Letters for August 5 

Readers sound off on our review of Lettucetown Lies, what's killing soul food restaurants, and our news coverage.

"The Corporate Co-Opt of Local," News, 7/8

The Co-Opt of Local News?

Your article about the corporate co-opting of the word "local" would be great ... if it had some local sources. How about the Montclair bookstore owner whose windows point out the community benefits of local stores? That would be a start.

Instead, you've published a generic article by a writer who, if my Internet research proves correct, lives in Maine.

Way to go, local paper. What's next? Movie listings for Florida?

Jennifer Hilberman, San Francisco

"Man About Town," Theater, 7/1

Laughter 'n' Lettuce

Rachel Swan's review of Kenny Yun's charming and touching play Lettucetown Lies (playing at the Marsh) misses the mark. She complains that the author/actor did not reveal his own personality to the audience, while his characters are more interesting than Kenny Yun himself. According to Swan "Lettuce Town Lies draws back the curtain on Yun's interior world, but doesn't allow much access to Kenny Yun the character."

If Ms. Swan wants confessionals, she ought to become a therapist or a priest. Lettucetown Lies is a delightful romp through the world of Yun's confusing adolescence that transcends time and culture. The storyteller happens to be Asian and gay, but it is the characters he brings to the stage that intrigue us. Go see for yourself, and you're sure to identify with the poignant friendships and angst you faced during adolescence. Thanks to Yun's writing and performance, laughter takes center stage.

Karen Broder, Oakland

"What is Killing the East Bay's Soul Food Restaurants?," Feature, 7/8

Ohh Shyt

I grabbed the latest copy of the East Bay Express with great anticipation. I had literally just walked out of Souls, a soul food restaurant located on Bancroft at Foothill in the flatlands of Oakland. I heard about Souls from word of mouth, it is owned by Act Full Gospel Church and according to the gracious hostess, it has been opened for six months now. I walked out telling the hostess that if it was good I would come back, if it is still good on the third visit. I will "pass the word," but ... if it was bad ... I'm gone for good. One thing I know for sure is "everybody can't cook soul food," it is a calling and an inherent Ashe (gift). I am known in my circles as a connoisseur of food. I know how to cook it, I know some of its history, and I know where to get it.

I have followed soul food restaurants in the SF Bay Area for over 25 years. I have seen them come and go, usually to a bad or no business plan, poor customer service, and bad food. Few lasted, Southern Café formerly known as Lady Esther's comes to mind, a restaurant I followed for twenty of those years, horrible service, nice people, slow as hell, busy as bananas, and consistently fresh and good. I swore every time I walked out I was not going back ... funny tho, I watched their children grow up. I actually visited some of the restaurants you covered and can say ... I am actually surprised that the Gingerbread House lasted as long as it did, other than it being a cute lil building, it felt like a morgue inside, the waitresses really were spooky and the food was neither good nor fresh. I have also seen a many fail because they don't have the "real resources or sense" to sustain a restaurant in good times and bad. Restaurants that cut on quality and substitute cheaper ingredients or are not consistently fresh or good — usually are short lived. Good macaroni & cheese and yams are still good macaroni & cheese and yams; cans and boxed food are easily detectable. And BTW ... you cannot call it banana pudding if there are no bananas.

A few things bugged me about your article. When you are talking soul food — it as a rule does not consist of Caribbean or nouveau riche soul food. I wanted to jump out of my chair and scream when I read Peter Jackson's quote "those hit the hardest can't support the cuisine that reflects their culture".... How could that be?? We are talking about soul food where its origins are food made from scraps! I then went to Miss Pearl's Jam House web site and saw the menu.... And none of it is soul food! I thought ohh shyt ... it survives cause white people think they are getting something with pretty lil names and interesting ingredients that don't even comprise of a soul food staple or diet. It is the same way the Mojito survives ... everybody wants an adventure, a taste of exotica — and so now it is on every menu — yet, I have never tasted a "right" Mojito outside of Cuba (yes, I have been there five times).

Another good example is this week; I went to my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in San Leandro to get some Vietnamese chicken noodle soup for my husband who had been sick for the past two days — it always makes him feel better. The owner pulled me to the side and suggested I try his gumbo, he had two kinds ... crawfish and chicken & sausage, he then proceeded to tell me about his roots in New Orleans and how he has connections to fly in fresh blue crabs, shrimp and crawfish when he wants. I hesitantly took a sample cup that lacked chicken, sausage or crawfish for several reasons because what I know is, you really can't mass produce gumbo in a restaurant, a gumbo must be made from a roux base, tomato soup with gumbo ingredients do not constitute gumbo — no matter if you got the ingredients from N'awlins and besides ... what I really wanted from this Vietnamese man was "his medicine" to make my husband feel better.  I tasted and as I expected — not gumbo.

