Letters for the Week of October 26

Readers sound off on Jakada Imani, the Parkway Theater, and Occupy Wall Street.

“Council Rebuffs Van Jones Protégé,” Full Disclosure, 10/6

What About Margaret Gordon?

Though Robert Gammon’s article on the nomination of Jakada Imani to the Port Board of Commissioners is fairly thorough, there isn’t enough space on a single page to sound out some of the underlying currents that have so many West Oakland individuals and groups in (anguished) concert regarding the selection process this time around. Maybe the Express could probe a little deeper beyond the surface, as Robert Gammon has done so well before, and find out why every other commissioner in the history of the port has been given the courtesy of being extended, making Margaret Gordon the only one to be dissed in such an offhand manner. No complaints about re-appointing Victor Uno, who came onto the board at the same time as Gordon — maybe because he never once attended a community meeting in West Oakland? Is that some new criteria for all nominees? I don’t want to be snide, but what’s really going on?

Let’s face it: Gordon’s devotion to environmental change in Oakland is unsurpassed, and there isn’t a single soul in this city of constantly carping citizens who doesn’t agree on that point at least. Her knowledge of port operations, especially after four years of hands-on involvement as a port commissioner, simply cannot be equaled or exceeded by any other commissioner, living or dead — or even the nominee, as he himself noted in his speech before the city council. Imani’s a nice guy, but has had only minimal involvement with the myriad issues that flow in and out of the port faster than you can say “Maritime Air Quality Improvement Plan (MAQIP),” the project that Margaret initiated at the port to cut by half (!) the suffocating levels of air pollution caused by ships at dock.

Contrast that triumph on behalf of West Oakland’s asthmatic community with all the activism of any other organization in Oakland, or all the political blather from one wonderful lawyer or another, or all the excuses of other port commissioners who might ever have tried to deal with this oppressive, life-threatening condition that literally stank up the neighborhood, and you just have to wonder why anyone would want someone else to be there instead — including the nominees themselves! Imani has declared that he’s a “fighter” and will continue to fight for what he obviously feels is a righteous cause, but so many people, particularly those in the areas most affected by port-generated pollution, see it differently — that he’s actually fighting Margaret for a position he admittedly knows relatively little about, not even being a participant as in MAQIP. Contrast that to what will be lost should Gordon be denied the chance to further improve one of the worst, most politically-infected bureaucracies in Northern California.

Yeah, I guess I’m sort of happy that there’s now another lawyer, and someone who helped lead a fight for one bill or another, and someone to represent this or that union’s point of view, but where in God’s green hell is the one who actually cares about the long-suffering residents and small businesses that populate the fenceline community? The happy picture of Van Jones with his arm around Imani accompanying the article is wonderful, but maybe it should also be accompanied with the picture of then-candidate Jean Quan with her arm around Gordon, as seen on thousands of campaign brochures circulated throughout the city — presumably as proof positive that community activism was going to be a priority of now-Mayor Quan. Personally, I like Jean and think she deserves far higher marks for a lot of things she’s doing, especially with respect to the unprecedented international attention she’s garnering for Oakland. But I fear she’s not really seeing West Oakland or our port in their truest light — maybe because all that pollution obscures the view?

Let’s keep Oakland’s port headed in the direction that Margaret has charted so ably and not allow it to be steered into the political shallows because of poor helmswomanship. Mayors, even the good ones, make mistakes all the time, with the best expected to readjust so that those mistakes don’t become so defining a legacy that all anyone will ever remember is that he or she went down with the ship when it turned out to be not so unsinkable (or free from its responsibilities!) as most at first assumed.

Steve Lowe, Oakland

Robert Gammon Responds

Mr. Lowe, as always, makes good points. But one correction is needed. It is not true that “every other commissioner in the history of the port has been given the courtesy of being extended.” In 2003, then-Mayor Jerry Brown chose not to renominate developer Phil Tagami to the port commission after he had served a single four-year term.

“A Moral Stance in a Public Place,” Raising the Bar, 10/6

Can We Agree on One Thing?

The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are the start of a single, bona fide social movement the likes of which has not been seen in the United States in the last four decades.

Members of both Tea Party and Occupy are dissatisfied with the failure of the “system.” They both gripe traditional liberal and conservative complaints, depending on whether they started off belonging to the right or left; conservative or liberal; ying or yang. The Tea Party blames the government because right-wing dogma says government is bad and should be smaller, no matter what. Occupy Wall Street blames corporations because leftist demagogues say big business is an inhumane profit machine. Right now neither group seems to be thinking beyond the traditional complaints.

