Idea Aims to Slam Door on Urban Blight in Oakland

Special to The Times

In Rome, Paris, Florence and other cosmopolitan cities, the clanking of metal sliding doors, like the revving of motorbikes on cobblestones, heralds dawn’s arrival. The metal doors here, however, are more a reminder of urban crime.

Saying they give Oakland a war-zone look, the city manager is recommending the banning of metal doors, black iron gates, metal bars, razor wire and barbed wire from storefronts.

This latest effort to spruce up San Francisco’s gangly stepsister encountered partial resistance last week from the City Council and from upset storeowners for whom such measures provide relatively inexpensive security.

Mayor Jerry Brown injected more than a note of skepticism: Are the merchants “just putting up the barbed wire whimsically?” he asked rhetorically. “Nobody likes barbed wire, but I don’t want businesses to be ripped off just to please political correctness.


“I’m not saying we can’t take steps [in that direction], but we’ve got to be careful we work with the merchants,” Brown said. He warned that the city shouldn’t “burden businesses in the midst of recession. We’ve got to get real here.”

Ignacio De La Fuente, president of the City Council, said that the concept is a good one, but that he would support it only if he was convinced that alternative solutions would work just as well and if the city could provide funds to help merchants make the changes.

Banning razor wire and barbed wire is another matter, he said. “I can tell you that the City Council will approve it,” he said. The proposal is expected to be considered by the council in June.

City Manager Robert Bobb said he is not opposed to security measures, but he wants them to be less obvious. Though sympathetic to struggling merchants, he reserves his anger for certain major corporations that insist on pull-down metal gates.

Along Lakeshore Avenue, one of the tonier shopping areas in the city, Bobb complained that “You can walk in the evening and see the displays in the retail stores and restaurants,” but “Footlocker pulls down a metal gate.” He said the company doesn’t have metal gates in other cities he has visited.

Footlocker did not comment on the statement.

Similarly, the downtown Walgreens, near City Hall, drops a metal gate at night but a new Gap store, which Bobb praised as a model company, has no storefront gates, having installed strong glass and secured its displays through “alternative means,” he said.

Bobb worries that if someone visiting the downtown Marriott Hotel, for example, wandered around at night, “All he’d see is metal gates, barbed-wire fencing and very harsh-looking security gates. It sends a message,” he added, “that our community is totally unsafe.”


Asked if that might be true, Bobb acknowledged that some “districts are challenged.”

The city’s Chamber of Commerce has not taken a position on the proposal. But some merchants have strong views.

“Don’t just make it look safer,” Ramon Garcia said from behind the counter at Platinum Auto Stereo, “make it safer.”

His car stereos and the hottest items -- mobile videodisc players -- are prime targets for what he calls “snatch and grab robberies,” which are made more difficult by his roll-down metal doors. If the city wants to dress itself up, he suggests, “It should plant more trees, add lighting and clean it up.”


“If they’re thinking about the beauty of the city,” said Mohammad Faiez, owner of 2000 Auto Liquidation, which buys, sells and trades cars from behind its fence topped with barbed wire, “they have to control crime.”

Five or six times in the last three months, thieves have scaled Faiez’s fence, making off with tires and car stereos. And though he’s doing better than most, the Afghan American acknowledged that the economy, plus zero percent financing for new cars, is taking a bite out of business. He says he can’t afford more theft.

Lifelong Oakland resident Calvin Wong, director of the city’s Community and Economic Development Agency’s business services section, who developed the proposal, has investigated alternatives.

Instead of barbed wire, he recommends cyclone fencing with openings too small for a toehold. Instead of grillwork, he wants merchants to consider plastic or polycarbonate glass, which he said can withstand hits from a baseball bat. City officials don’t object to iron gates; they just want the gates placed inside stores.


The city is helping 78 merchants improve their stores’ exteriors as part of a plan to spruce up several commercial areas. Officials negotiated with 44 of them to remove their outside gates. With a looming deficit though, it’s not clear how much more money Oakland will have to provide for such an incentive.

Had Josefina Lopez, owner of the spacious orange and yellow Corazon Del Pueblo gift shop, not had a sliding metal door and wrought-iron gates on Super Bowl night, she said, her store surely would have been attacked like the Kelly-Moore Paint Store across the street was. It lost all its windows and had paint tossed outside.

Ironically, the city paid for nearly half the cost of Lopez’s ironwork from “facade funds” earmarked to improve storefronts. Her son, Anthony, said iron gates “beautify the store.” In Mexico, he added, such gates are considered aesthetically pleasing.

When iron bars and gates are compatible with a building, Wong said, they should remain. He also would want the city to exempt stores that stay open into the night as a way of combating that “ghost town look.”


Before offering the proposal, the city surveyed more than 2,600 storeowners and found that just under half have a metal security device outside their shops. The highest concentration was in Chinatown, an area that city officials believe may be the toughest sell.

Tom Le, son of the owner of Kim Viet jewelry store on the outskirts of Chinatown, isn’t about to jettison the store’s wrought-iron double doors.

His family once locked a would-be burglar inside the doors. It was not until the police arrived that he was extricated. Without such protection, Le said, “It would not be safe, especially in Oakland.”