Saturday, January 26, 2008

Where the Youngsters Get Hyphy

I'm reading Jane Jacob's The Death and Life of Great American Cities right now, and one particular section struck me as very relevant to Oakland. Jacobs talks about the problem caused in a housing project in New York that has one popular hangout destination, a long public balcony, amidst the dark, empty corridors of the project:

The lighted balconies which are, as the manager puts it, "the brightest and most attractive scene in sight," draw strangers, especially teenagers, from all over Brooklyn. But these strangers, lured by the magnet of the publicly visible corridors, do not halt at the visible corridors. They go into other streets of the buildings, streets that lack surveillance. The housing police run up and down after the malefactors--who behave barbarously and viciously in the blind-eyed, sixteen-story-high stairways--and the malefactors elude them.

[Struggling cities'] pitifully few and thinly spaced patches of brightness and life are like the visible corridors at Blenheim Houses. They do attract strangers. But the relatively deserted, dull, blind streets leading from these places are like the fire stairs at Blenheim Houses. These are not equipped to handle strangers and the presence of strangers in them is an automatic menace.

It struck me that this is exactly what happened with the death of Mingles, the Jack London nightclub. This article in the East Bay Express details the problems local residents were having with Mingles as ground zero of the hyphy movement. As Rachel Swan writes:

[Club security guards] are so good at sweeping out the area...that they've effectively pushed all the rowdy people beyond 2nd and Webster streets — which is already a block and a half away from the club entrance. Now, says Thomas, the troublemakers have migrated a block north and a block east, further into the residential neighborhood.

The new problem is that Mingles is doing too good a job fortressing itself. Ironically, [Mingles] is now one of the safest places in the neighborhood, even though it's also being blamed for most of the neighborhood's criminal activity.

It's a classic.

So what could have been done? Mingles is closed now, I'll just do a little Monday morning quarterbacking.

It sounds counterintuitive, but the answer to these conflicts could be more businesses, not fewer. In SF's Mission District, even at 2:00 a.m. there are hot-dog vendors on the street, 24-hour restaurants open, and of course tons of people just hanging around on the street with their friends. As a result, it feels like one of the safest places in the city. Contrast that with Mingles, one huge club that draws people from all over. As soon as the club closes, those people become a liability to the neighborhood--there's nowhere for them to go, nothing for them to do but go home. So of course they are pushed out with militaristic efficiency. Except, being drunk and hyphy, instead of going home they wander into the residential neighborhoods and start drama.

Mingles' owner, John Ivey, focuses a lot in the article on the types of people the club attracts--San Francisco versus Oakland/Richmond crowds, "upscale" clientele versus broke-ass fools, good-looking women versus ugly girls, etc. From a safety perspective, I think this is a mistake. Sure, Mingles is going to attract a rowdier clientele than Yoshi's. However, if the surrounding environment "feels" safe due to a lot of other activity--"eyes on the street," as Jacobs calls them--there will not be the same opportunity to cause trouble. There need to be more people on the street than a single group of 500 partygoers all coming out of one club. That does not amount to a public space.

Maybe it's unrealistic to expect Jack London Square to turn into a bustling destination. That area is evolving from industrial use, and perhaps the size and scope of the buildings is too large for mixed uses. An industrial-scale nightclub is bound to create more challenges than a local watering hole. It's like those convention centers and arenas that are supposed to revive cities but end up just contributing to their decay. In fact, this reminds me of my friend Laura, who used to live in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium and couldn't stand the drunken assholes going to games--ironically, a largely white, "upscale" clientele.

A more cynical approach than developing Jack London as a thriving, 24-hour multi-use business area would be to isolate nightlife more. This seems to be what's happening. From what I can tell, Zazoo's is the now the place to be for the KMEL set. It's on the other side of Embarcadero, safely away from pretty much everything except water and a parking lot. So far, I haven't heard about the same kinds of complaints for Zazoo's. Maybe the lesson is that if a place is a "destination" spot, it needs to actually be a destination spot, far away from everything.

Too Short
"Blow the Whistle"
(filmed at Mingles)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As someone who lives down the street from Mingles, I can tell you that Zazoo's is definitely taking its place. The same rowdy, rude, obnoxious, people that woke me up every weekend night and trashed my street after they came out of Mingles are now doing exactly the same thing following a night at Zazoo's. I can guarantee you that we will soon be hearing the same things about Zazoo's that we heard about Mingles, and it will create the same controversy. I agree that Jack London Square needs more, particularly if that means that the Zazoo's crowd finds somewhere else to go to piss off the neighbors - like their own neighborhood.