In October, an alternative weekly promising to be a home to literary journalism appeared in the East Bay during an unprecedented blizzard of hard news. The season culminated in the horror of the mass suicides at Jonestown in early November, followed just nine days later by the assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Naomi Wise captured the zeitgeist in a review of John Carpenter’s new movie Halloween. “Suddenly all the world’s a horror show,” she wrote on December 8. “Psychotic murderers stab, strangle, and shoot their ways through Magic, Halloween, and San Francisco City Hall. … The ultimate realization of the horror genre has come to life.”
As bad as the news was on the surface, deeper seismic shifts were occurring. In 1978, the state was experiencing a huge boom in housing prices, leading to increased property tax assessments. The higher taxes, coupled with the era’s double-digit inflation, sparked what was arguably was the most important change in civic life in the tumultuous three decades of this paper’s existence: the passage of the anti-tax measure Proposition 13 — and Berkeley’s spirited response: rent control. Of the former, Mike McGrath would later write: “Jerry Brown [still California’s boy governor in 1978] once spoke of an ‘era of limits’ but in post-Prop. 13 California the limits were all on the supply side.” Locally, the politics of rent control proved to be equally large. “It might be called the Universal Field Theory of Berkeley Politics,” Dashka Slater mused twenty years later. “Everything that happened in Berkeley — economic booms and busts, political ascensions and declines, earthquakes, solar flares, miscarriages, and the number of naked people on public streets — was somehow related to rent control.”
Meanwhile, the price of a BART ticket from MacArthur to the Embarcadero was sixty cents, fifteen cents less than the toll on the Bay Bridge. Dinner at Chez Panisse cost $17.50, while lunch at North Oakland’s venerable Italian eatery, Bertola’s, cost $1.95. A ticket to see a rock concert at Zellerbach Auditorium had reached $6.50. What critic Carol Hamilton was seeing on local stages was evolving as well: “If Peter Gabriel’s concert last week was any indication, costumes and choreography are no longer merely the trappings of rock concerts but are becoming enmeshed with the substance.”
It was a fitting testament to a bleak year in the East Bay that on one chilly night in April, 653 fans huddled together like homeless refugees behind the home team dugout and watched the A’s play the hapless Seattle Mariners, reputedly the smallest crowd ever to watch a major league baseball game. “The Oakland A’s are the Karen Anne Quinlan of sports,” wrote John Kritch, referring to the young New Jersey woman who became the center of a right-to-die controversy after living in a coma for three years. “Abandoned by its stars and its fans and its management … the A’s stay alive beyond any reasonable prognosis.”
One contributor wrote of hearing on the radio the good news that a major California drought had ended while waiting in a long line at a service station as the state was paralyzed by a gas crisis. Describing plans to recruit Hong Kong investors who were fleeing the end of British rule in the colony, one cover headline asked, “Can the Third World Save Oakland?” Still, even as the housing boom continued, there were bargains to be had: It was still possible to buy inexpensively in neighborhoods such Oakland’s Fruitvale district, wrote Eleanor Edwards in a guide to East Bay neighborhoods, where houses “sell anywhere from $20,000 to $80,000.”
But there were signs of progress. Roger Downey made his way up to the Lawrence Hall of Science to check out an interesting new exhibit: “If you’ve never played with a [home] computer … or seen one demonstrated, it is worth a trip to the Computer Lab … to see the amazing capacity, simplicity, and convenience of the new devices.” And two intriguing new African-American faces appeared in Oakland to join Mayor Lionel Wilson: Calvin Simmons became conductor of the Oakland Symphony and Robert Maynard who took over as editor of the Oakland Tribune, which had recently been described as “arguably the second worst newspaper in the United States.”
“With his tinted shades … and his Fabian hair-do, [Al] Davis may well be professional sports’ Doctor Strangelove,” wrote John Kritch on February 15. “But however cunning his maneuvers are on the gridiron, he has topped them all with his escape from Oakland.” The escape would not be completed this year, but the insult would hang over the city like a pall. Civic leaders put even more energy into remaking the city’s gritty image. “Imagine a composite drawing showing all the various construction projects planned for the city to date,” wrote Mike McGrath. “You should be conjuring up glinting highrises, pagoded shopping centers, glittering hotels. This is a vision of boosterism run rampant — and it’s all on the drawing boards.” Maybe, but it’s arguable that Oakland’s sluggish but steady renaissance could more accurately be dated to the evening that Alan Michaan, the young new owner of the Grand Lake Theater, switched on the 2800 bulbs of the giant rotary contact electric sign — the largest west of the Mississippi — and it once again lit the sky above Lake Merritt: a hopeful, playful gesture in a season where there was a distinct shortage of both.
“A landslide for Reagan,” McGrath reported glumly from an election night victory party “while McGovern, Culver, Bayh, and Church are driven out of the Temple by the Moral Majority. If this is a big test of the power of right-wing populism, the verdict is in. It works.”
Further evidence of that change would come at the close of the year. On December 12, critic Lee Hildebrand reviewed a Stevie Wonder concert at the Oakland Coliseum. Wonder dedicated “Happy Birthday,” his encore, “to a great man who had died.” And then he announced the death of John Lennon.
In Berkeley, critic Robert Hurwitt wrote about the progress of the Berkeley Rep’s first season in its new theater on Addison Street: “Midway through its first season in its new home, the Rep is still struggling to find its footing. It must match the quality of its building with the quality of its productions.” Columnist Mark Powelson wrote that Berkeley Mayor Eugene “Gus” Newport had declared “that the Reagan administration had declared ‘cold class war’ on the people and the only proper response was to ‘take to the streets.'” But when residents of Berkeley’s Elmwood district took to the streets it was to defend Ozzie’s Soda Fountain, which was being threatened by developers and skyrocketing rent. Meanwhile, across town, similar changes were underway. Art Goldberg described the scene: “North Berkeley [has] gained something of a reputation as an area of fine specialty stores, especially gourmet food stores. … Comedian Daryl Enriques, who works part-time at the Cheeseboard, refers to the neighborhood as the ‘Gourmet Ghetto.'”
