Beauty & Blight in Downtown Oakland

19 Dec

Last week, V Smoothe brought attention to a post I wrote a year and a half ago that reflected on the positive and negative points of downtown Oakland. She went on to discuss the seemingly increasing problem of blight in downtown Oakland.

I guess we were having similar thoughts last week because as she was writing that blog post, I was out taking pictures of downtown Oakland. This is what I found.

Graffiti is rampant in downtown Oakland,

Graffiti is rampant in downtown Oakland,

especially on abandoned buildings like this one

especially on abandoned buildings like this one

and this one.

and this one.

Nearly every newspaper case is covered in graffiti.

Nearly every newspaper case is covered in graffiti.

And so are the new parking meters.

And so are the new parking meters.

But it doesn't have to be this way. One solution is to cover buildings, news crates, and mailboxes with murals. In four years of working in downtown, I've never seen graffiti on this mural.

But it doesn't have to be this way. One solution is to cover buildings, newspaper cases, and mailboxes with art. In four years of working in downtown, I've never seen graffiti on this mural.

Another solution is to build architecturally interesting buildigns with no blank walls, like the stopwaste.org building.

Another solution is to build architecturally interesting buildings with no blank walls, like the stopwaste.org building.

Graffiti's not the only problem - littering is rampant. The exposed wires on this lampost aren't the prettiest either (and might not be safe).

Graffiti is not the only problem - littering is rampant. The exposed wires on this lampost aren't the prettiest either (and might not be safe).

People even throw trash into planters, which are meant to beautify the city.

People even throw trash into planters, which are meant to beautify the city.

And we can't blame the littering on a lack of trashcans.

And we can't blame the littering on a lack of trashcans.

So why would anyone spend time in downtown Oakland? Well, because it also can be stunning.

So why would anyone spend time in downtown Oakland? Well, because it also can be stunning.

When you look up, you can't help but be overwhelmed by the tall buildings representing so many different arhcitectural eras.

When you look up, you can't help but be overwhelmed by the tall buildings from so many different architectural eras.

And I have hope that as more residents move into the area,

And I have hope that as more residents move into the area,

and as more visitors come downtown to enjoy our new entertainment options,

and as more visitors come downtown to enjoy our new entertainment options, the city will be forced to stop ignoring the blight problems downtown.

11 Responses to “Beauty & Blight in Downtown Oakland”

  1. Navigator December 19, 2008 at 1:24 pm #

    Thank you for taking those pictures. I’ve emailed Nancy Nadel many times regarding graffiti and litter downtown.
    I was glad to see that someone finally took care of the graffiti marred wall at the Pediatric Dentistry Building at 2100 Broadway. Also, the back wall of Le Cheval restaurant has been cleaned up.

    Things can happen if we put pressure on City Hall. Perhaps you could include specific addresses of the blight in order to “shame” someone to get this problem corrected. You’re right, downtown Oakland has visually stunning architecture. Neglecting this great asset which belongs to every Oaklander should not be an option. There is no excuse for the slobs that can’t walk three feet to a garbage container. There is no excuse for the self-centered vandals who take it upon themselves to tear down what others are trying to build up. These vandals should be arrested for imposing their blight on the rest of us.

    Thank you. Keep up the great work. I love the pictures.

  2. themacinator December 19, 2008 at 6:37 pm #

    i don’t know, i spend a lot of time taking pictures of graff, and graff in downtown oakland. i love it, and feel proud to be part of a city that has a thriving street art community. i agree with your solutions for “revitalizing” oakland- murals, more interesting architecture, etc. legal walls would also be good. the first couple pictures you posted may be legal walls- they’re outside of a gallery of street art, but i could be wrong. i have some pictures of those same pictures in my “oakland graffiti” set.

    i totally agree with you on the trash- what is the point of leaving trash on the ground? i just don’t see graffiti as blight. in most, not all, cases, it is colorful and artistic, and a way for outsiders to speak. that sounds like oakland spirit. we can (and do) waste a lot of time and money buffing and painting over graffiti, instead of listening to the kids (and young adults) who are speaking thru their art and offering alternative venues for them share. i prefer stickers, tags and throwups to corporate billboards and vacant stores any day. (remember a couple years ago when we had the “viral marketing” and there were starbucks ads all over the sidewalks? talk about blight!)

    here’s a link to the oakland graffiti set. many are geotagged, and i hope you’ll find some of them a convincing argument that not all street art is blight🙂

  3. Becks December 19, 2008 at 10:49 pm #

    Don’t get me wrong here macinator, I love graffiti and have a deep appreciation for the art form (nice pictures, btw), but I think there are appropriate places for it and other places where it never belongs, no matter how talented the artist is.

    Most of your photos of graffiti are of places where I think it is more appropriate – trains, freeways, billboards, etc. But I’m sure we would all agree that it is never ok to graffiti someone’s house (yet this happens). I also think it’s never ok to graffiti retail spaces in downtown Oakland, and the three places I showed above are retail spaces. One of them was a functioning restaurant earlier this year, and one of the others used to be a dispensary way back in 2004 before the council limited the city to four dispensaries and shut several down.

    I think the effect that graffiti on abandoned retail shops in downtown has on the neighborhood is profound. It keeps many people away from the area entirely, which hurts neighboring businesses. And it makes it much harder to rent those spaces and neighboring spaces to small businesses.

    If we’re going to embrace graffiti in downtown Oakland, let’s create a plan and do it right. For example, my sister founded Def Ed, an organization that is committed to teaching youth about the four elements of hip hop. Their teachers help mold young artists and provide legal spaces for them to practice graffiti.

    Let’s commission graffiti art from some of these Oakland youth and find places in downtown Oakland and beyond that are appropriate for them to express themselves. But no matter how much I love graffiti as an art form, I cannot see how it is positive when it brings down retail businesses and contributes to blight in downtown.

