Living Well is the Best Revenge

The story of the East Bay since 1978 is the story of a region learning — and often inventing — how to live well.

In August of 1989, Huey Newton, the founder of the Black Panthers and a man whose charisma and menace once defined pride for a host of black Americans, was murdered over a bad crack deal in West Oakland’s Acorn Projects. One week later, the East Bay Express published a cover story by Newton’s fellow traveler Ken Kelley, in which he claimed that Newton confessed to personally committing numerous murders. The story prompted outrage among that segment of the radical left that venerated Newton’s memory, and the black separatist group Uhuru House launched a demonstration outside this paper’s Adeline Street office. Music editor Lee Hildebrand watched the picketers from the sidewalk, grinning bemusedly and wearing a T-shirt that said “Free James Brown.” One of the protesters walked by Lee, took one look at his shirt, and sneered, “I guess we know how shallow your analysis is.”

I’ve always loved that story. Partly because if the King of Soul is the punch line any gag is worth the telling. But mostly because it weaves together so many features of East Bay life over the last thirty years. There’s crack and violence, of course, as well as the shadow the Panthers cast over the region’s imagination. But as that picketer stared at Lee’s shirt, and saw her own style of radical rhetoric deployed for such a frivolous cause, she saw a process that has been slowly changing the East Bay since the 1970s.

By the time this paper debuted in 1978, the utopians who had read the Berkeley Barb, shut down UC Berkeley to protest Vietnam, and created People’s Park already found themselves living in a different era. The great crusades of civil rights and the war, the trauma of Watergate, the high drama of revolutionary struggle had withered away, leaving most young Americans looking for a quieter life, but still brimming with the sense that the world was full of possibility. They didn’t quite know it, but the freaks and hipsters of Berkeley and North Oakland were helping transform America with a new kind of social revolution: the politics of living well.

Alice Waters started Chez Panisse and with it one strain of the slow food movement. People began dabbling in microbrews, organic produce, and gourmet coffee. Women were graduating and entering the workforce in ever-greater numbers, and tech geeks were playing with gadgets that would ultimately give us the personal computer and the World Wide Web. A decentralized approach to creative work made companies such as IBM fossils, as start-ups ran circles around Big Blue. A new culture of consumption valued fair trade goods and environmental awareness, and businesses like Whole Earth Expo and Whole Foods made fortunes catering to it.

Out of the rubble of the 1970s rose Blue State America, the coastal liberals with their post-graduate degrees, tolerance of minorities and homosexuals, and sophisticated tastes in art, music, books, and food. Thirty years ago, the small colony of bohemians in Berkeley and North Oakland was surrounded by white, blue-collar suburbs like Fremont and Concord. Today, a certain Berkeley sensibility defines life in virtually every Bay Area bedroom community, and the old blue-collar world has vanished. In some respects, two events in the year of this paper’s birth helped make this happen. Proposition 13 and rent control gave young bohos enough discretionary income to play with the world, and as property values continued to rise, the equity helped finance a new utopia of mocha lattes and brew pubs.

The year 1978 also was crucial in the history of Oakland. Lionel Wilson became mayor, marking the rise of black political power after decades of racism and domination by the white Republican Knowland machine. Finally, it seemed, Oakland’s African-American community would control its own destiny.

The reality was heartbreakingly different. At almost the precise moment of black power’s triumph, the factories left for Texas and Mexico, and the department stores left for Walnut Creek and Fremont, chasing white flight. Ronald Reagan cut off millions in Carter-era poverty funds. Crack spawned a homicidal psychosis the likes of which Oakland had never seen. AIDS became a growth industry. The Cypress Freeway fell down in the Loma Prieta earthquake, and the hills burned in 1991, scarring the landscape from every vantage point. The Raiders abandoned the city, only to come back and rob it blind. Year after year, Oakland struggled to escape San Francisco’s shadow and become what it knew it could be, a world-class city brimming with energy and diversity. Year after year, it remained the Newark of the West.

The East Bay Express was there to cover it all. Alice Kahn introduced the world to the word “yuppie” in its pages in 1983. Mark Michaels watched as heroin kingpin Felix Mitchell’s body was borne down Broadway in a gilded hearse. The paper chronicled the rise of the Gourmet Ghetto, the last convulsions of the radical left in the anti-apartheid battles, and the birth of the Gilman Street Project, the incubator for a band called Green Day. Gary Rivlin tallied the casualties of the crack trade, then turned on a dime and followed the Internet’s transformation of life in the East Bay. The Express watched as Emeryville remade itself into a biotech and retail epicenter, while in Oakland, black youth and police battled in the streets and destroyed the Festival at the Lake.

When I first showed up at the Express in 1995, the talent there made me blanch. Gary Rivlin, Dashka Slater, and Paul Rauber were writing soulful, supple, and acerbic stories that made the East Bay come alive. Linnea Due kept the place together with the patience of a saint. Standing astride the paper was John Raeside, its editor and co-founder, who shamelessly printed stories of Tolstoyan length. He refused to believe in a short attention span, even if everyone else in Berkeley and Oakland threw up their hands in exasperation. If it took 15,000 words to tell the story of KPFA or Jack London Square, that’s what you got.

I wasn’t the only one who discovered the East Bay. Jerry Brown arrived in the mid-1990s and transformed himself from a national joke into urban mayor of the future. He took an Oakland that had just disgraced itself with Ebonics and promised to put it on the map, midwifing its metamorphosis into a shining city on a hill. We didn’t trust him from the start.

But times were good for Oakland in the late-’90s. The crime rate dropped, and all over the East Bay, property values began their historic rise. Dot-com euphoria put money in most everybody’s pockets, and the boho lifestyle never seemed so fine. The Berkeley Bowl moved into new digs. The rise in home equity gave many African-American homeowners the ability to afford larger homes in the safer subdivisions of Contra Costa County and the Central Valley. Even after the Nasdaq crash, confidence still ran so high that in 2001, the alternative newsweekly chain New Times spent a small fortune buying the Express.

Yet the Internet had already begun taking its toll on Bay Area print media. The San Francisco Chronicle would lose about $60 million one year, the Knight Ridder chain imploded, and Dean Singleton added the Contra Costa Times and San Jose Mercury News to his stable of no-frills papers like the Oakland Tribune. Under New Times, the Express lost money from the start, as the chain struggled to manage more properties than it seemed capable of running. The paper did some of its best work in this era; Robert Gammon broke the story of the FBI’s investigation of state Senate President Don Perata and has continued to bird-dog him ever since. I truly believe that in 2005, the Express boasted the greatest collection of talent of any newspaper in the Bay Area. But as Craigslist destroyed classified ads and advertising money shifted into Google, newspapers everywhere began a steady decline.

By 2007, New Times had had enough, and it sold the Express to editor Stephen Buel and his partner Hal Brody. The paper gained back its independence just as some of these trends seemed to be reversing themselves. The crime rate began rising in the last two years of Jerry Brown’s tenure, but he had already moved on to running for attorney general. The Oakland A’s announced plans to leave the city. Oakland eventually placed its hopes on the shoulders of Ron Dellums, the former New Left icon who had begun his political career as a member of the city council in Berkeley.

Yet as the Express marks its 30th anniversary, this region and nation face perhaps their greatest challenge since the Great Depression. The steady rise in local property values helped fuel a new kind of culture — information technology and environmental awareness, slow food and outdoor living. Now, the balloon payments are coming due and no one knows what’s coming.

Whatever it is, the Express will cover it.


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