In Oakland, Mike McGrath wrote about the city council’s attempt to manage a catastrophic budget crunch. “‘What everyone said would happen has happened,’ says liberal City Councilmember Mary Moore. … ‘Wait till the third year. That’s when we’ll feel the crunch of Proposition 13, … Well, here it is. The third year.'” The budget gap was estimated to be from $12 million to $16 million dollars, McGrath wrote, “a draconian prospect that makes Reagan’s federal budget proposals look liberal by comparison.” The budget crunch also hit the state hard, but Governor Brown found the money to employ helicopters to spray most of East Oakland in an attempt to eliminate the Mediterranean Fruit Fly. “I admit it, I’m scared,” wrote contributor Rufus Diamont, in a piece that ran under the headline “Dispatch from Corridor 17.” “I take guys like [Reagan Interior Secretary James] Watt and Dow Chemical very seriously.”
At year’s end we asked Fred Cody, founder of Cody’s Books to sum up the literary year. “[This] was the year I began to feel the literary world, the world of books worth reading and thinking about, was becoming so limited that [they] could no longer be considered anything but an elite. … I began to think that wasn’t such a bad thing.”
“Now it’s 1982,” William Brand wrote on January 22. “We’re at the apex of a long inflationary spiral. It’s costlier than hell to live decently. Lately I’ve began to cheat a little … maybe even a trip to (horrors!) Safeway … but mostly I still shop at the Co-op. Many people I know no longer do.” The venerable Co-op supermarkets were not the only bedrock local institutions to eventually depart the scene. In May, the injunction that had forced the Raiders to remain in Oakland was lifted, and the team departed for Los Angeles.
Susan Rothbaum wrote of a new group called Parenting in the Nuclear Age. They discussed “ways to raise the nuclear issue with children … in ways that would empower them instead of simply scaring them death.” Meanwhile, “at La Viennoise on College Avenue, they make a cake … called El Salvador Solidarity Torte,” reported Paul Rauber. “This sort of thing could lead to what psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance,'” he observed.
And theater critic Robert Hurwitt reviewed a one-woman show by the oddly named local actress and comedienne, Whoopie Goldberg. “This woman is hot,” he wrote. “My only complaint with her work is I’d like to see more.” And critic Marian Kester reviewed artist Judy Chicago’s famous installation, “The Dinner Party.” Observing that the show featured “ceramic plates resembling women’s private parts [and] the names of famous women like Harriet Tubman and Joan of Arc,” Kester complained of mixed feelings: “[It’s] as if men had to tug at your lapels and say, ‘Why there have been many famous men! Nat Turner, for example, and St. Frances of Assisi!'”
In January, Mike McGrath reflected on economic times. “With the recession … the face of unemployment is changing. Some 6,000 auto workers were [laid off] when the Fremont GM plant closed. … Over the last two years, in Oakland alone, World Airways laid off 800; Crocker Bank, 350; Del Monte Cannery, 380; GM parts 480; Kaiser Aluminum 350. Highly skilled blue- and white-collar workers are now joining the chronically unemployed.”
Still the pain was not being felt universally. “We who have survived the hippies, yippies, and even the junkies wonder: will we survive the ultimate?” wondered Alice Kahn. “I am speaking, of course, of the Young Urban Professionals. Like mutant rats they multiply without even reproducing.” Khan’s essay “Yuppie!” was arguably the first appearance in print of that dread generational epithet.
In Oakland, the police took down several of the city’s most notorious heroin drug lords, including Felix Mitchell and Mickey Moore, but a new drug began appearing on the streets. Staff writer Dashka Slater would later mark the moment. “A cooked-down form of cocaine, cheap, smokable, and relentlessly addictive, crack hit the neighborhood like a low-flying missile.” As an epidemic which would forever change life in local neighborhoods, it would join the newly emerging scourge AIDS. “At a recent AIDS Awareness March,” wrote essayist Roger Lancaster, “the marchers stood solemnly and sang the self-hating ‘Amazing Grace.’ Did the Black Death produce similar spectacles?”
The year that saw mass anti-nuclear protests at the gates of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, ended with the broadcast of The Day After, a made-for-TV movie visualizing life in the US after a nuclear attack. “Faced with the simultaneous spectacle of this and the arms race it is intended to oppose,” wrote columnist David Darlington, “one cannot help but ponder the evolutionary connection between the mass consciousness targeted by one and the mass extermination facilitated by the other.”
The Democrats met at Moscone Center and nominated the first woman for the vice presidency of the US, while in Berkeley, the town debated whether the city council would recite the Pledge of Allegiance before its meetings. “[This] has become one of those Berkeley Stories that the national media are so fond of, like the discovery of students who would rather polish their resumes than demonstrate, or that one-time radicals drive down to lunch at Chez Panisse in their BMWs,” wrote columnist Paul Rauber.
Meanwhile, two memorable Berkeley institutions departed the scene: The venerable rock emporium, Keystone Berkeley, closed with a final concert by Greg Kihn (“Kihn brought the curtain down,” reported Lee Hildebrand, “by throwing his guitar in the air … letting it fall to the stage floor … [picking] up the broken neck, and … [screaming] ‘rock ‘n’ roll!”) and the Berkeley Gazette, which folded after 107 years of publication. The cause of death, press critic David Armstrong wrote, “was variously diagnosed as financial anemia, chronic mismanagement, [or] journalistic faintness of heart.”
On election night, the returns were mixed. “While the United States was reelecting its most right-wing President ever by the second-largest margin it its history,” reported Bill Wyman, “Berkeley was electing, by a similar landslide, what may well be the most radical city council in the nation. … If the unexpected, the ironic, and the weird are the manna of journalism, Berkeley is reportorial heaven.”
