In Gritty City, Something to Cheer About : Reaction: Oakland is plagued by social problems. The return of the Raiders will give many of its residents a needed morale boost.


Anyone familiar with this gritty city knows too well its litany of problems, including a criminal investigation of corruption in the school system, a county health system crippled by a lack of money and a crack epidemic, and a downtown devastated by last fall's earthquake.

But Oakland, which has had more than its share of ills, finally had something to cheer about Monday--the announced return of its treasured football team.

"It'll boost everything--make the city proud again," declared Anthony Davis, 32, a city maintenance worker.

In the downtown area, word spread quickly that Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson and Alameda County Supervisor Don Perata had announced that Al Davis would bring the Raiders "home."

In the euphoria of the moment, many officials and football fans assumed that approval was a formality, as indeed it turned out to be. But a few sounded a note of caution, citing the potential that taxpayers would have to pay off the bonds used to raise money to refurbish the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.

"A lot of people are not sure that it's a good deal," said Assemblyman Elihu M. Harris (D-Oakland), a candidate for mayor. "The economics are marginal at best. The question is: Will the emotion win over the economics?"

Additionally, some football fans aren't sure that Davis will win their loyalty quite so easily. Dante Polk, 21, and his friend, Mohumah Demiz, 22, recalled that as kids they would do whatever it took to see their team, including hopping the fences to get into the coliseum.

"Now, if they opened the fence, I don't think I'd go," Demiz said. As he sees it, Davis used Oakland to win a good deal from Los Angeles, and is using Oakland again. "Oakland was true to the Raiders, but Al Davis was not true to Oakland," Demiz said.

Still, a return of the football team that gave the city its identity would "give people something to talk about other than crack," said Polk. As it is, when outsiders hear of Oakland, the news too often is of "thugs and drugs."

The Raiders left an area after the 1981 season that had given them years of sellout crowds. With a reputation for tough play and wild antics, the team was among the most successful franchises in sports history.

"Al Davis developed a particular mystique--the guy from the other side of the track who has to fight in order to survive, the underdog fighting his way to the top, fighting the establishment," noted Robert Nahas, former president of the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum Commission, who fought to keep the team here.

That image played especially well in Oakland, which long fought to get out from the shadow of the more glamorous San Francisco. Although Davis left for Los Angeles, fans never gave up.

Sports bars prospered by identifying with the team. A newsletter gave voice to the hope that the Raiders would return. Die-hards traveled 400 miles to watch their beloved team play in Los Angeles.

For local officials, Nahas said, "it is a matter of ego. We lost it and we want it back." As for the fans, they're "longing for the most exciting team in football. They're hoping to see that again."

If Davis carries through on his apparent pledge to return, he will face a very different and more competitive market. The San Francisco 49ers are the "Team of the '80s," having won the Super Bowl earlier this year, and three championships in the 1980s, while the Oakland A's are the baseball champions.

The city also has gone through changes. It has experienced an erosion of blue-collar jobs, a trend expected to continue if the federal government follows through with its plan to close several military bases in the East Bay. Meanwhile, white-collar, service-oriented jobs have been on the upswing.

The Oct. 17 earthquake caused $1.3 billion in damage in Oakland, forcing closure of 213 commercial buildings, many of them downtown. City Hall itself is closed. Fifteen residential hotels that housed some of the city's poorest residents also were shuttered.

The Alameda County district attorney's office continues an investigation of low-level corruption at the Oakland school district, where 13 employees have been arrested. A top Alameda County health official estimated that the main public hospital needs $25 million to meet state standards.

But while problems seem to have multiplied in the past year, Oakland business executives say they are bullish.

"Almost by any measure, we are doing better than we were in 1981," said James A. Vohs, chairman and chief executive officer of Kaiser Foundation Health Plans Inc. "I think (the Raiders) are coming back to a healthier city."

Davis will find a larger market than the one he left. Much of the growth in the Bay Area is taking place in the East Bay. Oakland's population, which is about 350,000, is expected to grow by about 5% over the next 15 years. But adjacent Contra Costa County is expected to grow by 28%, and some Alameda County suburbs are expected to grow 32% to 74%, regional planners have said.

If the National Football League franchise returns, Don Moroni can claim some credit. Through his newsletter, Sports Page News, he gathered 48,000 names on petitions demanding that officials enter into talks with Davis.

Moroni, who owns a printing company, recalled that when he began the campaign, "People laughed us out of the arena." They would say, " 'Al Davis is never coming back. You people are a joke.' " As he saw it, however, "it was a fundamental issue of representation." The fans had spoken and forced the officials to try to win back the team. "The Raiders belong here. The Raiders put Oakland on the map nationally."

Whether Davis can reclaim that past glory remains to be seen. Milton Young, bartender at the Oakland sports bar, King's X, said he is not one of the fans who will pay for a game ticket that local officials say will average $55.

"Davis is a guy who has everything going his own way," said Young, a 49ers fan. "I'd like to have someone tell him to take his team and stick it. . . . The people in Oakland are a little disgusted."

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