Place  /  Dispatch

Privatizing the Public City

Oakland’s lopsided boom.
Department of Defense. Department of the Navy. Mare Island Naval Shipyard. Office of the Commander. Office of the Shipyard Historian. Wikimedia Commons

In a recent article in Harper’s Magazine, Kevin Baker looks at a familiar story, the disconcerting transformation of a coastal American city into an enclave built by and for the wealthy. At issue is not simply “the astounding rise in housing prices, disruptive as that is. It is also the wholesale destruction of the public city.” The public city, as he describes it, should be made up of more than residential mega-developments and office towers. It should encompass investment in parks and libraries, subway lines and recreation centers, amenities for all socioeconomic classes. Baker is writing about New York. But he could as easily be discussing the San Francisco Bay Area — certainly San Francisco and, more recently, Oakland, the city where I live and whose urban planning and development I have studied for many years.

It’s not only my own experience that makes Oakland apt as a case study of the public city in jeopardy. In this era of what Baker calls “the urban crisis of affluence,” we need to acknowledge the particular importance of mid-sized cities in the orbit of larger ones, moving past the relentless focus on global megalopolises and attending to the second-tier municipalities where most working people live. Oakland has long been the poor relation across the bay from San Francisco, making it particularly vulnerable to overspill from gentrifying San Francisco, much as it was earlier neglected in the postwar suburban migration. It is, moreover, a fascinating place in its own right, the home of Jack London, Julia Morgan, Gertrude Stein, and Earl Warren, the Black Panthers and Ishmael Reed; where recent mayors have included Jerry Brown (1997-2007) — four-time governor of California. Spared the devastation of the 1906 earthquake, Oakland boasts the Bay Area’s greatest array of building types — from warehouses to office high rises to movie theaters to single-family homes — and vintages — including Victorian, Beaux Arts, Art Deco, and modernist exemplars. In a few years, its densely built, mixed-use downtown may be one of the most active and pleasant in the western United States.