In closing, thanks for a great attempt at highlighting some of the challenges soul food restaurants face.

Y. Maria Aldana, San Leandro

Why Some Thrive and Others Die

I was happy to see analysis of the differential impacts the recession has had on restaurants in Oakland. It makes sense to me that while lots of folks have foodie dreams, some are better equipped with experience, connections, and just plain cash to ride out and prepare for the tough patches. Like a lot of stuff, race and class seems to figure into the equation.

Perhaps like the closing of the Parkway and the privileging of banks over local first-time homebuyers, two topics you've also featured, what we're seeing is that our local governments don't seem too interested in encouraging the small and local to thrive. And I confess I haven't done much to work on changing that myself, though it's affected my quality of life.

I was thinking as I read the restaurant article that there are two restaurants in a similar food category — Brown Sugar Kitchen in West Oakland and Pican on Broadway — that seem to be thriving. I wonder how their situation compares with those profiled in the article? Are there tips that could be passed on and used by struggling restaurants, or is their success the result of some of the disturbing patterns we're seeing already locally? I sure hope it's the former.

Irene Nexica, Oakland

"Foreclosure and Its Aftereffects," Feature, 6/24

We Need a Sequel

32.7 percent of all mortgages in Oakland will be foreclosed from Jan. 2007 to Jan 2010.

Your article is fascinating and well done.

I went to epodunk.com and looked up Oakland. According to their data there are 40,565 owner-occupied houses in Oakland with "mortgage or contractto purchase." That is 64.9 percent of the total owner-occupied housing, about the California average. Your article states that 5,677 foreclosures happened from 1/07 to 4/09, and another 7,500 are in process. Total foreclosures in three years would be 13,277 when completed, and that is 32.7 percent of all mortgaged homes in Oakland.

With 2.8 residents in each house, that is about 37,000 people, or about 10 percent of the population of Oakland.

How many foreclosed houses are in the flatlands? Would this statement be true: "About half the homes in the Oakland flatlands will have beenforeclosed on in a three-year period, January 2007 to January 2010." I wonder if there is data on the average city's foreclosure rate? How does this impact the City of Oakland's budget? I hope you follow up your article with an article on the City of Richmond and the effect of their law prohibiting eviction uponforeclosure. Will Oakland pass a similar law? Is there data on resale of houses? Why are not those properties immediately put up for rent? Maybe going back to the Housing and Economic Rights Advocates would yield more info. KPFA has had some housing rights advocates from eastern Contra Costa on the Morning Show.

Foreclosures in the nation proceed at a rate of about 300,000 a month, almost the same as last month's increase in unemployment. Equity sharein US housing is down to 44 percent and when fully owned homes are excluded, the equity share is about 25 percent. (I can't give the source of this info, but I read Dollars and Sense Magazine, so maybe that's where I saw it.) The banks own the other 75 percent. That's why our government gives them allthe bailout money.

For some radical economic solutions, see my blog, http://benL8.blogspot.com.

In any case, a sequel is needed.

Ben Leet, San Leandro

Miscellaneous Letters

Bring Back the 'Toons

I used to pick up the East Bay Express. Then you dropped the cartoons, most notably Tom Tomorrow, and I stopped. Haven't picked one up since. But if you brought the cartoons back ...

Katherine Barnes, Oakland

A Death Sentence for Oakland Businesses

Times Are Tough. We are all very aware of this inescapable fact. Individual citizens are struggling with unemployment and reduced incomes. Businesses have seen a sharp drop-off in spending by their customers and, of course, government at every level is struggling to balance budgets that have been affected by declining tax revenues of every category resulting in a scramble to find solutions to budget woes.

Several weeks ago, in an effort to address these shortfalls, the Oakland City Council made a decision that will certainly provide short-term revenues but at the same time will doom many small businesses and eventually devastate every shopping district in our city. That decision was to raise the meter rates to an unconscionable $2.00 per hour and, even worse, to extend enforcement hours to 8 p.m. In addition, all ticket fines have been increased as has the level of enforcement of violations.

Our elected representatives have lost sight of the fact that they have been entrusted with the serious responsibility of protecting the viability of businesses located within this city. Consumers have a choice when it comes to patronizing any business and especially those in an automobile. If any municipality inflicts conditions that result in driving shoppers to adjoining cities, then the consequences can be staggering.

