On a summer afternoon not long ago, Ralbert Brooks-Hamilton stood inside a silent warehouse in West Oakland, ready to pitch his beloved product, the U-Wheel-It. The 47-year-old hadn't made a sale in nearly two years, but he approached this day's performance as if it were his first. He'd shaved for the first time in a week, and wore a pressed white shirt, polyester slacks, and a cardinal-red necktie.
"You go to tha' beach, don'tcha?" he began, his voice touched with an affable West Caribbean accent. "You go to tha' beach, and you've got to bring your t'ings from the car to the ocean, right? Right. So you got your clothes, and you've got your towels" -- here the elder salesman began to act as if his hands were suddenly filled with tote bags -- "and what else? You want to bring your cooler too, right? Because you want to drink a nice cold beer when you get down to da beach, don'tcha?" Brooks-Hamilton stood at the trunk of his make-believe car now, in a make-believe parking lot, and swiveled his head around as if wondering what to do.
"Now let me ask you another question, real quick. When you go to da beach, how many times do you and your friends lift up the cooler and put it down? Lift up the cooler, and put it down?" Again, the salesman performed the imaginary task, and he wagged his tongue from mock exhaustion. "So let me ask you another question -- how are you suppose to carry all those t'ings wit' you, man? I'm asking you. How are you supposed to get all those t'ings from here, down there? Without breaking your back?"
Hardly waiting for an answer, the salesman pounced.
"You wheel it, that's how! Don't drag it, don't push it, don't carry it. Wheel it!" Brooks-Hamilton paused and pointed a finger at his visitor, like a wand that was about to transfer a sudden sense of self-empowerment. "You wheel it, my man. You. Wheel. It."
On cue, he loaded his invisible items into the aluminum cart at his feet, picked up the handle, and walked happily along the sand. "How you doing today, sir?" he said, waving to others on the beach. As he strode past his real visitor in the warehouse, the salesman was all smiles. "I'm a goin' to da beach, man, I'm a goin' to da beach!"
There was something sad, almost pathetic, about the performance. Pathetic, because Brooks-Hamilton's day in the sun is doomed to remain elusive.
In 1995, he was one of the first to receive a loan from Oakland's newly minted Municipal Lending Program, an ambitious, federally supported program that provided money to brave souls willing to open shop in Oakland's worst neighborhoods and create much-needed jobs for their residents.
Brooks-Hamilton and his U-Wheel-It fit the bill: He was a minority first-time business owner who didn't qualify for a regular bank loan; he was hawking a product the VC flyboys of the day easily passed over; and he was willing to hire West Oakland residents. That he was the epitome of a high-risk loan seemed of little matter to the Municipal Lending Program. Indeed, this was just the kind of entrepreneurial spirit the city was looking to finance.
Just days after the city council approved Brooks-Hamilton's first loan for $150,000, then-Mayor Elihu Harris arrived at the grand opening of the U-Wheel-It warehouse at the corner of 27th and Alicia streets. The mayor had a cameraman in tow and one of those oversized cardboard checks in hand. He praised Brooks-Hamilton and his partner, inventor Joseph Edmonds, for their enterprise and "commitment to the community." Brooks-Hamilton recalls the day with great pride. "You should've seen it, man. My wife set the whole day up. We had hundreds of people out here -- food, music, good times. We had the newspaper here -- we even had a Baptist minister, and a Muslim imam, and a Protestant minister bless the building. It was cool."
Seven years later, his business is bankrupt and his loans in default. All that's left is the dusty warehouse (with a thousand U-Wheel-Its in stacked cardboard boxes) and the entrepreneur's near-empty North Oakland home. As his business failed, so did his marriage, says Brooks-Hamilton. He's since found work as a laborer around town, knocking on doors offering his weed-pulling skills. "Look at my hands," he says now, pawing at the calluses on his leathery palms. "I used to be a businessman."
This businessman-turned-laborer is hardly the only one who's taken a flop on the city's dime since the program began. Since 1995, bad commercial loans have cost Oakland nearly $6 million -- roughly a quarter of its total loan disbursements. That's a failure rate at which no bank could survive. If those lenders remain in default, the bad debt will grow to nearly $10 million -- a phenomenal waste of money for a city that barely averted a $28 million budget deficit this year.
The city lending program has also fallen well short of its goal of creating nearly 1,500 jobs for residents of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Of the 454 jobs credited to the lending program, barely half are filled by Oakland residents, a city survey found, and only 66 went to people living within one of the targeted "Enhanced Enterprise Communities."
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