In the days after Pearl Harbor, fearful of the possibility of a Japanese attack, the City of Oakland had extinguished one of its signature features: the Necklace of Lights around Lake Merritt. After a major private fund-raising effort, the Necklace of Lights was restrung and relit, a glittering addition to Oakland’s nighttime skyline.
In April, the city reelected Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson to a third term. First elected in 1978, Wilson ended white Republican rule in the city. Seven years later, there were powerful African-American politicians and bureaucrats at all levels of city government. Staff writer Dashka Slater would look back on the era: “If the melanin quotient had increased in City Hall, the prevailing ideology remained remarkably unchanged. City government was, under Wilson, just as prone to ridiculous fits of grandiosity, to blind faith in the wisdom of developers, to back-door deal-making and appeals to the campaign fund generosity of would-be investors as it had always been … . The main difference between Wilson and his predecessor John Reading was that Wilson had a stated interest in paving the way for a new class of black capitalists.”
Alice Kahn quoted rent-control architect Marty Schiffenbauer as arguing that leftist politics had been good for business in Berkeley because tenants were taking their savings on rent and spending it at foodie emporiums like North Berkeley’s Chocolat. “We’re talking about $50 to $100 million a year — money that would have gone to landlords.”
In February, an unusually raw winter culminated in ten days of continuous wind and rain. “Throughout the Bay Area,” Judith Moore wrote, “concrete buckled, trees ripped from moisture-drenched hillsides, foundation loosened. [The storms left] $500 million in property damage in their wake.
The university was wracked by the most violent demonstrations in years as protestors urged UC Regents to divest itself from investments in apartheid South Africa. As Paul Rauber noted, despite the sentiments in City Hall, Berkeley city police were “ordered in to bust heads alongside the free-swinging [campus] cops. In this engagement it was definitely Gown 1, Town 0.”
A month later, Alice Kahn shared in grim riddle.
Q. What’s the five-day forecast in Chernobyl?
A. Three days.
In September, the body of former Oakland drug kingpin, Felix Mitchell, who had been killed while in prison, was borne through the streets of Oakland. Mark Michaels described the scene: “Mitchell went in style all right, taking his last cruise through his old turf in an elegant, gold-plated, horse-drawn hearse, complete with a top-hatted driver, followed by a caravan of Rolls-Royces carrying his family and close friends.” It was a grim spectacle for a city still coming to grips with the crack epidemic.
Mitzi Waltz stops into the newly launched Gilman Street Project: “It’s definitely not your average community center. It’s a punk rock dive, rehearsal hall, multi-media art gallery, and gathering place all wrapped up in one wacky package. It’s a drug and alcohol-free environment that would make Nancy Reagan proud, populated by people whose appearance and taste in music and politics would uncurl her hair.”
Robert Marks wrote about visiting the county AIDS ward: “Time spent here is fragile, a balancing act between hope and fear. The ward is a microcosm of society’s worst fears: pain, isolation, and death. It exists within the realm of one of society’s least-respected institutions, the county hospital, yet in place of what easily could have been pitiful, even appalling, is an atmosphere of dignity and humanity.”
Paul Rauber stopped into his local 7-11 and found a “series of red, white, and blue buttons: ‘North to the White House’ [and] ‘I’m for Ollie.’ When I stopped by the clerk was even modeling one, ‘I think it’s funny,’ he said. ‘I think he’s full of shit.'”
As this paper celebrated its tenth anniversary, the cost of a BART ticket had reached $1.60 (although the Bay Bridge toll remained at 75 cents). The cost to eat dinner downstairs at Chez Panisse had reached $50, while the price of lunch at Bertola’s was up to $4. The number of stores selling waterbeds had fallen from fifteen to seven, while the number of establishments selling futons had gone from zero to eight. There were seven microbreweries operating in the East Bay at year’s end; ten years earlier there had been none. It cost $16 bucks to see Billy Bragg at Zellerbach; $8.99 to buy his latest LP.
The median price of a home in the Bay Area had reached $212,863, and there was widespread worry that that was simply unsustainable. Asked to state the changes he expected to see in the next ten years, UC Berkeley Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman predicted Bay Area growth would be focused in Contra Costa and western Alameda counties. “That’s because there’s room for expansion and there is a better possibility for more reasonable housing costs.” By year’s end, it was clear that the economic expansion in those areas was encountering a huge wall: water delivery. As Northern California began a third season of less-than-normal rainfall, and the Sierra snowpack continued to shrink. Laura Hagar summed up the year: “Some said it was the start of the greenhouse effect. Others said it was La Niña. … Whatever caused it, lawns shriveled and political tempers flared as EBMUD imposed water rationing over the summer. The rationing intensified the already heated debate between Alameda and Contra Costa counties, proving once again that California has just enough water to fight over.”
Meanwhile, there was a presidential election in 1988, not that you would have known it on these cynical shores. “Vote Anyway!” ran the headline of our election guide.
In the end, there were two stories this year: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Cypress structure. Paul Rauber summed up the view from West Oakland. “No one can live through a major earthquake without looking the question of mortality straight in the face. The East Bay suffered more casualties in the earthquake than any other community: 42 people were killed in the collapse of the Cypress Structure. … The sickening sight of the twisted highway became a tourist attraction and a media circus as politicians from George Bush to Jesse Jackson flocked to have their Concerned Officials … portraits taken. Day after day, camera crews roamed about like wolf packs, looking for new objects of morbid titillation. Dan Rather in his trenchcoat stuck his nose into the air and informed the world that yes, he did ‘smell the stench of death.'”
Also in West Oakland, Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton was shot and killed in the infamous Acorn Housing project by a young alleged drug dealer during what prosecutors later described as an argument over a cocaine deal.
