Friday, January 14, 2011

West Oakland Safety

Most people who come to this blog via search engines are looking for information about "West Oakland safety".

Oakland has a ridiculously high murder rate — a symptom of the economic predicament of a high concentration of poor people in a rich country that was founded by racist slaveowners with guns — that's true, but victims do not appear to be chosen at random, they appear to be on the losing end of argument resolution between acquainted parties.

Sometimes victims are confused for an acquainted party.

Sometimes people are shot as part of a gang initiation ritual — usually the victims are older (35-45) black men walking to or from a liquor store.

But Oakland isn't Ciudad Juárez. If you live in an affluent neighborhood, home invasion is your primary concern. If you live in the ghetto or Downtown-ish, your concern is being robbed at gunpoint in the street. Home invasions are less common in poor neighborhoods, because there is less to steal in the homes of poor people. Robberies of homes with marijuana plantations constitute a notable exception to this hypothesis.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons why I support total decriminalization of marijuana: to stop marijuana-related home robberies. Other reasons include freeing state funds used to hunt and imprison offenders, stop the need for trafficking weed via Mexico, tax it, and to stop the hypocrisy — those who don't smoke don't do it because it's illegal. They don't do it because they don't want to.

I used to blindly wonder how sixteen-to-twenty-five-year-olds so casually and predictably become murderers and the murdered in one of the most opportunity-rich lands in the Land of Opportunity. How dumb do you have to be to embark on a path that almost guarantees either prison or death at an age reserved for education and discovery? — I used to think. Then, while hanging out at the Alta Bates NICU for three months, I discovered that it was not uncommon for babies to be born into the custody of the State of California. Little babies, they don't know anything yet. Some have mommies and daddies and grandparents with flowers and little puffy bears — pink or maybe blue, but definitely made in China — and some have the State of California. Like, imagine if your parents were the DMV.

Imagine being born in a trench at a World War I battlefield. Your odds of living long enough to learn about the possibility of a meaningful life look very, very grim.

Anyway, let's define "safe". You're safe when you are unlikely to be anyone's target. You're safe when you walk alone in the dark and you are more likely to fall into an open manhole than to get mugged.

The area around West Oakland Bart station is not safe for walking alone in the dark. It is a little bit safe for walking alone in the light.

The West Oakland Bart station is surrounded by public housing projects. Robbing pedestrians is an excellent income model for young men who are born into the world where they will spend a substantial portion of their life in prison, survival permitting. These young men don't have a chance, nor much of a choice, really. They will risk their lives to get your iPhone. A human life does not appear to be worth much to them, but killing you probably represents an inconvenience. Plus, once murdered, you can't be mugged again, so your death also constitutes a loss of future revenue.

Being murdered while being mugged is possible, but — statistically speaking — unlikely.

If you're a woman, you might also get raped.

I've lived in West Oakland for over three years before I should have gotten mugged, had I not run away. The taller and bigger you are, the less likely it will happen. Chances are, though, if your daily commute involves walking alone after dark, sooner or later you will be breaking yourself.

The trick is not to walk. Biking is an excellent alternative. I used to ride the two blocks from BART to home, just to widen the safety corridor. I got sick of dealing with a bike on the train, all for a 50-second ride. So I started carrying a Mace gun and a knife. I also called the city and got them to repair the street light on 7th Street that was broken for at least three years. I slowly began to despise gun-control laws, because gun laws take guns away from law-abiding citizens only. Criminals — by definition! — don't concern themselves with gun control laws. If all Bay Area residents were like this lady, there would not be any muggings.

I began to report every single sufficiently-sized pile of illegally-dumped trash I encounter to Oakland Public Works. That couch remnant miraculously gone from 7th and Henry? I've emailed a picture of it to There really should be an iPhone app for that. Anything that makes the streets cleaner and brighter will reduce crime. The problem is most of us think that there's a special being who is supposed to make things cleaner and brighter, we just don't recognize that being as ourselves. Or move to St. Francis Wood and don't worry about it.

Whenever I see someone finishing the chips and tossing the wrapper on the sidewalk, I feel nothing but barbarian violence within, but the solution is to just pick it up and throw it away.

Over the last fifty years, West Oakland and its residents have been terrorized by Public Works projects. These projects, along with other economic currents, have systematically destroyed a cohesive African-American neighborhood. Gentrification is not welcome here, obviously, because it involves a hostile takeover of the neighborhood with intent to displace the indigenous population. If you look Eurasian and you're moving to West Oakland, be sure to realize that you are the enemy, that you're coming to destroy and suppress, and the people who have lived here for generations will not experience an improvement in the quality of life associated with an influx of residents with good jobs and meaningful aspirations — without a miracle that is.

So far I've invented only one potential miracle — raising public teachers' starting salaries by a factor of three.

Today, to be a teacher at a public school is roughly equivalent to being a loser. When we meet a public school teacher, we suddenly feel a little out of place, a little embarrassed, as if hearing someone's story of a messy divorce or how their retirement account just got wiped out or how their landlord is a dick.

