Much like all large cities, Oakland is a city of contrasts. And, the city continues to attract people who want to settle down and live in it. I can understand why. The city offers mountainous hiking trails and parks, a myriad of restaurants and eateries, Lake Merritt, a bourgeoning art and music scene, beaches nearby, and diversity unlike anywhere else in the world. Not to mention an average temperature that hovers between 65-75 degrees through much of the year.
Walk a few blocks in downtown Oakland, and you’re liable to hear at least 4 or 5 different languages. People have come here from all over the world, settled here, and had families here. Oakland is the most ethnically diverse major city in the country. Small businesses have started here that became big businesses, like Clorox and Mother’s Cookies. Right next door, in Emeryville, is Pixar Studios. Across a couple of bridges is Skywalker Ranch, and let’s not forget the tech industry in nearby Silicon Valley, or Oakland’s most famous neighbor, San Francisco.
Having partially grown up in Oakland, I remember many, many good things. I can remember the Black Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Party, the Free Speech Movement, Hippies, and Environmentalism, to name just a few. The city is an exciting place to live, and was an exciting place for me during my coming of age years. So, while I’m not a California native, one daughter is, and one of them grew up in Oakland from the age of 3. So they are Oaklanders, and Californians, and they embrace everything there is to embrace about living in and being a part of the sunshine state.
When I returned to Oakland from Saudi Arabia, I first felt the difference. The people in Oakland are all about the business of living well. The city almost tangibly vibrates with enthusiastic life. I could feel the energy, the love, the intensity of living life when I reentered Oakland. The city itself is a complex, vibrant character living its life to the fullest.
I drank in the energy, the green surrounding me, and the smells of the surrounding restaurants. The houses amazed me, probably for the first time. The Victorians are breathtaking and are spread out almost all over the city. The newer houses are interesting, and there are apartments/condos in places that I’d never imagined. I am constantly amazed by the variety of architecture that I found and rediscovered in Oakland.
But I would never bring anyone here to visit or live.
When I came back, I saw something that did not exist before and did not exist even 5 years ago, when I first left the country: the tent cities. They are under freeway overpasses, next to freeways, on lined, crowded streets, and they “house” the homeless who have been displaced by skyrocketing rents in Oakland and the surrounding areas. The people who live in these tent cities are almost always wandering from tent to tent, surrounded by swaths of garbage, bicycles and traffic. Why, in a city where the median household income is more than $50,000, is there homelessness in such an obvious and unbalanced quantity? Why does this exist in an obviously growing, vital and supportive city?
No one has an easy answer. They blame the tech industry, the movie industry, the rising cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area. But no one can pinpoint the actual cause of this shameful problem. And no one can answer this question: Why don’t we (the government, which exists because of our tax subsidies) build affordable housing, and get people off the streets and out of tents?
And, trash is everywhere. On the sides of the street, the sides of the freeways, dotting the landscape with a kaleidoscope of colors, diverting my eyes away from the lush green trees and shrubbery. Where did all of this garbage come from?
I seem to recall jailed city and state prisoners, and environmental volunteers picking up trash alongside the streets and freeways regularly. Where are they now? Why is a city so vibrant, and so beautiful, accepting and tolerating the disarray and despair of homelessness, and the disturbing lack of cleanliness?
These questions should be answered. These problems should be resolved. Hopefully sooner rather than later, maybe someone, in some part of northern California, can answer my question.