But the traditional complaints are no threat to a “system” which has had more than two hundred years of internal democratic opposition. It has reached some perverse equilibrium, where left and right are equal and opposite in force and thus basically cancel each other out. Nobody wins except for the small group that actually doesn’t want to see a winner or loser. The polarity makes politics a zero sum game for the everyman — the real loser from the inaction. And it is the everyman that sits at the core of both Tea Party and Occupy. She is middle class, middle educated, politically ineffectual, put-upon, and frustrated.

I believe Occupy and Tea Party are talking about the same thing. They want a better place to live. They want to be better. They want both government and commerce. They are frustrated because the wages in the bottom and middle have stagnated, or decreased; frustrated because of lost jobs and foreclosures; frustrated because so many within our population are poor and neglected; frustrated because health care has become unaffordable; frustrated because the government props up businesses that abuse customers and the commons; frustrated because education is becoming worse and more expensive; frustrated because government is inadequate; frustrated because the world is angry with America; and frustrated because we are involved in wars, always. On all of these things I believe they agree.

But solutions are hard and far away. Neither group has even begun to define a plausible way to improve the situation. They disagree a lot; on many things. But I want these groups to agree on what they can agree on: that everything is not all right. I want them to unite around their common frustrations. Only then can we all start working on real solutions.

Ed McManus, Oakland

Occupy DC

The Occupy movement needs a central theme: It is time to stop the romance between corporations and politicians.

“The Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics,” Obama said in a statement in response to the Supreme Court ruling that stated that corporations have the same right as individuals to give money to campaigns. He continued to say, “It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

When the Supreme Court completely opened the floodgates on corporate financing for political campaigns in 2010, that is when these Occupy Wall Street protests should have started. It took some time for Americans to wake up to what it really meant to allow unfettered access by corporations to fund political campaigns. This Supreme Court ruling effectively reduced every American individual’s right to participate in the political process. Instead, corporations are making all the decisions for us.

It is no longer — to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln — a government of the people, by the people, for the people, but rather a government of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations.

American politics have reached a point where they are indeed no longer strongly bipartisan in the campaign finance arena, as both parties are taking millions from political action committees and corporations.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of September 2011, Goldman Sachs has already funneled $35 million into Washington for this election cycle alone, mostly dumped into Republican campaign coffers, but there are Democrats on the take as well. President Obama accepted $45K from Goldman Sachs, but even that pales in comparison to the $290K given to Mitt Romney (Federal Election Commission Report 2012).

Not that Goldman Sachs is alone. It is one of many that are throwing money at politicians, knowing that it will sway policy decisions in their favor. Another big spender is AT&T, which has spent a cool $47 million to see that Washington politicians attend to their best interests. So the question that arises is, how can the needs of the middle class be met, when so much energy is spent making sure that corporations are being coddled?

And what have these corporations gained by their benevolence toward their favored politicians? Quite simply, they gain a government not willing to enforce the tax code so mercilessly pressed upon average American families. They also continue to reap the benefits of dozens of tax loopholes that favor tax evasion and the misrepresentation of taxable income.

To the point, Businesses Against Tax Havens have reported that Goldman Sachs, in 2008, with 29 subsidiaries located in offshore tax havens, paid a tax rate of just 1 percent, which was an amount less than one third what it paid its CEO, Lloyd Blankfein ($42.9 million). The end must come to these egregious corporate tax loopholes.

There can be no true economic, political, or social equality without addressing the corruption that has been allowed to take place in our nation’s capital. Politicians need to be held accountable by the American public that voted them into power in the first place. Publicly financing campaigns, as many other countries do, would take the overwhelming power out of the hands of multi-billion dollar corporations.

We can do this by creating a publicly funded website, television, and radio station similar to PBS hybridized with CSPAN. The election website would have pages for each individual campaigner, including their past voting records These media outlets would be in operation for three months prior to November elections, and focus on live political debates on the issues that matter to most Americans. That is all that they would focus on. For voters, the opportunity to tune in to hear their politicians speak would negate the need for rampant corporate-paid advertisements on network and cable television. In fact, it should be illegal to advertise at all. This is the kind of campaign finance reform that would make a real difference in how our government operates, and would free good politicians to stay true to their goal of public service instead of being enslaved to private interests.

Crystal DeMarco, Berkeley

“The Parkway’s Last Shot,” News, 9/21

The Parkway Founder Weighs In

New Year’s Day 1996, by tradition Catherine and I drove to Fort Funston to take a walk along the beach. It had been exactly one year to the day since we decided to begin our publishing company, Wild Card Press, and we were bouncing ideas around for the coming year. Our communication was labored that morning because it was cold and Catherine’s ears were underneath several layers of hat wear and clothing. Exposed ears, in conjunction with the chill of a Pacific Ocean breeze, are kryptonite to Catherine. The only business we were able to discuss was Catherine’s desire to create a movie theater-restaurant hybrid similar to what she had experienced while living in Washington, DC. The Parkway Theater opened about fifteen months later to no fanfare.

