for the loss of inter­est among policy makers in the problems of central cities such as Oakland. In the mosaic culture of the metropolitan region, families and individuals increas­ingly locate in those areas where they can find expression and reinforcement for the lifestyles associated with their socio-economic status. Those who can afford to do so act on values which are in many ways common to most cultures in Oakland. Familism, with its overriding concern for the welfare and education of children, careerism, with its emphasis on upward mobility, and localism, with its emphasis on the values of home owner­ship and crime-free, peaceful neighbor­hoods are the values that are central to the residents who move to the “urban villages” and “edge cities” of the Bay area. In these “vanilla suburbs” or “zones of privilege” it is class, not race, which is of overwhelming importance. In 1992, both political parties are appealing to these voters, because that is where the votes have gone!

The dream of early reformers of the city as the crucible in which ethnic, race, and class differences would melt away is as distant as ever, and support for it has vanished. For as Teaford writes, “Most Americans desired not a unified metropo­lis, but a fragmented one, where like­minded persons lived together untrou­bled by those of differing opinions, races, or lifestyles. Americans preferred the autonomy of the social fragment to some unifying civic ideal preached by starry-eyed reformers. Thus Americans opted for the dissolution of the city and, with the aid of the automobile, created the dis­persed and fragmented metropolitan world of the late twentieth century.”1 This is the new context in which the study of Oakland’s form and functions, problems and prospects, must occur.

Ted Thomas, PhD, is the James Irvine Pro­fessor of Sociology. He earned his BA and MA from the University of Alberta, his BD from St. Stephen’s College in Edmonton, Canada, and his PhD from Columbia Uni­versity. He has been at Mills since 1965, and served as Chaplain before taking on full time teaching.

  1. Jon C. Teaford, The Twentieth-Century Ameri­can City: Problem, Promise, and Reality. (Balti­more: John Hopkins University Press, 1988)