On a recent Friday night in March, Oakland police officer T.K. Lewis sits in his squad car watching several dozen people in their teens and twenties socialize at Jack London Square. Lewis and his partner get out of their car and slowly amble up to the front door of TGI Friday's. Just as casually, the crowd melts away. But most of the young people just move over a block, and once Lewis leaves to patrol the rest of the square, the crowd returns. Up and down Broadway, a similar phenomenon is occurring. Drivers are cruising a loop that runs along the Embarcadero, then turns on Washington Street in front of Yoshi's and Jack London Cinema. Hundreds of young pedestrians laugh and flirt.
In front of the On Broadway nightclub, two young men in black leather jackets begin to scuffle in the street. A ripple of energy flows down Broadway, and people run toward the spot where the fight might break out. Then another squad car happens by, and people head for side streets or stare pointedly at their shoes. The crowd contracts with each appearance by police and then expands with each new hint of a fight. Finally, the cops drive by just as fists start swinging. In a flash, officers are out of their car, and the combatants are soon splayed out in the center of Broadway and Second with handcuffs on their wrists. Four more squad cars appear as if from nowhere. A noisy crowd gathers, but people retreat to the sidewalks when officers move through the crush shaking tiny canisters of pepper spray as a warning.
Although it is well past one in the morning, there is no sign the evening is drawing to a close. Later that morning, in fact, somebody sends a trashcan lid hurtling through a plate glass window at Nation's restaurant, nearly taking out an employee.
The security guards who work Jack London Square on weekends have a saying about the often-unruly crowd that gathers outside of TGI Friday's: "Would you like some mayhem with your meal?" In fact, you could say that about all of Broadway. While the crowd initially gathers at Friday's, it typically spreads up Broadway past the other restaurants and clubs. A delinquent handful of crowd members starts fights, breaks into cars, and destroys property, not to mention those who blast car stereos, dance suggestively on the sidewalks, or hang around outside clubs to pick up the women who emerge, a phenomenon known as "parking-lot pimping." More worrisome to the Oakland Police Department, young people sometimes start spinning donuts with their cars and stopping in intersections, which could result in traffic jams, larger crowds, or injury to property or people.
To all those who ever have complained about the barrenness of Oakland's downtown nightclub scene, take note: The crowd has arrived. But it may not be the crowd that everyone expected. Although the much-vaunted Jack London Square cabaret district features several upscale watering holes that charge a cover, enforce a dress code, and cater to a well-heeled and often out-of-town clientele, the most obvious visitors to the square on this Friday night are not patricians but pedestrians.
Jack London Square is undeniably the jewel in the city's redevelopment crown. It's an area the city has worked hard to develop into a cabaret district and has touted as a fun place to shop or rent a luxury loft. The shopping district attracts eight to ten thousand visitors a week, many of them from out of town. Rhonda Hirata, director of marketing for CAC Real Estate Management Company, which oversees much of the area, estimates that up to 40 percent of the square's daytime visitors come from the island of Alameda, and another 15 percent from Contra Costa County, with the rest primarily from Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville, and San Leandro.
But police officers who work the square say that nighttime draws another crowd entirely, primarily kids in their teens and twenties who come from all over Alameda County just to hang out. Many of them, says OPD Lieutenant Ed Poulson, area commander for the downtown metro unit, are there simply to hang out, and have no intention of patronizing the local businesses. Poulson sees the crowd as both a blessing and a curse. "The good thing is you do have folks from outside coming into and enjoying the area," he says. "But the bad part is, if it turns into a sideshow you've got folks with no vested interest in this community at all. They have no fear of peeing on a wall or starting a fight or breaking a window."
What no one says but everyone understands is that this culture clash is one of both race and class. Most of the crowd consists of young African Americans without much spending money, while the patrons business owners are most afraid of losing are more racially diverse and affluent.
Merchants and the police agree that the majority of the square's Friday visitors are simply well-meaning people out to see and be seen. "It's just boy meets girl," Poulson says. "It's nothing different than you or I or anyone else has done over time." Lewis, the square's beat cop, agrees that most of the behavior he's witnessed is more exuberant than criminal. "They're outside, they're being loud, some of them don't know any better and they act the fool," he says. "And then Ozzie and Harriet come down here and are not used to that, and they say 'Oh my God!'"
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