Backbeat: Competing publics and neoliberal enclosure

On the politics of public space in Oakland during the pandemic and uprising.

Updates: I went on the Art & Labor podcast to discuss my last newsletter piece, “Ruling Class Solidarity: Conflict & Growth at SFMOMA Reexamined,” and joined with Terrain: Art & Crisis in Downtown Oakland contributors for a panel talk presented by Pro Arts and the Lab. The piece below adapts my Mutual Air response from Terrain. Find a free PDF of the now sold-out publication here

On the orange day, in September, when the Bay Area awoke to wildfire smoke so thick it blotted out the sun, confounding sensors and casting a sallow, flypaper hue over everything, I sat facing the bird islands at Lake Merritt. I’d quit smoking cigarettes, and to my surprise I still enjoyed sitting on benches, reading and looking at ducks. The Mutual Air device chimed, issuing syncopated note clusters at intervals regular enough to indicate alarming levels of particulate matter. I heard the newly-arrived coots clucking, and the diminutive whistle of a mallard’s wingbeats before glancing the murky shallows. A belted kingfisher perched upon the snag where double-crested cormorants nest every spring, calling like early synthesizer composers imagined the sound of advanced computing. After a while, ash clouded my binocular lenses. 

I was pretending that birdwatching and not smoking braced me against an airborne pandemic and the hovering toxic byproduct of an ecological crisis. Yet the closer I looked at Lake Merritt, a couple blocks from my apartment, the less it offered relief. 19th-century Oakland landowners established the lake as a wildlife refuge in order to protect their property interests, and self-styled stewards continue to pit conservation against public access, villainizing visitors along racial and class lines. Although it is better-funded than most city parks, investment increasingly flows through public-private partnerships, muddling the lines of accountability. Oakland even punted responsibility for enticing Black-crowned night herons to resume nesting at Lake Merritt to a real-estate developer, which succeeded only in damaging their breeding habitat downtown. 

By the winter, I’d resumed smoking. One day on the bench I read about the antithesis between town and country, something to abolish sometime after the capitalist-wage worker antithesis, Engels wrote. With our exurbs and sprawl, town and country seems less binary than in industrializing Europe, when Lenin was disturbed by growing cities’ irrational use of human excrement. Yet the Mutual Air chime, excited by smoke, reminded me of Oakland’s reliance on a utility, PG&E, responsible for many California wildfires—cities continue to exploit and ravage rural areas. And a related, little-noticed infrastructural failure in August even brought to mind London’s 19th century River Thames: Power outages at an EBMUD facility resulted in 50 thousand gallons of wastewater flooding the Oakland Estuary, yards from the channel to Lake Merritt. 

Competing Publics

South of that rusty drain at the end of Alice Street is Oakland’s largest development, Brooklyn Basin. The 64,000-acre multiphase project between 880 and the Oakland Estuary originated in the early 2000s, during Jerry Brown’s mayoral tenure, when Signature Development Group acquired the land in a no-bid sweetheart deal from the Port of Oakland. 

The signature is political connections. Oakland planners have quietly introduced zoning changes greasing the East Bay developer’s projects in what’s now known as Uptown. Signature seized on the reputation of Art Murmur to build the Hive, only to sabotage the establishment of an arts district that would benefit area galleries and studios. For Brooklyn Basin, Signature worked hand-in-glove with Oakland’s city attorney to squash a voter referendum, and connected with Chinese financial backer Zarsion Holdings through former Mayor Jean Quan. This past November saw the quiet reveal of Township Commons, a vast waterfront plaza within frame elements of the shipping terminal that once operated in its place at the end of 9th Avenue.

Township Commons, the first “public space” opened as a part of the sprawling development, is a privately-policed wine deck on a compromised pier vulnerable to near-term sea level rise. It features the same wooden recumbent chairs as in Jack London Square overlooking what will eventually be a marina. On one end is a small, costly grocery. In an adjoining hall, empty glass boxes in the shape of shipping containers. The antiseptic cargo theme strikes me less as an example of “adaptive reuse,” wherein architects repurpose existing structures to connect past and present, and more a monument to global capital raging against nature, people and place. Like shipping containers, the housing at Brooklyn Basin comprises modular asset vehicles with a pancontinental aesthetic, subordinating the reproduction of life to the storage of value. 