Thirteen years later, on its final day as the Parkway Speakeasy Theater, our patrons danced in the aisles to the live music of Oakland’s Carne Cruda. Catherine and I looked on as employees wandered about stunned, saying their good-byes and pondering how their lives had changed so drastically in what would have seemed to them a very short time. The disastrous conclusion to the Parkway — at least how it played out for our employees — was mainly my fault: I misread a legal notice. The scene that final day was surreal because there was such joy on display. It was atypical for our culture, a celebration of life and community on a day of death. I was so proud to be a member of that community.

Catherine and I generally don’t get involved in any post-Speakeasy theater maneuverings concerning the Parkway. As we see it, we had our time as owner/operators and what resulted was an adequate expression of who we were at the time and what our community was about. It was time for us to leave the theaters for others to make a statement, even though at times it feels like letting someone else raise your child. We also try not to pay attention to public pronouncements of the theater’s demise, so as to avoid hearing what a poor job we had done in raising her in her formative years.

Prior to opening the Parkway we had toured theaters from Sacramento to San Jose to Santa Cruz looking for the theater that was just right. We loved the Parkway from the outset but other business people had repeatedly warned us that the location was trouble. There were no fewer than eight pay phones posted on the block in front of the theater, and it was evident that the huge apartment complex on the corner with a view of the booths was making good use of Ma Bell to sell various narcotics. The booths were a symbol of the crack era that had ravaged Oakland during the Eighties and Nineties.

But the East Bay was our home and we wanted to be in the middle of its diverse communities. Our purpose in creating Speakeasy Theaters was to create a grown-up forum that wasn’t Internet-based — where adults could engage each other in provocative conversation or silly flirtations. Truth be told, the Parkway was our second choice. Our first choice had been the old Pussycat Theater on the corner of 51st Street and Telegraph Avenue. In my college days I had seen a porn flick there, but when we inspected it in 1996 it had obviously been years since anyone had viewed the sexual wrestling of professionals on the grand screen. It had long been shuttered and homeless were living inside of it. It smelled of decay and human waste. Don’t look for it — it’s not there anymore. The last I checked it was a vacant lot. With the Pussycat out of the way, our only hope to build in the East Bay was the Parkway.

Except for the physical danger you would encounter coming to the Parkway neighborhood, the theater was perfect. It was at the crossroads of all that is Oakland. There were strong communities of young artists, gays, bikers, the pierced and tattooed set, blacks, Latinos and Asians. And after a few years, when those groups showed that the theater was safe to patronize, the more affluent hill dwellers crossed west of the 580 and joined the party. Because of the artists, freaks, geeks, and techies that made regular pilgrimage to the Parkway Theater it developed local acclaim and even national attention. It was the place that was happening so much that San Franciscans secretly crossed the Bay Bridge going the “other” direction to keep up with the cutting-edge East Bay. The East Bay was on display and what it showcased was the bounty of its residents. We weren’t killing each other. Together as a whole community we were in fact incredibly safe. The Parkway became one of the safest venues in the Bay Area for women to hang out late into the night.

For the most part we don’t know what’s happening with the theater. We do know that it’s still closed and that there are various groups and individuals trying to resurrect it. We met with a few of them a couple years ago. We also know that the Chengs still own it (sigh!). None of this surprises us much, but this article truly concerned me. In the article, Oaklanders were voicing their frustration with the fact that the Parkway had not re-opened and that there were seemingly endless obstacles to a new venue. The interviewees sounded defeated and chastened by events. It sounded to me as if they missed one of the lessons that I learned from the Parkway experience.

I have my feelings about the Parkway being re-opened as a Speakeasy-style theater. The Parkway, like all iconic destination, is generally very much a function of time and place and grows organically from a confluence of events which are beyond the control of any individual. I wouldn’t try and re-open Studio 54 or CBGBs. Unless you can bring back the Seventies and Eighties and the trashy art of those eras you’re not going to find what you’re looking for. But I think the people who are becoming frustrated are missing the point. The Parkway wasn’t successful because it was a theater that showed funky movies where people could eat and drink. The Parkway was cool because it caught the essence of the East Bay in all its weird beauty. That’s not gone because it can’t be lost to a venue or a time. It’s simply who you people are, a good time.

