Occupy left a mark on Broadway
But Business People Defied the odds to Bank on Oakland
A relatively peaceful crowd of about 100 gathered at Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of City Hall this past October to mark the second anniversary of the Occupy Oakland encampment there.
Police evicted the protesters from the plaza at Broadway and 14th Street on Oct. 25, 2011, after weeks of violent confrontations in the streets, leaving scores injured. On Nov. 11, a man was shot to death near the reclaimed occupy encampment outside City Hall. There were conflicting reports as to whether he had been an occupy protester or what events had led to the shooting. Police again moved to clear the plaza in the days following. Businesses along Broadway were vandalized with spray paint and broken windows. Fires burned in the streets.
It was not a pro-business environment, and the spectacle made national headlines.
Michael LeBlanc, owner of Picán restaurant on Broadway and 23rd Street, says getting past the recent troubles, not only of Occupy Oakland but also of the street clashes and vandalism following the verdicts in the Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant cases, has been tough for the local businesses.
“The demonstrations have brought chaos to Broadway,” LeBlanc says. “It makes people afraid to come, and it stalls the energy behind this growth. When that stuff happens, people just stay away, and they only come back slowly.”
LeBlanc, a New Orleans native whose menu reflects his Southern roots, says he’s committed to staying. “It’s Oakland; there’s nothing like it,” he says. “I have faith in the Oakland community. I feel the energy is just picking up now,”
John and Terry Kiskaddon, who opened Harper Greer clothing store on Grand Avenue just off Broadway last year, say the flare-ups of violence downtown did weigh on them, although they decided to take the risk. “Occupy was a real black eye for Oakland; it was a real leap of faith for us that that had all died down,” John Kiskaddon says. “Oakland does have a real stigma attached to it that could prevent some people from moving in, but to tell the truth, I feel safer here than I did in any of the locations where we were in San Francisco, South of Market, or on Sutter Street.”
Ken Lowney, whose firm, Lowney Architecture, designed the Whole Foods at 27th and Harrison streets and is working on the new Sprouts grocery slated for 30th and Broadway, said merchants would be less weary of moving to Oakland if the city had done a better job of squelching Occupy. He faults Mayor Jean Quan for initially supporting the protest and then backtracking, which, he says, fanned the violence with her indecision.
“Occupy certainly didn’t help. I was so angry when those people came. I said, ‘Why don’t they go to Palo Alto or San Francisco? Why come to Oakland?’ This was not what we needed, and Mayor Quan did a very bad job of leading us through those hard times,” Lowney says. “We really needed leadership, and we got waffling. People are still fearful and the weak leadership in the city is not helping.”
Councilmember Lynnette McElhaney, whose district includes downtown, says Occupy has been a deterrent to prospective businesses as well as existing ones. “The protests have definitely had a negative impact, especially on the more tenured operators in the area,” McElhaney says. “They have small profit margins and increases in repair costs, lost receipts, and increased insurance premiums hurt.”
Oakland planning officials admit that there is still work to be done. Two years after Occupy, the city is working to convince larger corporations that Oakland is a good place to do business. “One of the things we have to overcome now in regards to Occupy and some of the other image problems is the big corporate buy-in,” says Patrick Lane, city redevelopment manager. “Some of the big companies don’t take the risks that some other businesses do. So they will be the next level of companies that we are looking at. They are the ones we want next.”
McElhaney points to recent moves to improve safety in the area and new laws prohibiting the use of tools in protests, but says challenges remain in healing the scars left from Occupy around Lower Broadway.
“We are constantly promoting Oakland, and there is a strong indie culture that is emerging that is defiant in its investment in Oakland,” McElhaney says. “I actually believe that Oakland may have turned the corner on this issue, but only time will tell.”
An earlier version of this story suggested that the Nov. 11 death was related to the police ouster of the Occupy encampment, when in fact it was unclear exactly how the man died.