The developer-municipality partnerships building new housing in cities such as Oakland depend not only on financialization, wherein housing underpins global financial markets, but also regulatory exclusion from tenant protections such as rent-control. Also highly compatible with this model is the aspiration to homeownership and private green space prevalent among the young upwardly-mobile professionals targeted in marketing materials. Transient renters are disinclined to resist residential alienation, often suspecting the condition results from personal shortcomings, and may even derive false security from their heavily-policed surroundings. In this way, developers conscript tenants of antisocial housing to defend antisocial public space. 

On a recent visit, though, Township Commons seems less like itself. A woman to her friend sunning on the deck chair: You’ve been awake two days—I haven’t slept for five years! So shut the hell up. Their little dog licking my face. The woman flirting with a man installing hostile architecture, distracting him from drilling little metal nobs to the benches. The observations seem loud, almost shattering, because Township Commons is buffering; it is a park intended to produce a specific public, not the other way around. And in the early stage of this prefigurative mode, when only one of several planned buildings is complete, the people animating the park through their slightly addled, self-directed behavior appears especially dissonant, like a threat. 

I visited Township Commons almost as soon as it opened because it’s in between two of my waterfront cycling stops. Union Point Park, southeast along Embarcadero, features a large shrub-covered mound, designed to remediate toxic soil, with a spiralling walkway and a mast jutting from the peak at an angle. Instead of an observation deck, though, the jumble of shapes forming a dead-end is lately the landing for a tent. The houseless residents of Union Point Park, organizing with the United Front Against Displacement, are resisting eviction efforts prompted in part by complaints from the neighboring marina. Similarly to the struggles of encampments on CalTrans land, Union Point residents are dealing with the state Bay Conservation and Development Commission. These agencies ruthlessness towards encampments should come as no surprise: Their reputations as stewards of public infrastructure obscures their role in protecting commodity circulation from its human remainders. 

Within eyesight of Brooklyn Basin is Estuary Park, an L-shaped strip of waterfront with a fishing pier and a few docks next to a sleepy, city-owned aquatic center. Overlooking the mouth of the channel feeding Lake Merritt, Estuary Park is the unassuming frontage of a critical intersection. The picnic table awning looks the same as it did in 1993, when Boots Riley and Tupac joined E-40 to shoot the “Practice Lookin’ Hard” video. In 2019, I encountered a small house-boat beginning to sink, already marked by pink graffiti. Monitoring its progress has brought me back regularly. It seemed to take weeks for the boat to find the sediment, and for months it appeared more or less submerged, tides depending. Today parts of the hull still bob above the surface. Is a boat that’s bottomed out sunken if it won’t disappear? 

While officials lavish hostility on the homeless residents of Union Point Park, and Signature defends Township Commons’ fidelity to an architectural rendering, the modestly trafficked Estuary Park deteriorates. This official neglect, though, is policy. It lays the justification for eventual absorption into Brooklyn Basin: Signature’s waterfront development plan extends the design and management of Township Commons across several green spaces to encompass Estuary Park. Yet in this peculiar stasis, relieved of prescriptive design and enforcement, Estuary Park holds more possibility for participation. The social conflict that determines parks’ character advantages visitors awake to its psychogeography, amenable equally to cyclists and motorists. It’s a remote-feeling place, one of few to park in the dirt alongside the water, hear lapping surf in the dark of night, and watch lights undulate on the estuary. They’re conditions for intimacy with yourself, strangers, and friends among strangers, and there always seems to be more people around than you realize at first. 

Early on, Signature pitched Brooklyn Basin, when it was still “Oak to Ninth,” with the lie that the shoreline was empty. (This “off the map” myth endures in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle.) In the middle of the site plan, though, is the 5th Avenue Marina, a narrow spit of land where artists have lived and worked in boats and warehouses repurposed as studios and congregate housing for decades. Residents of the Shadetree live-work complex have in recent years collectivized the historic live-work space, combatting Signature’s fleet of white-shoe attorneys at every turn. Refusing to acknowledge the waterfront context except in terms of profitability seems like a point of pride for the developers of Brooklyn Basin, which is named for one of the Gold Rush-era settlements incorporated into the modern City of Oakland.   

