BART, Bullets and the Built Environment

Fruitvale StationJust two hours before Bay Area Rapid Transit (“BART”) workers were scheduled to go on strike today over labor negotiations, Governor Jerry Brown stepped in and called for a seven-day board of inquiry investigation, which effectively stalled the strike. Governor Brown will then decide whether to impose a 60-day cooling-off period which would delay any possible strike until mid-October. As a result, I was spared a long commute listening to morning radio and reading bumper stickers, and was able to take my usual BART ride into the office which takes me past Fruitvale Station, which now has a movie to its name.

Fruitvale Station, which hit the movie theaters last month, is named after the Fruitvale BART Station in Oakland, California and is based on the shooting of Oscar Grant by BART police officer Johanes Mehserle in 2009 which drew worldwide attention to issues of police misconduct and racial discrimination as cell phone videos of the shooting went viral across the Internet. The film, which was coincidentally released the day before the Trayvon Martin not-guilty verdict, was directed by newcomer Ryan Coogler and produced by Forest Whitaker and has received widespread acclaim from critics and audiences.

The Oscar Grant shooting hit close to home. My law firm is located in downtown Oakland where I’ve worked for nearly a decade now. Although I work, but don’t live in Oakland, any place you find yourself for ten to twelve hours a day becomes somewhat of a second home. And over the course of that time I’ve sadly seen Oakland become a powder room for explosive conflicts and their collateral damage. The Oscar Grant shooting, Occupy Oakland, the Trayvon Martin verdict, it seems that Oakland has become ground zero for those whose only way of expressing themselves is through violence and destruction

As a lawyer, I support the right of folks to protest. As they say (or, rather, as Voltaire is attributed as saying), “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death, your right to say it.” But public discourse and lawlessness are not the same. And, as a construction lawyer, as I walk down the street and see the boarded up windows from the last protest and people and businesses moving out of the area, I can’t help but feel for those whose lives and livelihoods have been threatened or swept away by events in which they have no control over nor any stake in.

It makes me wonder why Oakland has become a magnet for those who want to destroy and tear things apart. The reasons are numerous and complicated, I know, and range from politics to issues of economic disparity. But I also think, at least from my little part of the world, that it has to do in part with the built environment. Oakland is a major metropolitan city with a population of over 390,000 people. Yet, it has a disproportionately high crime rate compared to other cities of its size. And it’s getting worse. Murders were up 22% from last year, burglaries were up 43%, and robberies up 24% while crimes nationwide have fallen.

I think that part of the reason is that Oakland lacks community. And by that I mean that those who live and work in Oakland don’t feel a connectedness to one another, a feeling that we are all in this together and what our city is and can be depends on what we make of it. I’m not saying we need to be cheerleaders for Oakland, but we need to feel that we have a vested interest in the well being of the community in which we live and work.

This lack of connectedness I believe is because Oakland has become a community of haves and have nots. There are those who work in the downtown high rises and live in the affluent areas of Piedmont and the surrounding areas, and, then, there’s everyone else. And, while Oakland is home to a number of well-known companies like, Clorox, Cost Plus World Markets, Dreyer’s, Kaiser Permanente, Matson, and Pandora, Oakland lacks a vibrant retail center, and while it has experienced somewhat of a culinary renaissance in recent years with a number of new restaurants and bars opening, a community needs more. It needs places where people from a range of socio-economic backgrounds can live, work, grab a bite to eat, buy groceries, fill up your car, get a haircut, watch a movie, all within relative close proximity.

It’s in this way that people feel that they have a place that they can call home, even if it’s just a second home. A place worth preserving, worth improving . . . worth protecting. A community.

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