The Oakland A’s finally completed a four-game sweep of the SF Giants during the first, and definitely ill-starred Bay Bridge Series, and the Rolling Stones came to town to play two sold-out shows in the Oakland Coliseum. Searching for a timely metaphor, Melissa Milton wrote the “the Stones rocked like a quarry in an earthquake.”
Andrew Goodwin greeted the decade: “The ’90s are about recycling everything that was rotten about the ’80s … . The ’80s was about greed, so the ’90s would be about philanthropy — caring for the homeless, giving to starving Romanians and so on. … The ’80s were about horrid things like pollution, environmental waste, and corporate oil spills; the ’90s would rescue the rainforests, patch up the ozone layer … and, yes, recycle all that nasty old garbage.”
In a move that would have profound economic consequences for the region, the Navy announced the probable closure of all of its East Bay bases at a cost of nearly 44,000 jobs. The only remaining base would be the Concord Naval Weapons Station, site of numerous protests, most recently against the Gulf War. The move signaled the imminent end of a Navy presence in the East Bay that dated back fifty years; city planners fretted that the cost to the local economy would approach $1 billion.
It was a restless year on local campuses: UC Berkeley was shut down for the first time in 21 years by students seeking greater racial and cultural diversity. On the other hand, as Paul Rauber later reported, “at Mills College in Oakland, the battle was against greater diversity. [T]he Mills board voted to admit men to the all-women private school for the first time provoking … an enormously effective student strike which forced the board to reverse its position.” And in Berkeley, university authorities began asserting control over the ’60s sacred ground universally known as People’s Park, which had become a homeless encampment. In March the People’s Cafe, run by Berkeley Catholic Workers, was removed from the park.
In the summer of 1987, Bill Freais had written a feature-length profile of botanist native plant expert David Amme. Arguing for allowing controlled burns in the Oakland and Berkeley Hills, Amme said, “Our grassland has broken down to the point where it’s just weeds. When you take fire and grazing out of the ecosystem, the ecosystem goes into a long sort of self-destruct, building debris and fuel. That’s why I can say, with no qualms at all, that there will be a fire. There is no, ‘If there’s a fire we’ll come and put it out.’ There will be a fire, and it will take out everything.” Four years later, in the early afternoon of October 21, 1991, Larry Bensky described what he saw: “Two dozen people stand on Claremont Avenue near the hotel. Two miles above them lurk the remains of their … homes. They’re not being allowed to go up there until no one knows when; … the disaster like the fire … smolders around us. … The familiar streets, the comfortable hallways and rooms, have all now become a nightmare landscape of still-warm rubble, crouched in the shadows of remaining chimneys.” In the end, the firestorm killed 25 people, injured scores more, destroyed more than 3,000 homes and condominium units, and cost an estimated $1.5 billion.
Oakland celebrated two milestones — Lionel Wilson stepped down after almost a decade and a half as mayor, and Athletics shortstop Rickey Henderson finally broke Lou Brock’s stolen base record. But overall the feeling was grim. As the Reagan-Bush era drew to a close, the news was dominated by a war in the Middle East, a scary meltdown in the nation’s financial situation, widespread unemployment, and a distinct widening of the gap between rich and poor. “Not a good year,” staff writer Gary Rivlin mused. “Managed to kick the Vietnam syndrome only to discover that we’re an empire in decline. Homelessness, unemployment, a prolonged recession; the health insurance crisis, the crumbling infrastructure … our economic system seems on the verge of collapsing.”
After the election of Bill Clinton brought twelve years of Republican rule to a close, Tim Beneke interviewed radical political theorist Michael Parenti on the significance of the event. “As president, his systematic role will be to act as a corrective, because the most reactionary forces in the system have become too blatant and too destablilizing in their greed and repression. … Clinton’s function in the system will be to reactivate the liberal impulses and redistribute some of the wealth — which is not a bad thing at this point.”
Destabilization and wealth redistribution were taking violent form on East Bay streets. “In 1992,” Dashka Slater would later write, “Oakland public officials danced between outrage and denial, angry at the media for portraying our city as Murdertown USA, angry that, by any objective standard, Oakland was Murdertown USA, even if there were other cities that qualified for the same title.” The killings were related to the crack cocaine trade which continued at epidemic proportions through the year. “The price of crack doubled in one year’s time,” Gary Rivlin wrote in piece titled “Our Year of Living Dangerously.” “The stakes were higher and therefore the blood was flowing that much more readily.” In the period between July 1, 1991, and June 30, 1992, 205 people were killed on the city’s streets, more than double the rate a decade earlier. Under the circumstances, the local rioting and looting that took place following the verdict clearing LA police of any blame in the beating of Rodney King, seemed just another scene in what was fast becoming a climate of routine urban violence.
It was a news-heavy year, and the East Bay would have to adjust to the fact that there would be no independent local daily newspaper to cover it, when the Oakland Tribune was sold to Dean Singleton’s Alameda Newspaper Group.
This paper celebrated its fifteenth anniversary with a look at how the arts had fared in the area during that time. “That so many arts groups survive — let alone thrive — in the face of ever-worsening economics odds, seems downright miraculous,” Derk Richardson wrote. “The ‘economic downturn’ of the ’80s has steepened and widened into a yawning chasm,” In Berkeley, the rent for a one-bedroom apartment had gone up by 44 percent, thanks in part to a court-ordered allowance for inflation and a new base rent created by ordinance. “Frankly, rent control is a dead letter in Berkeley,” an aide to Mayor Loni Hancock said. “Once rent control was out of the picture,” wrote Dashka Slater, “the issue of property vs. poverty reframed itself as a debate about affordable housing. Should it be affordable to low-income or moderate-income people? Should it be affordable to rent or affordable to buy? And, most controversial of all, whose neighborhood should we put it in? (All together now: Not mine! Not mine!)”