Neoliberal Enclosure 

In 2013 I wrote an article for the short-lived broadsheet Fireworks about the growing popularity of parklets in Oakland, noticing they extended gentrifying businesses’ control over sidewalks and streets. What worried me then seems quaint today. They indicate the infrastructure privatization enshrined in things like business improvement districts (BIDs), organizations funded by property taxes and run by property owners that primarily manage contracted security-janitorial workers in coordination with local police. Chartered by municipalities, they are a privatized layer of government policing and surveilling public space at the direction of area landlords and developers. A couple years ago, working at KQED, I was morbidly pleased to defend the veracity of the headline, “To ‘Reduce Loitering,’ a Plaza? Downtown Oakland Landlords Plan to Annex a Street,” referring to the queasily-named “13th Street Commons.”

The pandemic has hastened and naturalized this neoliberal enclosure. More than 100 outdoor or curbside dining areas—permitted by the city and sponsored by businesses, like parklets—have overtaken entire blocks under Oakland’s “flex streets” initiative. These pandemic-era parklets are rubber-stamped for free, and they don’t even pretend to welcome non-paying customers. Now officials in San Francisco and Oakland are working to make them permanent. The city staffer supervising Oakland’s parklet program in a recent interview described permanently ceding streets to restaurateurs—a handout for commercial landlords—in terms of community, obscuring underlying class interests: “Should we really go back to making things more expensive and more challenging for our community to access their own public space?”

People in the Bay Area tend to scoff at business owners protesting lockdown orders as repressive. But local and state officials’ decisions regarding what kind of commerce to allow under what conditions is just as political here as elsewhere, reflecting the relative lobbying might of restaurateurs, retailers, commercial landlords, etc. The profusion of outdoor dining in city streets, a Libby Schaaf administration priority from the outset of the pandemic, shows local officials placating indignant business owners. In an atmosphere of categorical reverence for smalltime entrepreneurship, they did so with little pushback. And this tacit permission will be consequential: The pandemic-era consummation of the parklet trend is a “community” mandate, from officials’ perspective, to further commodify city streets.

This process, however, did not proceed evenly: The political flashpoint spared outdoor dining instead visited unregulated vending at Lake Merritt. In the summer, vendors spanned nearly the length of the lawn on Lakeshore Avenue. While brick-and-mortar restaurants backed by commercial landlords and business associations won parklets permanently, officials granted the vendors only temporary amnesty, eventually corralling them into a narrow area under the threat of fines (and excluding those selling food and drink). The vendors, most of them Black, rallied support from racial justice protests; many were out of work, or avoiding risky gigs such as ridesharing. But they found resistance from business groups, including some of the same organizations promoting parklets, as well as Lakeshore Avenue residents who couched their opposition in conservation and pandemic-safety concerns.

It was a glaring double-standard. Maskless parklet dining was acceptable, even lionized for supporting small businesses. But the lakeside vendor scene prompted a sort of moral panic. It echoed the racism and classism of Lake Merritt controversies long predating #BBQBecky, increasingly inflected with xenophobia: gentrifier neighbors view the lake as their backyard, not a destination for the working-class people of color pushed further from Oakland. Particularly disingenuous is the way vendor opponents invoke conservation to vilify lakeside revelry, as if it poses a graver threat to wildlife than the city’s dereliction of its parks. Uneven parks resources distribution draws so many people to Lake Merritt. Underfunded basic maintenance results in garbage accumulation. And the emphasis on garbage is a proxy for our unhoused neighbors, the surplus population excluded from most notional publics.       

Local officials did not lift red-tape for the vendors the way they did for the organized business interests. They walked the fence, appeasing vendors with conditional reprieves while engineering stronger enforcement to satisfy the neighbors. (Enter the traffic cone, used to encourage or discourage outdoor congregation depending on prevailing social pressure.) The latter initiative expanding policing may have more lasting effects. “I think the main issues are enforcement,” Laura Sutta, co-chair of Lakeshore Neighbors, told a parks advisory committee last summer, a genteel version of the paranoiac vigilantism gripping Nextdoor. The body then entertained reinstating Oakland cops as “Park Rangers,” a proposal that also appeared in a city survey this past March. It was waiting in the wings: Councilmember Nikki Fortunato-Bas, whose district includes part of Lake Merritt, in a 2019 newsletter similarly endorsed “community-led solutions” for the park including “bringing back Park Rangers.”

