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Oakland has been defined by violence, but its true identity is more complicated

The slaying of four police officers last week has reinforced the area's negative reputation.

March 29, 2009|Maura Dolan

OAKLAND — In the neighborhood where four Oakland police officers were killed last weekend, a large makeshift memorial still adorns a sidewalk with flowers, notes and photographs of the slain police. Across the street lies another, smaller sidewalk memorial -- this one for the parolee who killed the officers.

A cluster of African American women in front of the police memorial argued last week about a candlelight vigil planned for the felon, whom police had just linked by DNA to the rape of a 12-year-old.

One incensed woman said it would send the wrong message to children.

"This man killed the police," Janice James, 52, said in exasperation. "It looks like you are condoning what he did."

The neighborhood where this sidewalk debate occurred is a world away from other parts of Oakland, a 56-square-mile city of about 400,000 people of many races and extremely diverse incomes in the shadow of San Francisco.

Yet it is this neighborhood and other crime-plagued pockets that have come to define Oakland, creating an image of a city that many of its own residents do not recognize and that others know painfully well.

The killings of the officers, among the deadliest such incidents in state history, drew national headlines last week and reinforced Oakland's bloody image. It came nearly three months after a videotaped shooting of a black man by a white transit police officer prompted sporadic rioting downtown and heightened tensions in East Oakland between African Americans and police.

None of the four officers killed last week was African American. The man who shot them was.

Sam Romano, 56, a white contractor who lives in a racially diverse, middle-class neighborhood just up the hill from where the police were killed, said he was largely untouched by the violence below.

He blamed the troubles on "people without jobs, without training programs and without hope."

"Mix that together with a minority of the people who are of the criminal element and add the ease of getting guns, and violence erupts, and it creates chaos," said Romano, who moved to Oakland 25 years ago because it was more affordable than San Francisco, has a better climate and is filled with people "who don't want to live in a suburb of one color or one type of person."

East Oakland's flatlands, with wide boulevards of tattered storefronts, check-cashing stores and barbershops, are a constant reminder to their largely poor residents that they have not benefited from the large-scale redevelopment projects that have helped transform other troubled Oakland neighborhoods, such as the once-decaying downtown.

Yet just miles from where the police were gunned down, the middle-class and affluent shop at organic grocery stores, visit galleries, eat at upscale restaurants and hike and jog on tree-lined trails.

The last decade has seen an exodus of African Americans from Oakland and an influx of other races, gay people and young families who no longer can afford San Francisco. An Urban Institute study of 2000 census data found that Oakland has more lesbian couples per capita than any other major U.S. city.

In 2000, African-Americans were the plurality. By 2007, a survey estimated that whites made up 35% of the population; blacks, 30.8%; Latinos, 25%; and Asians, 15%.

Night life is returning downtown. Restaurants and clubs have followed large-scale residential development. A historic movie palace, the Fox Theater, an ornate Art Deco building shuttered for decades, reopened last month and is booking well-known performers.

West Oakland, another historically troubled neighborhood with graceful Victorian homes, also has experienced a small revival, although the entire city has been hurt by the recession.

But little change has come to the East Oakland flatlands, whose predominantly black residents refer to their home as Beirut and "the killing zone." The city had an estimated 124 homicides last year, most in the flatlands.

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Troubled area

In the neighborhood where the police were killed, residents live in modest bungalows with bars on the windows and locked gates around tiny patches of lawn. Many homes are boarded up, victims of foreclosure. Cooperating with police is seen by some as dangerous, an invitation to retaliation.

Industrial jobs that drew both blacks and whites in large numbers from the South during World War II have largely disappeared, and drug dealing and other economic crimes have filled the void. Residents are arrested and sent to prison, then return as parolees and probationers.

Melva Fonteno, 47, a retired African American nurse, stood in front of the sidewalk memorial last week to pay respects to Officer Daniel Sakai, 35, one of the slain officers. She said Sakai had investigated the nonfatal shooting of her teenage son, who was struck by 13 bullets at a bus stop two years ago.

"It was a jealousy thing," his mother said of the shooting. "He had on expensive shoes."

The police recently made arrests in the case, she said.

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