The Capital of Nothing
Oakland lost its sports teams because it hasn’t found its identity.
Last month, the Athletics became the third major sports team in the past five years to leave the city of Oakland. The Raiders started the trend, departing for Las Vegas after, in a blink of an eye, a state-of-the-art arena was built for the team in Sin City. The Raiders were followed by the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, who moved to San Francisco (across the Bay, so it didn’t hurt that much). Now, the A’s will be rejoining their former stadium-mates in Vegas.
In 1937, Oakland native Gertrude Stein coined the phrase “there is no there there” to describe the city of her birth. She only meant to evoke the dogging sense of nostalgia stirred by her inability to relive childhood memories, but it turned out that she had described Oakland perfectly—the capital of nothing special that really, really wants to be something.
Locals are obsessed with finding that missing “there” and talk incessantly about the town’s identity. The unironically worn t-shirts with the image of an oak tree with deep roots—the unofficial logo of Oakland—can be spotted at local coffee shops, farmers markets, and pedestrian trails. Deep roots? It’s as if the residents of an area developed during the 1850s gold boom think they have a long history here. Like elsewhere in the Bay Area, many of Oakland’s residents had moved here personally, often from abroad.
Oaklanders are educated, well-paid, and their property values are high. According to Redfin, in March 2023, the median home price in Oakland was $905,000. So how is it that the city can’t hold on to a sports team?
To be fair, it’s not just sports teams that Oakland can’t hold on to. As recently as ten years ago, Oakland still had a notable hipster art scene. Young people flocked to the Bay Area for underground shows and subcultural lifestyles. Now, newcomers are priced out, and old-timers have largely moved to the places where things are happening, notably the Pacific Northwest. In 2020, the trend saved the region from the election-year Antifa riots, but the average Bay Area punk show draws a crowd nearing retirement age.
In lieu of spontaneous artistic creation, the town sports gargantuan murals in the downtown area. Our Liberation, recently painted on a vintage red brick wall, depicts two protesters, a wide-hipped young woman and a man raising his fist. The man is dressed in a t-shirt that reads THEY/THEM. Rachel Wolfe Goldsmith, the artist responsible for the mural, is frequently hired by corporations and non-profit agencies to illustrate woke ideology on city walls. According to her website, she lives outside the city.
Oakland’s failures are those of leadership and vision. In 1999, Jerry Brown became the mayor of Oakland and used this position to springboard back into the California Governor’s Mansion. His idea was to be Oakland’s Giuliani; he expanded the police force and crime levels fell. Brown was the last mayor with both daring and executive talent.
What happened next is a shame. In 2006, the city pioneered the ranked-choice-voting electoral scheme. The practical value of the voting arrangement was tested shortly after, during the Occupy riots. As I wrote for Legal Insurrection:
In 2010, after a complicated campaign in which candidates vied for second and third place, Oakland has elected Mayor Quan, even though she performed poorly after the first round was tabulated. A little more than a year later, Quan, who was nobody’s first choice, angered virtually everyone in town with her lackluster handling of the Occupy camp.
Quan neither evicted the squatters promptly nor welcomed them. Instead, she tried to find some non-existent middle ground. Her knack for being neither here nor there got her elected, but ultimately left the electorate dissatisfied.
Local political culture attracts tedious ideologues with little charisma or ability to make a deal. Candidates squeak by in early rounds as the ballots eventually fall in someone’s favor. The current mayor, Sheng Thao, won by 680 votes after the final round was tabulated. Why not decide an election by a coin flip?
City leaders try to deal with challenges as they arise, and often end up twisting in the wind. In 2016, after decades of opposing development, Oakland discovered the laws of supply and demand when thirty-six people died in a fire sparked by faulty wiring at an illegal night club. Oakland leadership decided that people dwelt in the live/work warehouse because they were priced out of the residential areas, and declined to blame inefficient housing inspections or crippling regulations for legal entertainment venues.
Armed with newfound faith in development, the city went ahead with construction of generic high-rise condos, transforming the already nondescript skyline into an unsightly mess. Charming architectural features, such as the 1906 Tribune Tower, modeled on the campanile of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, are about to be blocked from all sides.
While building housing is important, there is more to building a city than warehousing residents. A great city should project a coherent aesthetic sense and offer entertainment choices. One would hope that Oakland employs a person who can look at the proposed picture of the skyline and say, "That won’t work.” But that doesn’t appear to be the case.
For decades, both the A’s and the Raiders played at the Oakland Coliseum, a stadium too big for the baseball team. The perpetually empty seats must have been demoralizing for the athletes, and the atmosphere for the fans was just not that exciting. The arena is a brutalist construction that stands isolated in the industrial area. Meantime, the San Francisco Giants have a ballpark with a spectacular view of the Pacific surrounded by restaurants and breweries.
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Since the Raiders departed, Oakland had failed to come up with a winning plan to build the park for its sole remaining major sports team. Instead, city leadership put sculptures of elephants with the word “stay” written on them—the elephant is the team’s mascot—at busy intersections. It was a sad sight, because most locals knew the A’s would depart.
After the team’s move to southern Nevada was announced, Mayor Thao complained that the A’s “used” Oakland to get a better deal in Vegas. In a better world, that would be the end of her political career, but she might just fall upwards. There are no Feinsteins or Pelosis in the pipeline in the Bay Area: only Harrises or, in the best-case scenario, Newsoms.
As things stand, Oakland remains the town perpetually in search of a “there.” It is a lackluster visual mess without much in the way of arts or entertainment. Restaurants and ethnic cuisine remain the town’s only bright spot, even if the pandemic closures and BLM riots left most of Chinatown boarded up. New cannabis dispensaries are popping up everywhere. Probably for the better: A sedated, unremarkable, high-density center can easily transition to a fifteen-minute city.