Saturday, January 30, 2010

Assault On The Way Home From BART

I live three blocks away from the West Oakland BART station.

I work near 1st and Market, which means I have a 10-15 minute commute.

I have two children, a loving family, and lots to lose in general.

I pay mortgage on a house that is at least 50% underwater.

Currently, my neighborhood — historically a god-forsaken mire of poverty — is in a state of gentrificational limbo. After the Cypress freeway collapsed and was rebuilt around the area, the neighborhood is no longer guaranteed to forever remain a ghetto, it has a chance at a do-over.

7th street — formerly a busy stretch of commercial activity — is a desolation zone lined with empty lots and old storefronts. The street is very wide, wide enough for a green median and a 45-degree parking arrangement in both directions in lieu of the second lane.

While I do believe this area will — sooner or later — flourish, I'm under no illusions regarding its safety. Perhaps safety is an understatement: what I mean to say is that people get killed here. SFGate has a map of Oakland homicides from 2006 through 2009 — one can see with an untrained eye the obvious reduction in murders in 2009 in West Oakland (near BART), but the fact remains: people get killed near my house, kind of frequently.

I have a reasonably accurate street safety gauge. I grew up in Russia, where I was a relatively popular target of mugging attempts (my school was far from home). My strategy has always been simple: run. To date, I've never been successfully mugged. Also, to be fair, in the three and a half years of living in West Oakland, the only bad thing that happened to my family was a stolen license plate (a few weeks ago).

Anyway, when I walk home from BART, especially when it's dark, I'm usually on the lookout.

Today, when walking out of the BART station around 8:10 PM I was pondering about Oakland crime and how unbelievably reasonable January has been. It was sprinkling, which made me realize that many days of heavy rain were a very likely reason for the reduction in crime — most people who get killed appear to be "standing on a sidewalk", and who likes to get wet while standing on a sidewalk?

I'm paranoid: this is what my right hand usually looks like on the walk home from BART. I am absolutely prepared to punch anyone who messes with me in the face with this thing.

Today I was not prepared. My keys were in my bag. My bag had two laptops inside, it was heavy. Plus I was pondering about the relatively crimeless January. When I was crossing 7th street — a sometimes dangerous endeavor on account of the absence of a traffic light, stop sign, or a zebra crosswalk coupled with a blind turn that frequently produces mid-nineties Buicks with expired plates going about 60 MPH — I sensed there was someone behind me.

I turned around and saw a young guy in a black beanie walking right at me. Something told me he was not a mere pedestrian, so I turned around all the way just as he sped up and pushed me.

While I was processing the possibility of him getting upset because of me turning around as if I suspected he was not a mere pedestrian, he was telling me "what" and calling me a "bitch-ass nigger". He wasn't very big, but when I realized he was not alone I started running. He pushed me again and I ended up on the ground, my back down on top of the laptops, feet in the air facing him. In general, this is a good position to be in, but not when you've got a heavy bag, when you're not sure whether your adversary has a piece in his pocket, and when there's more guys coming.

I tried doing the scissor thing to drop him on the ground, but he was jumping a couple of feet away from me, repeating the "bitch-ass nigger" exorcism. I got up and started running again.

I was looking around for cars, pedestrians, anyone — the street was completely empty and dark. I was running right in the middle of it to be as visible as possible. The assailant was running behind me, turning around as if to check on his friends.

I remember looking at him and thinking that I could take him down, right now, because I'm pretty sure I'm stronger than him. But I was thinking of knives, guns, my family, the bag, and those guys behind us.

He turned back when we were half a block away from Revolution Cafe — a place I knew had some people inside.

I turned around and saw him reunited with the rest of the group near Upperkutz — an establishment by the looks of which you'd never guess it is just six minutes away from the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

View Larger Map

They crossed the street and walked toward the BART station.

I took out my iPhone 3G and "slid to unlock" to be presented with a frozen passcode screen. I waited for about a minute for it to wake up, after which I dialed 911. "The system is experiencing a heavy load", the recording explained and hung up.

I was standing near this bus stop, weighing options. (Note: I took this picture several weeks ago, but the tires are still there. I've contacted city services with a request to pick them up. (Several weeks ago. (Should I try leaving a tip when I pay property taxes? 15%?)))

Like all Oakland citizens who are not afraid of police, I have their number in favorites. Amazingly, after about 20 rings a dispatcher picked up. I explained the situation and she said an officer will meet me at 7th and Peralta.

Of course the officer never showed up. An hour later a dispatcher called me to tell me an officer will be coming to my house to take a police report "shortly". Five hours later, no officer.

This incident raises several issues.


In Oakland, we can't rely on police to protect us. I'm not just saying this because I'm a crazy libertarian, I'm saying this because when I call the police, they don't pick up the phone. Because when they say they'll be there, they don't show up. Whatever the reasons are — Oakland residents cannot rely on police for protection.

In other words we're living in a version of the American Wild West where all action happens in big cities and the good guys are prohibited by law to defend themselves. If I had a gun, I would have killed the guy who tried to rob me today. The reason I didn't try to kill him with my bare hands is because he had friends, and I've tried fighting in one-to-many cardinality constraint situations before — it just doesn't work.

In other words, while walking home from BART I'm fairly certain the police won't be there to protect me, and the law doesn't allow me to carry a gun, so my best bet is to hope that no one will hurt me.

Maybe if I believed in God and I prayed that no one will hurt me instead of hoping my chances would increase, but it still sounds like an unreasonable proposition.


What a piece of shit of a phone. Really awesome for playing The Settlers of Catan though.


