A modern major ecopolis

Posted: Apr 16, 2006 1:05 PM

When former Gov. Jerry Brown first ran for mayor of Oakland in the 1998 election, he had a vision: "Oakland Ecopolis: A Plan for a Green Plan." Brown's gurus promised a city based on "the historical genius of Italian hill towns" like Perugia, where civic solons would foster not "mere economic growth," but a chichi economic boom thanks to an influx of artisans, small boat builders and organic gardeners.

 Former U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums, now running for Oakland mayor, is eerily similar to Brown as a rookie candidate. Brown offered Oakland Ecopolis. Dellums is selling "Oakland, the model city" -- a euphemism that will bring philanthropists to the city, despite its notorious reputation for violent crime. Dellums told the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board Wednesday that he didn't want to sound self-serving, but, "When I came out with this idea of Oakland, the model city, this has triggered people to start writing about Oakland as a model city," whether on environmental or human or economic terms. Heavy.

 Brown's big thinkers described Oakland Ecopolis as "both far away and very near." Dellums says that Oakland is "big enough to be significant, but it's small enough to get your hands around the problem."

 Brown's Ecopolis would boast a commitment "to export none of its industrial wastes and environmental pollution" -- as new eco-businesses create jobs for unemployed youth.

 Dellums envisions making a model city with "well-educated" residents in "the Silicon Valley of green technology and alternative energy sources."

 Moonbeam, as Brown was known, promised to attract artisans, eco-farmers and "sustainable fisherman." Dellums focused on drawing "philanthropists" and corporate donors, who can provide health care for Oaklanders. Brown arrived on the scene as the celebrity candidate -- whose star power would draw development to Oaktown. Dellums disses "this business of being a celebrity" as "an insult, in one sense." As a member of Congress, his push for disinvestment helped end apartheid in South Africa. No wonder, he sniffs, "If I wanted to be a celebrity, I would have taken guitar lessons."

 Brown had a reputation for flitting from post to post. Even friends wondered if Brown would stay interested in the minutiae of local government.

 While Dellums served in the House for 27 years, he left the House suddenly in midterm for personal reasons in 1997. He had to be replaced in a special election, but now his private life is balanced and he is ready for the challenge of mayoral politics.

 Brown promised that he would attract 10,000 new residents to downtown Oakland. On Wednesday, Dellums asked, "Does 10,000 really get you there?" Then he threw out the notion of "100,000 people downtown," using mixed-used buildings. "Now you've changed the paradigm for Oakland." With that many new Oaklanders, a Saks Fifth Avenue will roll into town.

 (Of course, it is difficult to figure how Dellums can attract new development after he chilled local real-estate biggies when he said, as my colleague Chip Johnson reported, "market-driven development doesn't embrace diversity.")

 The big difference between Ronnie D. -- as he used to be called -- and Moonbeam is this: Brown changed his message before he was elected mayor. He stopped promising nirvana, and instead pledged to concentrate on luring employers, cutting red tape to help private developers build homes downtown and working toward ending the violent crime that has killed too many of Oakland's young.

 Dellums has not changed his message and may never. He wants to improve schools by wrapping his arms around them. Or by creating a community-college program to train parents to be better advocates for their kids at school -- he didn't talk about teaching them to be better parents. To Dellums, every answer came with a handout and a program.

 Law enforcement? Dellums' take is: "I don't think this 911-response business works in Oakland." I asked him: A group of kids is selling drugs around a liquor store at night. Do you arrest them or send in social workers? Dellums discussed a recent incident near Castlemont High School. Oakland cops broke up a scuffle between rival gangs. Some kids went to the community center and talked to its director. "I think we have to have a much greater arsenal than rounding them up and putting them in prison," Dellums answered.

 True, but social workers don't always succeed. There will be no Model City, there will be no East Bay Green Silicon Valley, no new mixed-use housing, if working people are afraid to live or work in Oakland.

 Brown wasn't a great mayor -- but he was a good mayor, and that's no small feat. He would have been a lousy mayor if he had stuck with the gibberish about artisans contributing to sustainable urban life, but he became a good mayor because he realized that his first order was to make Oakland safer.

 The Sears in downtown Oakland used to be so empty that the number of employees often matched the numbers of shoppers. Last Wednesday at 6:05 p.m., the retailer enjoyed brisk traffic. In the appliance department, Quenticia Young and Damian Lebby have seen business grow as the number of nearby residents rises. As for downtown, they replied simultaneously, "It's coming up."

 Model city? A Silicon Valley of green technology and sustainable energy? The next Oakland mayor should start with a simple proposition: A place where people want to be.