Still, it was a year of hopeful debuts. Larry Bensky was in Washington, DC for the Clinton inauguration. “There were twelve inauguration balls among which to skip, ten minutes maximum at each, a few toots of the horn … the quick display of Hillary (‘Doesn’t she look great tonight?) and gone. At 924 Gilman, meanwhile, there was another sort of party going on. Rock critic Gina Arnold: “In 1993, Green Day [which had first taken the stage at Gilman Street when they were fifteen] followed Nirvana’s footsteps, first by signing to a major label (Warner Bros.) and then rising up the charts with a loud, fast single that changed the souls of American youth from hard rock to pseudo-punk as fast as you can say ‘Dookie.'”
And a rainstorm after nightfall on New Year’s Eve signaled the end of the drought.
Development took hold in several East Bay cities. In Emeryville, the East Bay Bridge Center complex opened for business with a Home Depot, an OfficeMax, and a Pak’n Save, Emeryville’s first full-service discount supermarket. “Clearly there is a method in Emeryville’s madness,” write architecture critic John Kenyon, “for by locating a major destination of big no-frills stores in this chronically run-down neighborhood, the canny city is transforming itself, almost overnight from heavy industrial into classless retail.” In Oakland, the city council approved a complex loan intended to finance a move by Yoshi’s restaurant and jazz club from Rockridge into elegant new digs in Jack London Square.
“Scandal mania really started to rock America in 1994,” wrote Gina Arnold. “The continuing saga’s of Michael Jackson, and John Wayne Bobbitt, the ballad of OJ Simpson … . There was plenty of sordidness to choose from, but to me no scandal was as gripping as the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan match-up that came to a head during the Winter Olympics.” And it was a year when we were not sure that we understood the lives of teens. In January, a group of teenagers from Castlemont High School were ejected from the Grand Lake Theater for laughing during an execution scene in the movie Schindler’s List. Then in June after the gates closed at Oakland’s Festival at the Lake, police battled young black people on Oakland’s Grand Avenue. It would be a blow from which Oakland’s premier public festival would never recover.
The year would end with the passage of Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s militantly anti-immigrant Proposition 187.
It was far from the best of times — the year saw the closure of three venerable commercial pillars in downtown Oakland: I. Magnin, Emporium-Capwell, and Holmes Books), but there were signs of push-back. With Proposition 187 tied up in the courts, Governor Wilson and UC Regent Ward Connelly launched an attack on affirmative action at the university. Chris Thompson described the scene: “On July 20, Wilson convened a meeting of the regents to gut affirmative action. Jesse Jackson led a large group of angry students who chanted and pled with the regents and were eventually kicked out of the room. [UC Chancellor Cheng-lin] Tien … . As the only Asian Chancellor in the UC system and head of one of the most diverse campuses in the country, Tien could not keep quiet. … Tien and the governor got into a televised shouting match.”
In October, thousands packed into Sproul Plaza to rally in favor of affirmative action. Weeks later, hundreds from the East Bay went to Washington to participate in the “Million Man March.” And on another autumn weekend 40,000 men gathered in the Oakland Coliseum for a two-day “Promise Keepers” conference “dedicated to uniting men through their vital relationships to become godly influences in the world.”
Oakland city officials also announced that the Al Davis and his Raiders were coming back to town. The cost: $100 million bond issue which would, citizens were assured, be paid back by selling the league’s most expensive tickets to rabid working-class fans. In December, meanwhile, a more modest investment bore fruit with the opening of the Jack London Cinema in the previously deserted Jack London Square.
“You remember how the story began,” wrote Christopher Hawthorne as the Raiders’ first season back in Oakland began. “How Al Davis showed up on Oakland’s doorstep last spring, like an old boyfriend back in town. [He] was unrepentant — he brought no flowers, offered no apologies, issued no teary-eyed explanations of why he had spurned the city to conduct a tumultuous and public fourteen-year affair with Southern California. … He merely slinked to the door looking like he always did … his fat Super Bowl ring glinting in the sun. And Oakland swooned.”
UC folklore professor Alan Dundes felt that he could no longer ignore the World Wide Web. “The whole appearance of the Internet and people communicating on it. I’m tired of all this www … dot com. If I have a next child, I’d name her Dorothy Com … Then she could hear her name every … time she turned on the TV … . Dot Com. It would be great.”
The simmering dispute between Oakland teachers and the OUSD erupted in February and went on to become the longest teachers’ strike in the city’s history: 24 days.
When Cirque du Soleil set up its tent in a parking lot next to Jack London Square, it seemed to mark a significant milestone in the area’s renaissance. “Jack London Square has quite suddenly taken off,” Dashka Slater remarked. “The generic names on the storefront [“bookstore” “restaurant” … ] have been replaced by real ones. … While the port hasn’t lost its talent for paying too much for things — witness the $4.8 million public contribution to the swank new Yoshi’s nightclub — Jack London Square is now Oakland’s biggest success story. Suddenly there are people on the waterfront again.”
In November, Ron Dellums announced that he would be stepping down from Congress. Columnist Paul Rauber reacted to the news: “It’s been a great 27 years, Mr. D., it really has. … Maybe now we can get reacquainted?”
In February, Berkeley was the first city to ban smoking in bars, prompting customers to play round after round of what Judy Campbell called “the lively parlor game, The Next Thing You Know … The next thing you know they’ll ban fatty food; the next thing you know limericks will be illegal.” Actually, as Campbell noted, the city could have saved itself months of abuse: the state was to ban all indoor smoking as of January 1, 1998.
It was an El Niño year, and though the violent weather was linked by Vice President Gore to global warming, it was from what Gina Covina called “the relatively powerless forum that his office provides.” She noted that the European Parliament’s Green Group proposed changing the name of the phenomenon to “El Clinton” to mark US opposition to international action to curb climate change in forums like that year’s Kyoto Conference.
At the end of the spring, Slater noted, “five of the seven private hospitals that existed in Oakland and Berkeley in 1987 were operating as a single entity. Merritt, Peralta, Providence, Herrick, and Alta Bates hospitals have consolidated into Summit and Alta Bates, both of which … are owned by a conglomerate called Sutter Health. … The … consolidations have reduced the number of full-service emergency rooms in Alameda and Contra Costa counties by almost 50 percent — with sometimes fatal results.”
