History for Sale at Jack London Square

Oakland's historic Jack London Square is about to get a $300 million dollar makeover. The Port of Oakland is handing this historic waterfront site over to developers, despite local opposition, to turn it into a massive complex of high-rise shopping malls, an hotel, a Cineplex and parking garages in the hopes of boosting the city's tax revenue base.

Jack London Square is named for the man who wrote Call of the Wild and Sea Wolf. He grew up along this stretch of the Oakland waterfront and used to hang out at Heinold's Saloon, an establishment which still stands in its original location and has been in continuous operation since 1883. In that bar, Jack London met some of the characters who were to people his novels, including a notoriously brutal sea captain whom he fictionalized as Wolf Larsen -- the well-read, sociopathic skipper of the schooner Ghost.

The deal has been in the works for several years. The developers, Ellis Partners, apparently intend to keep Heinold's Saloon and also the name "Jack London Square." Their original plan was to encase the saloon in glass, as though it were a dead insect, but, according to the current scheme, the tiny saloon will merely be dwarfed by a towering 108- foot-high shopping mall. Many of the Square's open spaces will be gone, replaced by light-and-space-obscuring high-rises.

Jack London was a Socialist, and the fate of this square which bears his name is a poignant example of what he foresaw and warned against. His 1908 novel, The Iron Heel, tells a story of life under an increasingly repressive government. In many ways it is similar to the one the Neocons are now imposing upon us for the benefit of 21st century robber barons.

Speaking for the corporations, the East Bay Business Times (10/27/2000) wrote: "Jack London Square has been [the port's] most glaring under-performer, attracting 6 million visitors annually, yet generating only $16 million in port revenue and $80 million in retail sales."

An historic site that attracts 6 million visitors a year doesn't sound like a "glaring under-performer." But in the corporate worldview everything has to pull in money in order for it to have value. So we hear terms such as, "under-performing real estate" and "non-performing assets."

The wrong-headedness of such logic was well expressed by Mayor Jerry Brown when he was getting ready to run for office: "It's the same old paradigm, founded on a simplistic equation whereby the whole argument is expressed in quantitative economic terms. So when you look at the redwood trees, it's the under-performing asset that, when chopped up, starts to really perform." Since making this statement, Mayor Brown has welcomed the chopping up of Jack London Village and is a strong supporter of the current project.

On June 15, 2004, the project came before the Oakland City Council who gave it their okay. Some Oaklanders spoke against the project, but the developers carried the day. The session appeared to be little more than a matter giving formal approval to a done deal.

This $300 million project is a local example of the global corporate assault on public spaces, parks, airwaves and all other common good. Although it would be great if we could miraculously save Jack London Square, the important task before us is to plan a long-term strategy to deal with future predatory acts of the corporations and the politicians who serve their interests.

by Daniel Borgström & Virginia Browning
originally published in FAULT LINES, July 10, 2004