Oakland’s “Pothole Vigilantes”

Oakland, California is in the midst of some tough financial times.  The city is facing a $25 million operating deficit this year, and providing all of the basic services that those of us living in better-managed cities take for granted — like parks, street lights, and adequately maintained roads — just aren’t within Oakland’s current budgetary capabilities.

potholevigilantesRight now, Oakland has 7,700 unaddressed service requests to fix potholes on Oakland city streets.  The quality of streets in Oakland has been found by a recent study to be among the worst in the country, with bone-jarring potholes and other street-quality issues estimated to cost Oakland drivers an extra $1,000 a year in car repair and maintenance costs.  And to add insult to injury for hapless Oakland drivers, Oakland officials have decided that $2.9 million in money that has been generated by California’s high state gas taxes — money that is supposed to be used for road repair — will be used for street lights and parks instead.  Rather than providing some immediate pothole relief with the money earmarked for that purpose, Oakland is promising that it will move forward with a project to spend $100 million on street repairs over the next three years.

So what’s a frustrated Oakland driver who is tired of having to pay hundreds of dollars in car repair costs out of pocket because city fathers aren’t providing basic services to do?  Two Oakland residents have decided to take matters into their own hands.  They call themselves the “Pothole Vigilantes,” and at night they’ve gone out to tackle potholes in certain Oakland neighborhoods.  After they’ve made their repairs, they post videos of their work on Instagram, where they also solicit suggestions for new pothole projects, and donations.

Oakland city administrators asked about the work of the “Pothole Vigilantes” say that they sympathize with the frustration about unrepaired potholes, but they “can’t recommend anyone do this work themselves, not least because it raises safety issues while people are working in the streets.”  No kidding!  People pay taxes so their cities will do the work in a way that is safe, planned, and handled by people who know what they’re doing — but if cities fail to deliver on basic services, they shouldn’t be surprised that some people will take matters into their own hands.

If you had to drive every day on a street with a monster chuckhole that was never fixed and growing ever larger, wouldn’t you be tempted to try to fix it yourself?  And while the safety issues involved in citizens going out to do road repair under cover of darkness are obvious, there’s also something admirable about people who aren’t content to sit back and wait forever for an inept city government and its budgetary shell game to complete repairs, and instead have decided that some self-help is in order.  Don’t blame the fed-up “Pothole Vigilantes,” blame the city government whose failures produced the conditions that gave rise to their vigilantism in the first place.

When Rivalries Get Ugly

The San Francisco 49ers played the Oakland Raiders last night.  Although the two towns are separated only by the San Francisco Bay, they are fierce rivals.

Last night’s game was marked by significant violence.  Two guys were shot, and another guy was seriously beaten in a stadium bathroom.  The story on the violence also features a video of a slugfest in the stands between two big guys who probably had too much to drink and were mouthing off until things got physical.

I’ve been to Browns games where violence seemed to lurk just below the surface, and it is a scary scenario.  After all, when you go to a professional football game you are sitting with tens of thousands of strangers, many of whom have been drinking steadily as they have enjoyed the on the field violence.  It makes for a volatile situation.  It doesn’t take much to move things from taunting to brawling, and once a brawl breaks out it can spread easily.  And then, suddenly, you go from an orderly scene, where you are sitting with other fans watching a sports event, to a melee where the guy sitting next to you could decide he wants to punch you out because he doesn’t like your t-shirt or can’t figure out any other way to deal with the testosterone rush.

I’m convinced that the vast majority of sports fan fights are alcohol-related.  Sports teams could cut back on the fighting if they cut back on the beer service — but they don’t because that would cut back on the profits, too.

An American Scene

The wharf in Oakland at Jack London Square was beautiful last September — bright with fluttering colored pennants, white sailboats, and blue sky.

How many Americans spend summer days on the water, working the rudder and sail, skimming across the water ahead of a fine warm breeze?  One of these days, I need to learn how to sail.

A Visit To Oakland

Work took me to Oakland, California this past week.  It’s the first time I’ve visited that fair city.

The marina at Jack London Square

I stayed at a downtown hotel and had a chance to walk around a bit.  I visited Jack London Square, which is a development on the waterfront.  Unfortunately, a walk down Broadway from the center of downtown to Jack London Square takes you through a sketchy neighborhood and under a highway overpass, through a dark area that is liberally coated with bird droppings and probably is a haven for homeless people at night. From a city planning standpoint, it is unfortunate that visitors can’t simply walk from downtown to what is intended to be a destination area without seeing the underside of the city.

"Cheemah, Mother of the Spirit-Fire"

Jack London Square itself is nice, with a boat docking area, a marina, and an interesting view of the industrial docks nearby.  It has the kind of restaurants and entertainment options you would expect, as well as some curious public art.  (The piece shown in the photograph at right, called “Cheemah, Mother of the Spirit-Fire,” seems a bit over-the-top in its overt symbolism.)  I found myself wondering how well the area is doing, however.  I was there shortly before lunch on a Thursday, and the Square was pretty much deserted.  In fairness, though, the middle of September probably isn’t the high tourist season in Oakland.

Oakland also has a colorful and very interesting “Old Oakland” section that features some beautiful buildings that look like they date from the turn of the century.  The architecture of the area is replete with the distinct touches and flourishes you would expect in buildings constructed in a vibrant, rapidly growing city of that era.  It appears that modern-day Oakland is trying to rejuvenate the area.  From my walk-through, I’d say it is worth the effort — but I think establishing a feeling of personal security among visitors will be an issue in that area as well.

One of the interesting buildings in Old Oakland

My exploration also took me through Oakland’s “Chinatown” section, which seems to be a vibrant area where lots of people were out and about, and around the newer part of downtown, which features memorable structures like the Oakland Tribune clock tower, the municipal building, and a lavish complex of new federal buildings.  The area near the federal buildings includes a pedestrian mall with an outdoor eating area, restaurants, and shops.  It was a busy place Thursday afternoon, but was pretty much deserted when I walked by Wednesday night at around 7 p.m.

Oakland reminded me of many cities in the Midwest: a once thriving blue-collar city that is trying to deal with an aging downtown, the departure of businesses to greener pastures, a considerable homeless population, and tough economic times.