Scenes from the aftermath in Oakland:
stories of victims, survivors and healers.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What restaurants mean

Shnetz & Sovitsky turned this into a beautiful restaurant
Often when I walk Telegraph between, say, 46th and 51st, I think about the risks Thomas Shnetz and Dona Sovitstky, owners of DoƱaTomas, took when they moved in to what was then a dreary, empty block. Whenever I weave among the crowds in Uptown, I give them another little Thank You for opening Flora (see right) when nothing else was happening around the Fox Theater.

Driving Mandela on my frequent West Oakland wanderings, I always give a nod to Tanya Holland and her still lonely but always sweet Brown Sugar Kitchen, and pray for the success of her newer, equally welcoming joint, B-Side BBQ, wedged into a desperate stretch of San Pablo Avenue.

Same with Hopscotch, a little down that same troubled street, owned and managed by chef Kyle Itani and Jenny Schwarz. I'm pretty sure the building they're in used to house a porn shop.

Still, even as Oakland's leaders tout the city's ever expanding culinary splendor as a sign of hope for greater peace and a new city reputation, shootings this summer in Uptown and Jack London Square (again) and Downtown (again) make it harder for me to tell visitors not to worry. How can I say it's safe to head to those neighborhoods, to all those Oakland restaurants -- Boca Nova, Chop Bar, Duende, Flora, Ozumo, etc. -- with their gorgeous interiors and lively atmospheres?

Do restaurants make a city better? And if so, for whom? Well, they provide jobs, and I'm told higher levels of employment lead to decreased crime. They introduce neighborhoods to a broader community. I always thought crowds of happy eaters were by and large peaceful crowds.

They make a neighborhood about something besides its day-to-day struggle to survive. They enrich identity, bring life to the lifeless. Or at least they try to bring life. Not every build-it-and-they-will-come restaurant survives, no matter how good its concept and execution. And certainly the veteran businesspeople who've opened places in Oakland knew that.

I marvel at the faith, courage and devotion of every Oakland restaurateur who, over the past 10 years, has moved into some moribund block, built a beautiful space, and then trusted in his or her own talent, ideas and the taste of Oaklanders, to succeed. I don't know if these owners and chefs saw their ventures in part as civic crusades. I doubt they see themselves as saviors. But despite our ongoing troubles, there are days here in Oakland, sometimes in our quieter stretches, even sometimes after a night of new bloodshed, when I do stop and think about what these places mean.

B-Side BBQ on San Pablo Ave. (Pic from their site)

Monday, September 16, 2013

Puking for Oakland

News that residents of wealthier neighborhoods in Oakland are hiring private security firms and mounting private surveillance cameras nauseates me. I think I'd throw up less if they would take up collections to help provide such security for poorer neighborhoods where the most crime and violence occurs. But I'm not sure anymore that I can entirely condemn them as I'm puking.

Indeed, with shootings in the past few weeks at Jack London Square, shootings in the heart of Uptown, a broad daylight shooting last week in front of a busy hotel at 11th and Broadway downtown, a shooting in Trestle Glen, it's getting harder for me to defend Oakland to residents and outsiders who fear it.

Not impossible. Just harder.

With the stories here on the Almanac, I had hoped (forlornly) to get people to think longer about the hard-hit parts of Oakland, to encourage them to consider the lives lost and lives altered by the gun in East and West Oakland. I'd sought to discourage them from quickly and easily writing-off thedead and their survivors or ignoring the dark plight of the wounded.

At the same time, elsewhere, I've always tried to celebrate the city's greatness, its integrated public spaces, its history and its trees and its bungalows and its youthful, fertile culinary scene.

But every week it gets harder to honestly argue that most of Oakland is safe, hard to stand on the claim that whole neighborhoods remain peaceful and unbloodied.