Also experiencing institutional change was UC Berkeley, which saw the number of African-American graduate students fall by more than 30 percent in the wake of the dismantling of affirmative action. (Only three years before Berkeley had awarded more Ph.Ds to women and minorities than any other university in the country. “I don’t look at those results as something that couldn’t be predicted,” Chang-lin Tien, now former chancellor, told Ken Kelley. “University officials should foresee disasters coming, and let people know.”
As the nation came to grips with the Lewinsky scandal, the Bay Area was coming to grips with its large-cap high-tech future. “If you spend any time in Silicon Valley you hear time and time again that so and so is a true visionary,” wrote Gary Rivlin. “By visionary, the praisers don’t mean a person who sees a more just world. … They mean a business executive who takes an idea … and makes it work on the Internet.” Reacting to the appearance of a corporate logo on the front of downtown Berkeley’s tallest building sparking popular demands for its removal. Kristan Lawson floated a different suggestion: “It would be much more economical to change the name of our fair city from Berkeley to PowerBar, CA.”
Two short stories from a community at the edge of the Millennium: “My own stretch of Oregon Street in southwestern Berkeley got a major leg up toward gentrification on New Year’s Day 1998,” wrote Paul Rauber, “when Drug Dealer A shot Drug Dealer B on the corner. … The killing had a dramatic effect on our mixed, rather down-at-the-hills neighborhood. The perp, Dealer A, fled and hasn’t been seen since; Dealer B was, of course, permanently out of action. Since then, the squalid crack house where he lived has been renovated; it sold this fall for a quarter million dollars. The new owner drives a sport utility vehicle and rides a mountain bike. If he deals drugs, you couldn’t tell.” Kara Platoni wrote of moving into a new apartment and hearing her new phone ring. “I had been there roughly, oh, four minutes. The only people who knew my phone number were 1) my mom, and 2) Pacific Bell. … It was someone from Ask Jeeves offering me a job. You may recognize Ask Jeeves as the Emeryville-based Internet search engine that, with great fanfare, recently went public and is now worth six gazillion dollars. ‘What kind of job would this be?’ I asked cautiously. ‘Writing content? Coding? Designing?’ Any of the above I was told … [they] needed people in every department.”
The year the carnival stopped: Lake Merritt area commuters traveling to the freeway were greeted with a surprising new sight. On the high-traffic, freeway-bound side of the marquis of the Grand Lake Theater, the listing of current films had been pulled down and replaced with the words: “THIS IS AMERICA. EVERY VOTE SHOULD BE COUNTED. “Incredibly, hilariously, the only technology that actually went belly-up in Y2K was the punch card voting machine,” Kara Platoni remarked, adding, “for the first year in history, in The West Wing’s Martin Sheen, television produced a more credible president than the electoral college.”
The real estate boom continued unabated: Two years after Jerry Brown was elected mayor and a year after his position was strengthened by the “strong mayor initiative,” his policy initiative to put ten thousand families in downtown Oakland was running into increasing resistance from low-income tenants being priced out of town. “The numbers are indeed shocking,” wrote Platoni. “The number of no-cause evictions reported in Oakland has tripled, and the vast majority of those evicted have been black and Latino residents, about a third of them single-parent families.”
But on Wall Street the tech party was over and Main Street felt it immediately. Jaime Goodrich sketched the scene at her Berkeley tech start-up: “We had weekly lunches where the CEO talked vaguely about turning a profit a year or so down the line. A nice fellow from El Salvador cut up organic fruit for us every morning and kept the pool table stocked with chalk. … One manager passed out Haagen-Dazs ice cream in hopes that people would show up for meetings on time. Her theory was that late-comers’ ice cream would melt. … But then the market went sour. … Thanks to the Internet business, it’s now impossible to find an affordable apartment. Meanwhile, e-businesses … exile their employees en masse. There’s a taut rubber band here, and it’s about to snap.”
It was a year in which everything may have changed in America (blind item from the column Seven Days: “Spotted together in the same Berkeley intersection: two panhandlers, one wearing a New York Fire Department T-shirt, the other waving a “God Bless America” sign). But some things stayed the same. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who had been elected to replace Ron Dellums in Congress, became the only member of the House to vote against giving the suddenly popular president unlimited authority to take military action in Afghanistan. Soon East Bay automobiles were seen sporting a new bumpersticker: “Barbara Lee Speaks for Me.”
Change was equally dramatic at this newspaper. In February, the board of directors of the Express Publishing Company announced that the paper had been sold to New Times Media of Phoenix, and in July the paper hit the street with a new redesign that replaced the paper’s old “quarter-fold” format. Most of the employees on the business side would be gone within a year or two, but most of the editorial staff remained intact under new ownership.
Kara Platoni would sum up the year: “[I]n the confused outpouring of anger, hope, fear, and national pride generated by the September 11 attacks, we became patriots … [but] in a year when national feeling and advertising, censorship and dissent crossed paths, it was hard to tell what was patriotism and what was a sales pitch or, worse, simply bullying.”
After years of ignoring dark accusations and rumors, the Express published a 17,000-word series on the shameful legacy of Your Black Muslim Bakery, the bizarre cult of personality run by Yusuf Bey. “Members and associates of the Bey ‘family’ have terrorized countless Oakland residents, fomented racial hatred, and even allegedly threatened to kill apostate women who break with the organization or go public with their stories,” wrote Chris Thompson, who received credible death threats as a result of his reporting. The stories not only documented numerous real and alleged crimes, they also criticized the politicians and newspapers that allowed this situation to fester. “In May 1994, mayoral candidate Yusuf Bey organized a massive hate rally that featured disgraced Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Muhammad ranting about the ‘no-good, hook-nosed Jews sucking our blood.’ Yusuf Bey heaped praise upon his guest speaker and scolded Jews who objected to Muhammad’s appearance. How did the East Bay Express respond? By running a profile of Bey later that summer that treated him as a thoughtful statesman.” Five years later, after the tragic assassination of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey, the Oakland Tribune and other news outlets regurgitated much of our coverage without ever reconsidering their own shameful track records.