Tonight's incident got me thinking about our house situation and the sanity of maintaining our commitment to a financially questionable status quo.

We bought our house with the purest of intentions. We've never missed a payment, and we actually like it very much. The thought of abandoning our home and renting is absolutely terrifying.

Our neighborhood is ripe for major improvements. It was on the way up, but it makes perfect sense that in times of trouble the least stable establishments crumble first. So the neighborhood took a major hit in the form of property values. I want gentrification to happen in West Oakland at a much faster rate than is currently the case. By gentrification I mean poor people moving out and yuppies moving in. It's happening, but it needs to be happening much faster.

In an age when walking is so common, what's keeping us pegged? Well, we like the house, we've put a lot of work into it, we believe we can help make the neighborhood better and enjoy the results, and we feel we have to honor the terms of our contracts with the banks.

I'm starting to budge on the last point.

I don't have a problem with mailing in the keys and moving out — that is not a violation of the contract, it's a part of it. I have a problem with trying to modify an existing loan. It seems like, sounds like, and is the exact type of scam that got us into the mess in the first place.

However, if we leave aside the morals, what makes sense is just to stop paying the mortgage. The banks — morals-free institutions by definition — will face two choices: to evict us and sell the house for 100K at an auction. Or cut us a deal. As long as the deal is above 100K, the banks will prefer a deal.

And in the worst case we move out after a few months.


  1. That's crazy. Being that much underwater I would send in the keys. There is no reason to keep paying on a home that is 200k underwater. Plus from what you are saying, the neighborhood isn't very nice or safe for your family. I am sure you could rent for less in a nicer neighborhood/ why stay in oakland anyways? I would do what the banks did and cut your losses. Why not save for a few years and buy a home with cash? The market isn't going to rebound anytime soon.

  2. Also, what is stopping you from squatting for a while? Just stop making payments and wait a few months. I have heard stories of people being able to live in a home for 16 months before they are forclosed upon. It may not be the standard case, but you would be able to save some cash in the mean time.

  3. Josh -- I like Oakland and I'm sure West Oakland will become stable within several years. Oakland-bashing is a very popular pastime, I know. Among Oakland's many problems, making a dent in perception will be the hardest to achieve.

    I'd love to keep the house, even remain underwater, just not so deep. I've tried to be creative and fix the problem from the outside. But it looks like I'll actually have to talk to the hyenas. I think this is a perfect time for it, in a sense that we are now entering a stage when responsible homeowners with perfect credit (mine is 800) are telling the banks to fuck off. We are their bread and butter, so it definitely makes sense to request a duel.

    1. go ahead use 911, dispatch operator cannot upgrade your call to sent a car priority otherwise, goes to self esteem, Russian dude, you would not believe the crap folks here call 911 for, such as upset about order at McDonalds or outcome of a meeting. u deserve services, but you have to allow them to serve you, they would can her for sending someone out on a "low priority" call (the number in favs v. 911). Now you know, sorry no one told you sooner, as you know common sense is our best ally, never be afraid to go up the chain of command to get service/attention, you are a great citizen.

  4. Dude, did he call you a "bitch-ass nigger"? look pretty white to me. Pretty scary to be attacked by a colour-blind, hard-of-hearing gang of exorcists. Glad you made it out alive!

  5. Congratulations on being named a Blog of Note on Blogger! Your blog is very interesting and I am seeing things in a different way since I started reading it. With your credit, you should be able to move to a safer neighborhood. You don't know how long the gentrification may take. If you fight with the bank you might ruin your credit. Banks tend to be very difficult, as we all know.

  6. Wow, Blog of Note, that cool. By the way, I called about the tires again and they've been picked up. On a sadder note, there was a shooting right in front of our house yesterday at 3PM. I wasn't there, but my wife was reporting from the front window over the phone.

  7. I can't think of anything worse than yuppies moving in !

    Well done on blogs of note.

    1. sounda like you dont do much thinking or reading, see the note above -- re murder.

  8. I thought that too about yuppies. Now I love them.

  9. A shooting right in front of your house? Getting mugged on the way home? Having to live in fear? Doesn't sound worth it to me. I'm sure you love your home, but it just doesn't seem worth it. It would suck to end up dead before the neighborhood turns around. From what I've heard, the banks aren't being reasonable, even if you have good credit. Maybe you could rent it out? I don't know, but I wouldn't want to raise kids there. Good luck to you & your family....
    and congrats on your blog of note... maybe you'll end up rich & can just leave that place behind!

  10. Wow, you're writing is so visual. I would move immediately, and I too carry my keys in similar fashion living in a city.

    I wish you luck and safety.

  11. Wow. This was a very harrowing yet very compelling post.

    The neighborhood will turn around eventually, but will you survive long enough to see it? Is it worth the effort?

    Putting you on my follow list. I have to see how this turns out.


  12. Sounds like you've had it, and I can understand why. Coming from NY (and getting a fair share of it), I know what you have to deal with. If I didn't have a kid, I'd prob. move to Oakland myself, but if something bad was to happen to him I'd never forgive myself. I'd leave gentrification to the ones who have less to loose, not to sound escapist or such

  13. I know that exact neighborhood, and trust me I have run into some sticky situations there myself. and I understand where you are coming from by not wanting to move out right away, my advice to you would be to wait it out and invest in a tazer or can of pepper spray.

  14. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  16. This was an entertaining read, so much in it! I couldn't stop clicking on those little "death blips" on that Oakland homicide map. It was darkly addictive: gunshot, gunshot, gunshot, beaten, stabbed, gunshot, gunshot.. Ugh!

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