Our society has created a pariah profession — public school teacher — and now is wondering what's wrong with its public schools.

To fix this problem one thing has to happen: the tripling of a teacher's starting salary. This will turn it into a viable profession. The starting salary of a public school teacher in Oakland has to be about $100,000 per year. We pay $400 per gallon of gas to fuel American machinery in Afghanistan.

A great starting salary will draw talent and create competition. It will turn a tenure-driven sea of ineptitude into a meritocracy. If we flood our public schools with very smart teachers, the students — over time — will stop failing to achieve. As much.

Also, smart teachers will stop leaving the district once they start having kids who want to eat and a place for a toy kitchen.

This will never happen, because investing in the education of children economically confined to the Oakland Unified School District (controlled by the state between 2003 and 2009 due to being bankrupt and even more awful than usual, by the way) does not guarantee a quick-enough return of investment. But placing these children in prisons — when they grow up — does! And we can always just hire immigrants from the Eurasia and the Midwest to do work to which a good primary education might eventually lead.

I've digressed.

The ongoing foreclosure tsunami is placing many dozens of West Oakland homes into the hands of developers and professional landlords. These homes get a quick do-over before showing up on Craigslist as "charming West Oakland Victorians", for around $1500-$2000 per month.

As a result, people with deterministic gaits and laptop bags are beginning to appear in the streets. I've yet to see a pink-faced woman walking from BART alone while not talking on the phone, but the vector is clear: people are moving in. It feels cozier. (To me.)

When I see little boys on the street trying to break an AT&T box with pieces of a two-by-four, I have a very difficult time imagining that those boys will become enamored with City Slicker Farms. Newcomers, however, may move to West Oakland because of City Slicker Farms. There is a boundless rift between social classes. It's widening. The neighborhood is composed of two parallel universes, where schools of PBR-fueled cyclists swish by the hooded shadows on street corners and young happy couples in blue school buses with Vermont plates sip herbal tea while drunk women in slippers scream at each other in the middle of the street at three in the morning, all to the sounds of gunshots and police sirens and a new BMW motorcycle starting proudly behind a sliding electric gate and wind blowing through the holes in the roofs of foreclosed homes twenty feet away from an array of solar panels — it's not that they aren't aware of one another, these universes, it's that they pretend the other does not exist.

But sometimes there's an error in the matrix, and you get mugged at gunpoint.


  1. So... if I'm visiting SF and my friend has offered me a few nights on his couch in the 800 block of Center St... should I be wary of walking that block-and-a-half to/from BART in the early evening? Late evening?

    (Some nights on the same visit will be spent in a SF hotel as well.)

  2. Charles,

    WARY : marked by keen caution, cunning, and watchfulness especially in detecting and escaping danger

    Yes! Be that, and you'll be OK. We have friends who've lived around the corner for 20 years and they are still happy. But, you know, it's not a mountain resort.

  3. Hmm, I see. I've stayed with my cousins on the gentrified frontier of Harlem, but it did feel genuinely safe. Warier than that?

    My friend says the two blocks should be safe to walk alone any hours that the BART is open. Google tells me there is night bus service on the 800 after the BART closes - bad idea?

  4. So you are the expert on West Oakland now? Wow this is so typical! You seem to see only the anomalies. You have hundreds of people living in your neighborhood that are not on the corners or screaming in the streets but in typical white form, you focus on the stereotypes!

  5. Thanks for you blog! Well written, and highly relevant. I found an authentic artist's loft apartment in West Oakland and I'm thinking about it. I live in SF, but work in Emeryville -- I'm concerned about the crime and all the things you address in your blog, but attracted by the prospect of living in a huge and really cool loft for far less than I'm paying for a tiny studio in SF.

    I'm thinking, this is a neighborhood you drive in and out of. But if I felt safe, I would want to walk around and get to know the neighborhood. Do you think that is realistic? Or do I just drive in and out...?

  6. Ok, it's late 2012 now. I live in the peninsula, and I'm also considering a move to a newer condo in the West Oakland area. I keep hearing conflicting stories about it being the hot up-and-coming area...and to get in while the real estate is still cheap, and then I hear it's still a bit dangerous? I'm a middle-aged caucasian female. I'll have attached parking. More opinions please - safe enough, or not safe? I don't want to live in the burbs and I can't afford SF.

  7. I'll write another post. Overall, things are much better, especially around the W. Oakland BART station. There is now great lighting along 7th Street, and an influx of new residents have caused the streets to be empty less often.

    It's a good time to move, prices will probably just keep climbing.

  8. Thanks for the update Andrei! I've been hearing good things, but I like to kind of blend where I live (not stand out too much). I also like to enjoy the urban experience, and have access to all the great venues and restaurants of the north bay. I also love that I could pop into SF in a flash on the Bart there. I'm looking forward to your update. Namaste.

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