New homeowner Maggie Benson explored the parallels between the housing market and the dot-com bubble : “Come January, I swear, I’m going to get a job, but as long as I’ve got this ‘side job’ that pulls down $340 a day, where is the motivation to get on the phone and rustle up some work? … I am the lucky owner of a home in Montclair, and since I purchased it two years ago, it has appreciated an estimated $250,000. If my husband and I were to cash out today, we’d have earned about $2,400 a week. For us, that’s a lot of cash — more than I ever made as a dot-commer.”
Will Harper profiled lobbyist and former “Conscience of the Congress” Ron Dellums, years before his eventual return to the political arena. “His surprising reappearance through the revolving door — representing the very interests he opposed in several notable instances — begs the question: While Dellums was away from us all those years, did the inside change him?”
In Berkeley, the historical preservation movement began to look hysterical. Harper showed how the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission displayed “an appalling readiness to grant historic status to the most questionable things” in a series of transparent efforts to thwart development. For instance, it granted protections to a parking lot, a 97-year-old retaining wall, an ugly modernist dormitory, a decaying wooden corner store, and a home site upon which the genuinely historic home had burned to the ground.
As the Express approached its 25th anniversary, a new phenomenon arose in East Oakland and began to spread across the city and outside its borders. They were called sideshows and they were surreal: “Cars whirling in madness as if living beasts. Smoke rising like hell’s fires, as if from the tortured streets themselves. Dark hordes writhing and swaying in the foreground.” J. Douglas Allen-Taylor described the phenomenon from the streets. “Though the local media have produced scores of stories on the sideshows and their impact, it has not seemed to occur to them to produce a picture of the events from the participants’ point of view. Given the notoriety of Oakland’s sideshows, it is an oversight that would be incomprehensible except that most of the participants are black or brown youth — a demographic the media doesn’t generally take seriously.”
The Express ran actor Gary Coleman for governor of California. Enough said.
Robert Gammon broke the news that the FBI was investigating alleged influence peddling by State Senator Don Perata. The scoop was just the first of a multi-year series of stories about many legal and ethical challenges of the state’s most powerful Democrat. “Somewhere along the way during his almost four decades in politics, Don Perata became the type of politician whom he himself might have opposed as a 1975 civics teacher and political novice,” Gammon observed. “He is tight with developers, who have greatly benefited from their strong support of him. He has deliberately cultivated the image of a mobster, and is ruthless about wielding power with those who stand in his way or don’t succumb to his charms — even former allies or love interests. And he has been involved in a dizzying array of ethically questionable financial deals. But somehow nothing ever sticks, which is how he came to be known as the Teflon Don.”
In her profile of barfly and city cultural affairs commissioner Devin Satterfield, Stefanie Kalem painted a portrait of the new arts renaissance emerging from the warehouses of West Oakland. “Thanks to the efforts of him and a handful of other pioneers, that scene is now reaching critical mass. Like the Mission District in San Francisco, Silver Lake in Los Angeles, Wicker Park in Chicago, or dozens of other neighborhoods before it, West Oakland’s warehouse district is on the cusp of something truly great by subcultural standards. Artists and other subversively-minded people are renting out warehouses at a remarkable rate, building them out, and inviting people in for everything from punk shows to carnivals to art installations.”
And hipsters weren’t the only people leading a cultural movement in Oakland. 2004 was also the first year that the word “hyphy” appeared in the Express, in a profile of three female rappers by Rachel Swan. Two weeks later, Eric K. Arnold proclaimed hyphy “the best Bay Area catchphrase since ‘Pop ya colla.'” A few months later, we even got around to defining it: “an Oakland-borne amalgamation of ‘hyper’ and ‘fly'” that later came to symbolize an effervescent but aggressively dumb style of Bay Area hip-hop. Soon, it was the next big thing. By 2007, music writers would be rushing to proclaim it dead.
You’d expect the East Bay to pioneer new forms of hip-hop or NIMBYism, but creationism? In Berkeley? Yet in his profile of UC Berkeley law professor Phillip E. Johnson, Justin Berton documented Johnson’s role as the very father of the intelligent design movement. In public, Johnson tended to critique the weaknesses of evolution and make a point of disavowing so-called creation-scientists. But among fellow Christians, he shared his true goals. “‘The objective is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the nonexistence of God,’ he wrote in a 1999 article. ‘From there, people are introduced to the truth of the Bible and then the question of sin and finally introduced to Jesus.'”
Just as the controversy involving intelligent design went nationwide, a nascent new political movement was gaining steam. Eliza Strickland’s profile of former black nationalist Van Jones described the growing “green jobs” movement.
Over the hills in the retirement community of Rossmoor, Chris Thompson described not greening, but graying. In his profile of the aging reformers doing business as the Committee for Open and Responsive Government, he described the transformation underway at the nation’s senior homes and retirement communities. “These boomers will bring their anti-establishment ethos, assertiveness, and self-consciousness with them, transforming an industry designed around a far more docile and proletarian generation. … Retirement-industry leaders around California say they expect to invest a fortune reorganizing planned communities around a generation that refuses to be planned for. In place of cafeteria food, fraternal clubs, and arts and crafts classes, the boomers will demand Internet access, state-of-the-art fitness clubs, wine-tasting rooms, and an endless array of bistros and ethnic restaurants.”