  4. Navigator December 20, 2008 at 2:27 am #

    That’s really sad to think of this blight imposed on the city of Oakland as “art..” Anyone that thinks that seeing tags from an “a$$ hole” like “Pest” smeared all over downtown like the droppings of an errant dog as “art” is very confused. It’s unfortunate that these vandals choose Oakland as their dumping ground. These people bring Oakland down economically. Go to Walnut Creek and see how clean and graffiti free the place is. Then go marvel at the huge amount of retail which rightfully should be in a major city like Oakland and not in a suburb of 65,000 residents. Graffiti is blight. Murals done in good taste are a different story.

  5. themacinator December 20, 2008 at 7:31 am #

    becks- i think that you’re on the right track about Def Ed- sounds like a wonderful organization, and i will have to look into how to support/endorse it. hip hop is part of oakland, and oakland’s history, and graffiti is part of that, as they’ve recognized. commissioning it, and recognizing it as art, and providing public space for it, is an awesome idea. marginalizing already marginalized people sounds like, well, typical oakland policy.

    i just think blaming graffiti is off track. providing solutions and moving forward is the right solution- which you’re doing. thank you!

    navigator- it’s funny you’d mention walnut creek, my idea of a corporate, tract, hell. you can barely pay me to drive (or take a $5 dollar bart ride) out there, let alone imagine reimagine my beloved oakland in the image of that plastic place. i do not want downtown oakland to look like a mall built on top of a mall! (by the way, i don’t think Pest is an “a$$hole”. i don’t know him/her. i know his/her work, and like to document it. i have some recommended reading for you, though if you’re interested. here’s a short version, online: http://www.graffiti.org/faq/critical_terms_sonik.html, http://www.amazon.com/Crimes-Style-Graffiti-Politics-Criminality/dp/1555532764 is a great book if you feel like really delving into the “who” and “why”, and http://books.google.com/books?id=FFSD-UOkI54C&pg=RA3-PA751&dq=sociology+of+graffiti&lr=#PPA11,M1 “getting up” is a great book that discusses all sorts of facets of NYC graff. (just so you know i’m not talking out of my ass- i’ve read probably 25 graffiti books and have never touched a pen or spray can to a piece of property.))

  6. dto510 December 20, 2008 at 1:31 pm #

    I don’t think the real problem is graffiti, that’s a symptom of the problem. The problem is abandoned buildings (disinvestment). The shuttered retail spaces pictured above would be unattractive blight whether they are covered in graffiti or just rust. Property owners who though they had a chance to rent the spaces in the immediately future would never allow these buildings to deteriorate. But the city does need to remove graffiti promptly from public property such as parking kiosks (which I thought were supposed have a paint-resistant surface!) and bus stops.

  7. Navigator December 20, 2008 at 7:25 pm #

    Max,

    I’ve seen “Pest’s” work and that is not art. The guy or girl, scribbles all over the city. Parking meter boxes, freshly painted light standards, private fences, mail boxes, awnings, trafic control boxes, etc. Yes, I agree that Walnut Creek is a plastic utopia. But, who cares as long as they have money to pay the bills. Evidently people like that kind of clean and orderly environment. It provides them with a pleasant shopping experience. On that count they win and Oakland loses.

    I’m all for murals. I love the mural next to Grand Ave off ramp next to Lakeview School. The mural on Grand under the Freeway is very nice. Fruitvale Avenue has some beautiful murals. Now, THAT I agree makes a positive contribution to a cityscape. Those personal moniker tags scribbled on just about everything on Broadway, are just blight in my opinion.

  8. Becks December 21, 2008 at 1:04 pm #

    Navigator – Max hasn’t commented here yet (surprisingly).

    I don’t think the current state of the DTO and the look and feel of Walnut Creek or Emeryville are our only options here. Though I agree with Navigator that that kind of an environment would be an upgrade on what we have now.

    Let’s look within Oakland for some examples of what a thriving retail district looks like – Rockridge, Temescal, and Lakeshore are all excellent examples. Sure, downtown’s different and will never look like those areas. Also, I think downtown needs a few chain stores to anchor the area.

    We can also look to Berkeley for some ideas – Shattuck in downtown Berkeley all the way up to Rose, 4th Street, Solano. There are so many models for us to build upon that don’t look or feel like Walnut Creek but that still are profitable and welcoming.

    dto510 – agreed that graffiti on abandoned shops is a symptom of the problem, but I also think it is also part of the vicious cycle that keeps small businesses away from downtown. Though it’s clear that the owners of the spaces covered with graffiti don’t think they can rent those spaces, what about vacant spaces nearby? If I was looking to open a businesses, I know I wouldn’t be excited to move in next to an abandoned shop covered with graffiti. Abandoned stores are always somewhat creepy, but the graffiti adds to the problem and makes them more off-putting.

  9. themacinator July 17, 2010 at 7:59 pm #

    hey- i wanted to let you know, that sort of in the spirit of all of this, and in the spirit of pumping the oakland positivity, i’ve finally launched a website:

    http://www.oaklandmurals.com

    (of course you’re featured in the links page!)

    i’m hoping it will be a collaborative, community project- we’ll see!

    lauren

    • Becks July 19, 2010 at 10:12 am #

      Awesome site! Can’t wait to explore it more.

  10. themacinator July 19, 2010 at 10:02 pm #

    it would rock my world if you put a link up on one of your roundups. i’m really bad at publicizing because it feels…. i don’t know, self-aggrandizing or soemthing, but i really want this to be an “oakland” project, not a me project, and i have to get the site out there to get the collaboration going!

    submit murals if you’ve got them, as well as info- i’m lacking!

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