I think mainly because of its lack of pretense, style, or polish, the Parkway was anointed as an acceptable venue for the young, hip, and artistic to be seen and to show off. There was obviously nothing establishment about the Parkway. Catherine and I were almost uniquely uncool. The place reeked of amateurism, which was sometimes accidental, and sometimes by design at the same time. Such “cool” honors are not bestowed to a venue by request, nor are they given with forethought. And no one can say when the aura of hip acceptability will be transferred from one locale to another, but the aura is definitely transient and will mosey on in time. I don’t think it’s possible to forecast which establishment will be deemed worthy of “cool” status but I do think I know what it takes to be in contention. And the most important factor is to be located in the heart of where artistic expression is being encouraged and nurtured. San Francisco has priced itself out of satisfying this criterion and has been de facto banned from having a truly hip venue in the future. But the players remain in the East Bay and in time will anoint another venue as their vehicle for projecting their collective voices.

All the hip cool creative funky folks are still in the East Bay doing whatever it is that they do. The only difference I would guess is that there is no simple vehicle through which their expressions can be captured by the media. The Parkway made things simple for the media. The name of the theater itself, “Speakeasy Theater,” had come to signify cutting-edge even if what was on display was anything but cutting-edge. An article could be written about anything that happened there and the article would be guaranteed some readership.

Perhaps with the Parkway gone the media has to work a bit harder to craft a story about all the magic of the East Bay. It’s easier to write about the crime, police department inadequacies, or the poor schools because the narrative has already been established. It’s much more difficult to write about an artistic event or a cultural experience when you have to set the stage in order for the reader to feel the force of the event.

And maybe I misread the frustration expressed in the article. Maybe it was not a frustration with the fact that the Parkway has not risen anew. Maybe the frustration was that there was no recognized center for the funky hip to express their talents to the greater community. If that is so, then all I can say is that I hear you. That does create a challenge. It takes me back to my college days, when the first thing we did after classes ended on Friday was to grab an Express and check out the many pages of upcoming weekend events to choose from to occupy our every amusement. Those were truly good times. If you live in the East Bay you have an embarrassment of riches to choose from.

We no longer live in California. It’s a nice change, but don’t overlook or forget what a great thing you got going. Good luck.

Kyle Fischer

Former Parkway Speakeasy Theater Owner

Miscellaneous Letters

OUSD at the Tipping Point

Oakland’s flatland schools have seen a significant and historic rise in student achievement over the past ten years. The movement to create small schools has been one of the main engines of this success, essential to OUSD being the most improved urban school district in California for the past seven years. And yet we hear this movement described as “failed.” It is being blamed for OUSD’s current financial woes. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the fiscal crisis is rooted in shrinking state and federal income and a 40-percent drop in enrollment since 1999.

Started by parents in 1999, the small schools movement grew out of frustration with deep inequities in low-income communities of color. It has led to the creation of more than forty small full-service community schools. In 1999, all five schools with Academic Performance Index scores above 800 — considered a successful school — were located in the hills above Highway 580. In contrast, all 42 schools with API scores below 500 were in the flatlands. The elementary schools in the hills were small, serving between 250 and 350 students. Schools in the flatlands were large and overcrowded, serving as many as 1,450 students in facilities designed for 750. Between 1999 and 2011, the small schools changed this picture dramatically. Today, 28 OUSD schools have API scores above 800 — many of them serve low-income students of color in the flatlands.

The newly minted academic success of many of Oakland’s children is due in large part to the community ownership, which started, drove, and sustained the successes. The key to transformation for these schools and the district was in four key autonomies they won. Each school now had decision-making authority over instructional programs, budget, staffing, and schedules at the school site level, and accountability for student outcomes. Where site level autonomies are effectively implemented, schools are producing significant improvements in student outcomes.

In 1999, the only political leverage parents had in the face of opposition to this proven model of success was charter formation. We are at a similar crossroads right now.

The district’s strategic plan embraces many of the values of the small community schools movement, but rather than building on them they are eroding them. The successful formula of site-based decision-making that produced ownership and gains is eroding in favor of more centralized planning.

We agree that OUSD needs to address under-enrollment, dropout rates, and the excessive number of schools in the district. However, it is essential to incorporate local decision-making authority around budget, staffing, program, and schedule in this transformation process. Failure to do so will create a crisis of faith, causing more families to choose charter and leave the district — deepening our financial crisis.

We call on the district board and staff and unions to recognize the power of the gains that have been made over the past ten years — the role of community voice and local school autonomies. We call on them to extend those conditions to all Oakland schools. Now is the time for the school board to set the stage, setting policies that will inform the future of the district and fulfill the promise for every child in Oakland to succeed.

Ron Snyder

Executive Director, Oakland Community Organizations

Corrections

Our October 19 story, “The Race for the Lab Nears Finish,” erroneously stated that Berkeley’s proposal for a second campus for Lawrence Berkeley National Lab involves construction on land within Aquatic Park. It is to be adjacent to Aquatic Park.

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