Finally, the East Bay unleashed a new food trend in 2005: high-end chocolates. “Forget Hershey, Pennsylvania: A new crop of manufacturers, confectioners, publishers, vendors, and serious connoisseurs — many of them based here in the East Bay — are bestowing upon the cacao-challenged a bewildering array of new choices,” wrote Jonathan Kauffman. “Would you like 62 percent or 84 percent cocoa content? Criollo or Forastero? Do you prefer your beans from Venezuela, or would Javanese or Ghanaian varieties be more to your liking? Welcome to the Chocolate Revolution.”
For years, downtown Oakland had strived to attract both housing and entertainment. By 2006, it had both, but maybe they weren’t compatible. When the housing bubble and the warehouse boom pulled up alongside sideshows and the hyphy movement, something was bound to give. Rachel Swan observed, “Now they’re paying $6,000 in annual property taxes to live cheek-by-jowl with the unsavory elements you wouldn’t expect to find outside a half-million-dollar home: automobiles cruising around the block over and over, after-party detritus, and, occasionally, violent crime.” The nightclub Mingles eventually became the latest black-oriented club to close in the wake of violence.
In the special issue “Mediocre News,” we took a look at the acquisition of the Contra Costa Times and other papers by Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group, which owned practically every other Bay Area paper except the Chronicle. We predicted staff reductions and cost-cutting, and those predictions would prove accurate. And Express founder and former editor John Raeside took the occasion to consider the changes chain ownership had brought to this newspaper. “Much has changed since the sale. This paper no longer publishes memoirs and first-person journalism. … It no longer relies on freelance writers to generate its content. It has worked hard to include the greater East Bay into its editorial mix. It has decided to welcome the community of lonely old men into its big tent, generously providing them with ‘escort’ ads. But much hasn’t changed. The Express continues to rely on good writing and long-form journalism to tell this community’s story.”
Speaking of journalism, the Express debuted Wineau, a column that would take seriously the kind of low-cost wines that most people actually drink. “The wine-drinking public has evolved dramatically from the exclusive club it used to be,” Blair Campbell wrote in her cover-length introduction to the column. “Recent trends in how wine is sold, who’s drinking it, and where they buy it are tilting the scales firmly toward the little guy. This is great news if your love of a daily glass of wine exceeds the size of your wallet.”
As the year began, we graded the administration of outgoing Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown. We gave him poor grades for execution but high marks for salesmanship. “In fact, all Brown had to do was show up, and his inexplicable charisma did the rest,” Thompson wrote. “At Chamber of Commerce breakfasts and neighborhood walking tours, he played his hand: Build things in Oakland.” We also took the occasion to predict what citizens could expect from his replacement, Ron Dellums. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and Dellums’ constituents loved him when he was in Congress, fighting the good fight three thousand miles away on a national and global stage,” Will Harper wrote. “Now he’s just a BART stop away, running the organization you complain to when you’re having a problem with your trash pickup. With Dellums so close, will the locals love him just as much, or will they start getting sick of him?” We predicted the latter.
Jeremy Singer-Vine documented the alarming increase in the costs of attending UC Berkeley. “California’s educational crown jewel still looms large in reputation among public research universities — but so does its term bill,” he wrote. “Between academic year 2000-01 and 2006-07, Cal’s undergraduate sticker price jumped 64 percent — a greater rate of increase than local private colleges and many comparable public schools. Even after adjusting for inflation, the cost of attending Cal still leapt by a whopping 40 percent.”
And about fifteen years after the Navy announced plans to retreat from Alameda, Kathleen Richards described the city’s changing attitude toward development. “For years, Alameda seemed like the land that time forgot: sleepy diners, bars that opened at 6 a.m., stretches of wide road flanked by picturesque Victorians,” she wrote. “But 2007 may be remembered as the year when Alameda left that legacy behind. No longer a quiet hiding place on the edge of Oakland, Alameda is well on its way to becoming a bona fide shopping, arts, and entertainment destination. And finally, many of its citizens don’t appear to be ardently opposed to it.”
Well, maybe not so fast. Just last month, we noted that the downfall of Lehman Brothers could have serious repercussions upon the efforts to redevelop Alameda Point and the former Oak Knoll Naval Hospital.
Berkeley continues to pioneer efforts to regulate smoking, although these days it has plenty of company. In the wake of the city’s new ban on smoking in shopping districts, we surveyed the East Bay’s increasing restrictions on smoking. “Dublin has dubbed smoking a ‘nuisance,’ thereby allowing nonsmokers to take smokers to court,” wrote Eric Klein. “Oakland, Emeryville, and Albany have banned smoking in outdoor common areas of condos, townhomes, and apartments. So have the counties of Marin, San Mateo, and Contra Costa. Oakland also has banned smoking in many public places and passed a groundbreaking disclosure law that requires landlords to tell prospective renters which apartments have smokers. Albany’s City Council passed a similar ‘landlord disclosure’ law last month, which will take effect next week. Hayward just passed a comprehensive ban on smoking in public that takes effect before the end of the month.”
We also profiled the popularity of Christianity among Asian Americans at UC Berkeley. “It’s not a story you might expect to hear on a campus more famous for its Nobel Prize winners, tree sitters, and free-speech advocates,” wrote Kathleen Richards. “And yet, Cal has increasingly become a place where Asian-American students … are finding God. Their Christian faith is having repercussions on how they approach their studies, how they think about science, and what careers they pursue.” The story described widespread skepticism about evolution — even among science students.
Meanwhile, the price of a BART ticket from MacArthur to the Embarcadero is $3.10, ninety cents less than the Bay Bridge toll. Dinner downstairs at Chez Panisse ranges from $60 to $95. The storefront formerly occupied by Bertola’s Italian restaurant is now filled by with offices and retail. Rock acts seldom play Zellerbach Auditorium, but a ticket to see Jason Mraz at the Greek Theatre is $42.50. And the artist’s music is available at Amoeba Music in CD ($16.98), LP ($15.98), used CD ($10.99), CD single ($6.98), and downloadable at Amazon.com by the album ($9.99), and song ($.99).