In an interview with the National Journal published this week, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan discussed her beleaguered city's biggest challenge for the future. Which, surprise, is not "ensuring public safety," but rather the following question: can Oakland ever escape San Francisco's shadow?
Quan lays it out like so [emphasis ours]:
Oakland has been in the shadow of San Francisco for a long time, but it has a very interesting history of its own, of being very diverse and a place where innovation takes place. It was the end of the transcontinental railroad and the home of the Pullman porters. Like New York, it's a port city where immigrants first come and maintain ties.
We're contradictory. I have neighborhoods in the African-American community where more than 50 percent of the young men don't graduate from high school. But we also have high numbers of graduate degrees. We're the original home of the University of California; we're close to the University of Berkeley. You've got this immense diversity, not just in terms of ethnicity but also income. It generates a kind of energy and innovation that's at the heart of the city.
We're a little bit like Brooklyn. Because Oakland is so much more affordable than San Francisco, the whole arts scene has shifted over here. The food scene has taken off. Those kinds of cultural things have made Oakland very desirable.
While we can't speak definitively about Brooklyn's art scene (which is currently enamored with a Banksy project), Quan has a point about the East Bay. Oakland's lively Art Murmur is more spirited than any regular art or culture event happening in San Francisco right now and consistently draws crowds from the city every first Friday in a sort of reverse bridge-and-tunnel effect. That's not to say that there isn't art happening in San Francisco — just that Oakland's art scene is far more accessible, diverse and inclusive.
On the other hand, Oakland's artsy caché can also work against it, as it has in Brooklyn, where the borough's name has become nearly synonymous with the dreaded hipster label. Art projects like last month's Station to Station event (held in an historic Oakland train station and sponsored by Levi's) was either "the best party" or an "epic fail," depending on who you asked. Last year's Special Delivery event was celebrated for converting an abandoned warehouse into a massive canvas for street art, but many attendees got fed up with waiting in the entry line and skipped out to tag the surrounding neighborhood.
As for the food, we doubt San Francisco will give up its mantle as the epicenter of Bay Area cuisine anytime soon, but available space and cheap rents have made the East Bay an attractive place for upcoming chefs looking to break out on their own, as well as established restaurants looking to expand their Bay Area empires. Neighborhoods like Rockridge and Temescal have expanded on Berkeley's gourmet ghetto with spots like Juhu Beach Club from Top Chef alum Preeti Mistry or Chez Panisse spin-off Pizzaiolo, among others. Oakland's Eat Real Festival — now in its fifth year at Jack London Square — also rivaled S.F.'s own Street Food Festival in the Mission.
On the other hand, being "like Brooklyn" isn't all new restaurants and New York Times trend pieces. There are already indications that home prices are quickly creeping up in previously cheap sections of town and large-scale developers are snapping up homes and turning them around for higher profits. In the National Journal interview, Quan also discusses how Oakland dealt with the loss of redevelopment funds in 2012: by accepting a $1.5 billion dollar investment from a Chinese group to build the Brooklyn Basin development, which will create 3,100 apartments on the Oakland waterfront. We'll have to wait and see if the development keeps Oakland's character, or if it quickly devolves into a high-priced waterfront nightmare.
Then there's still that looming public safety issue: While more Oakland neighborhoods are crowdsourcing private security, Bryan Parker, Quan's opponent in next year's mayoral election, told the Chronicle, "Oakland’s most pressing issue is safety. To lose that important point in this discussion feels irresponsible."
Anyhow, Oakland also just got its very own sushi burrito place, which is certainly indicative of something.