The Oakland City Council had been discouraging patronage in our shopping districts for years with high parking rates, broken meters, and unreasonable parking ticket fines, but their recent actions have raised the damage to local business to an unsustainable level. Our customers should not be viewed as potential suckers ripe for a "municipal mugging" (parking ticket) but instead as valued supporters of the economy of our community. Likewise, our residents should not be the targets of the multitude of aggressive and unfair ticketing that has been unleashed in the past few weeks. If there is not a prompt correction of this very dangerous course that the council has taken, I fear that we will soon see a cascade of failed small businesses in Oakland that will only add to the budget shortfalls by the loss of all of the income that the city receives from each business establishment. Once closed, these businesses will never return and each closure represents a devastating blow to those entrepreneurs and their families as well as to their employees.

There is now a growing tidal wave of public fury to the transition of parking from being a needed amenity to that of a vehicle for extortion. I am very confident that sufficient outrage is present to support the gathering of signatures to force a recall of the entire council. While this would be very disruptive, it becomes the only avenue to change these policies that are so damaging to Oakland residents and businesses.

During the 28 years that I have been honored to be the operator of the Grand Lake Theater, I have seen many changes in my neighborhood. After the revitalization of the theater with my restoration and expansion efforts in the 80s, I saw Grand Avenue thrive. There were few storefront vacancies and the parking spaces were filled with customers for local businesses all day long. Parking rates were reasonable and parking violation citations were not draconian.

Moviegoers from all over the Bay Area made the Grand Lake a special destination for a unique, high-quality entertainment experience in a restored movie palace. Today the situation is quite different. Years of escalating parking fees and fines have succeeded in driving away many of our customers. Today, storefront vacancies abound on Grand Avenue. There are always many unused parking spaces on the street during daytime hours as our customers have gone elsewhere. Free parking in surrounding communities and shopping malls, low-cost parking in Alameda, and the longtime climate of shoppers being considered revenue generators for the city through the aggressive ticketing process have taken their toll.

Even the theater has seen a major reduction in attendance due to the more inviting environment created by the civic leaders of Emeryville and surrounding communities. I fear that the extension of meter enforcement until 8 p.m. will eliminate so many customers at the Grand Lake that the theater will not survive. This would also bring the failure of many of the restaurants in that neighborhood. When our shopping districts have died off, how much parking and ticketing revenue will the city then receive?

While the city estimates over a million dollars per year in extra revenue from this new policy, they must consider how many dollars of customer spending is being chased out of Oakland. Could it be $50 million? $100 million? The new policy should be named "The City Of Oakland Anti-Stimulus Parking Package!" I respectfully implore that the City Council reconsider this hastily conceived change to the parking regulations that so dramatically affect both small businesses and the residents of Oakland.

The enormous negative publicity and anger that has been generated by these changes can be easily redirected into a high-profile invitation for shoppers and diners to return to an Oakland that values their patronage and wants to be a gracious host to that business activity. This can happen with a rollback of meter rates to a reasonable 50 cents per hour (like neighboring Alameda) and the elimination of enforcement past 6 p.m. Additionally, all parking citations that have been issued in the past two weeks should be forgiven.

It is not shameful for the council to realize that a mistake has been made and to promptly correct that error. This is an opportunity to revitalize our business districts by extending a very public welcome mat. The resulting economic activity will lead to a more prosperous Oakland in the long term via increased sales tax, employment tax, property tax, and business license tax revenues.

I urge all readers of this column to contact their council members to express their opinions, either in agreement or disagreement, and to send letters to the editors of papers that publish this guest editorial. The future of Oakland is in the hands of its citizens.

Allen Michaan, owner, Grand Lake Theater

Corrections

In our July 15 "Best Of the East Bay" issue, in selecting the East Bay's "Best Photographer," we confused two outstanding photographers, both named Mark Read, erroneously assuming that one busy person had created two complementary bodies of work. The Berkeley fine-art photographer (mesart.com), who showed recently in Open Studios, and the English social documentarian (MarkReadPhotography.com) are both remarkable and well-respected talents. While we wrote about the humanist journalism of the latter, we also admire the breathtaking landscapes of the former. That Read's work is on display at Red Oak Realty, at 1891 Solano Ave. in Berkeley, through November.

In the same issue, we also got the name wrong of the John F. Kennedy University Center for Holistic Counseling, which won Best Cheap Counseling.

In the July 22 lit preview on Summer Brenner, the accompanying photograph should have been attributed to Phoebe Wong.

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