Backlash

In the initial nights of the George Floyd Uprising last summer, Oakland police ceded the streets. The rebellion had spread to the suburbs, and a multiracial throng of protesters, energized by what seemed like a young new cohort of anticapitalists, overwhelmed a department deprived of interagency reinforcements. Days after the Third Precinct in Minneapolis burned, and deep into the ravages of COVID-19, as government officials balanced morgue capacity and private profit, protesters in Oakland converged on Oscar Grant Plaza with masks, food and first-aid. They sabotaged surveillance devices, barricading roadways as they went, and goods escaping the broken windows of bailed-out retailers landed indiscriminately among the self-organized mass.

In the wake of this militant surge, as landlords, retailers and corporations commissioned resistance camouflage for their battered buildings (a topic I look at closely in the Terrain essay “Plywood & Paint”), activists and some Oakland councilmembers proposed to upturn the city budget and divert police funding to social services including non-police crisis response. This piece isn’t about the turn from that insurrectionary moment to municipal finance reform. My interest rests in the local business establishment reaction to both. From the downtown real-estate and business perspective, the jeopardized police funding and the uprising that forced Oakland police into a defensive posture provoked similar worries.

Some of the backlash surfaced this past February at a press conference in Pacific Renaissance Plaza, organized by the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce (OCCC), following several high-profile assaults on Asian elders. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf used her speech to highlight councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan and Nikki Fortunato-Bas’ defund proposal, implying they undermined public safety in Chinatown. Schaaf was attacking political rivals in a vulnerable position, driving a wedge between them and OCCC’s influential constituency. She was also deflecting attention from her decision, months earlier, to nix a Chinatown beat cop, as the councilmembers retorted. But by pointing this out, the councilmembers effectively relaxed the defund agenda. Fortunato-Bas then promised to restore the Chinatown beat cop, and joined Schaaf in helping the chamber bolster its surveillance system. 

News reports present OCCC and its public face, Carl Chan, an Alameda realtor, as objective Chinatown spokespeople. The chamber, though, more specifically represents what activists have called “upstairs Chinatown,” a social strata of area merchants and property owners. I met one of their board members, Judy Chu of Goldenland Investments, when she evicted me from a warehouse and then rented the place to serial evictor Danny Haber. Streetfest, OCCC’s main breadwinner, when the streets feature booths advertising mortuaries and casinos, is probably the worst day of the year to visit Chinatown, as the critic Luke Tsai has observed. OCCC uses the revenue to campaign against minimum wage increases and criminal-sentencing reform, and to promote luxury development. Goals of the February press conference, according to a Schaaf memo, included buoying police and surveillance resources. 

In the months since, OCCC has advanced its reactionary agenda not only in the guise of public safety but also racial solidarity and mutual-aid organizing, abetted by media and coalition groups. The chamber sought $75,000 to expand a surveillance system accessible to Oakland police, and lobbied officials for an $85,000 public grant for the same purpose. Another fundraiser, after fetching $80,000 for armed security, asked, “What is next? Cameras!” In May, Chan and developer lobbyist Greg McConnell asked in the Oakland Post if Chinatown is lost to “urban rioters.” It recalls Oakland hills homeowners hiring private security following OPD patrol reductions in 2013. Then and now, commercial and property interests, in league with city officials, answer police funding reductions with their own surveillance and uniformed gunmen. 

To centralize management of its growing private security apparatus, OCCC is also creating a business improvement district. Though contingent on city council approval, Schaaf is treating the Chinatown BID’s establishment as a foregone conclusion; her recent budget proposal earmarks $75,000 for the BID. The Chinatown BID would be the city’s twelfth, and it would be contiguous with five extant BIDs spanning the Broadway-Telegraph Avenue corridor citywide. The downtown Oakland and Lake Merritt/Uptown BIDs already act jointly to advocate for dedicated police units, record panhandlers in databases, and secure restraining orders excluding homeless people from plazas. OCCC’s camera network raises the possibility of federated BIDs surveilling Oakland on a scale comparable to their San Francisco counterparts.

If the state is ensuring public and private forms of violence and the threat thereof reserve public space for profit-making activities determined by the ruling-class (which only sometimes require people), the answer is not to demand more allowable activities. City planners have endless “placemaking” and “wayfinding” gimmicks to use your desires against you. It’s to produce public space from below through collective action. This way, even the plaza most cynically dubbed a “commons,” or the most antisocial housing development downtown — no site of capitalist plunder is permanently despoiled. It’s what the George Floyd protesters, like the wheelie kids and renegade party crews, already know: Belonging isn’t granted, only won.