“’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.”
The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party reconvened at the Oakland City Council last Tuesday, the 7th, where the non binary Queen of Hearts magically made a huge swath of our city [187 acres] disappear, the Oak Knoll project, an exclusive community near Toler Heights in the East Oakland hills.
Oak Knoll which started out as the “original community benefits” project as designated by the federal government-a mix of housing, expanded retail, and open space available to all-has been redesigned into Neverland, a dystopian version of Glocca Morra—from the musical Finian’s Rainbow, a place where time stands still and folks do things the old fashioned way and where, of course, there are no tent cities, troubled youth or parks in which families of many colors picnic together. [“You’ll never grow old and you’ll never grow poor if you look to the rainbow beyond the next moor.”]
The project was signed, sealed and delivered to Suncal, a giant developer who had already left a bad taste in another local community’s mouth but has a clear view of the pot of gold in the Oakland hills.
Back in 1992 when I was a staffer to an Oakland Council Member and Larry Reid was chief of staff to Elihu Harris, the Navy which owned the land and used it for a military hospital and officers’ club, decided to unload it. The city of Oakland got first dibs but almost blew it, in fact did just that for a number of years, because the federal government had stipulated conditions for its conveyance to local jurisdictions that included a variety of community uses that would benefit not just those who lived in the surrounding area but some less fortunate neighbors in other parts of our city.
But the folks who live in those lovely, isolated hills were not about to let the hoi polloi, the more proletarian segments of our community, know what a good thing they had. And so began the fight to prevent every possible usage that would benefit anyone beyond their imaginary gates.
They fought against allowing any level of subsidized housing including at the top level of affordability so that a family with an income of $120k will not be qualified for one of the 918 homes being built there. They killed a day center serving traumatized foster kids and expanded retail and a park that bordered 580. However, the new homeowners can count on holding their meetings in part of the old officers’ club, we’re happy to note.
And they won-through lawsuits, a cowardly city council [“Why, they’re only a pack of cards, after all. I needn’t be afraid of them!”, said Alice] the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the resurgence of predatory capital. They persisted in pursuit of the narrowest definition of community.
On Tuesday night amid a packed agenda, city council chambers, and competitive signs– different segments of the labor movement were successfully pitted against one another–while the Mad Hatter bounced from council seat to council seat, they won. There will be no labor agreement for the building trades, prompting one East Oakland resident to note that this will be an exclusive project built for the wealthy by workers making $16 an hour.
The Chesire Cat from District 3 smiled and explained away everyone’s pain while voting to turn over the keys of the kingdom to the white knights of Glocca Mora. CMs Guillen and Gallo tried to postpone the giving of the gifts til a later tea party, but the Queen, once again portrayed ably by Larry Reid, shouted “Off with their heads” at less senior colleagues Guillen and Gallo. Dan Kalb declared the whole project “not ready for prime time,” a phrase that leaves anyone under 50 scratching their heads and nearly drove the Queen to apoplexy as he tried to come up with ever more ridiculous insults.
Finally the Queen, I mean the Council President, realized he had won by garnering the votes of the two most progressive CMs, leaving the rest of us scratching our heads….who declared the scheme agreeable to all after promising to disappear along with all the gifts stacked around the council’s table. Most of the partiers made sure to pay homage to the Council Queen and his years long struggle to protect the denizens of the original Glocca Morra from….the rest of us.
There were some heroes who organized and fought the good fight and may find relief elsewhere should anyone decide to take it to the courts. Just a few of them, with my apologies to the scores of able speakers, Karolyn Wong of the East Oakland Collective, Angie Tam of the Congress of Neighborhoods, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers http://www.ibew595.org/ and other reps of the Building Trades Council, and of course, James Vann, the conscience of our community.
I’ll leave you with some choice tweets and a few old newspaper column inches (remember them?) on the sordid history of this huge parcel of once public land. Don’t blink or you’ll miss the chance to find this special place but I’ve been assured that the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, the Knaves, and of course, the Queen of Hearts will perform in this space again soon. [With many thanks to Lewis Carroll and Broadway, ever relevant.]