Suzane Loi has been perched behind the cash register at The Coffee Mill in Oakland, Calif., for 27 years, watching the daily thrum of Grand Avenue through the cafe’s huge windows.
Lately, she has been unnerved by the view.
Thieves have broken into cars at the gas station across the street as their owners stood in disbelief at the pumps, she said. Several times a week, masked burglars have smashed the windows of vehicles parked near her shop.
The Coffee Mill itself has been robbed three times in the last six months, so frequently that her annual insurance premiums have doubled to $12,000.
“When I park my car, I leave my windows open this much,” Ms. Loi said with a note of resignation, holding her hands apart several inches, wide enough to let someone reach into her vehicle without shattering glass.
The surge in crime — in such brazen waves that some community groups have publicly suggested that the National Guard was needed — has shaken even the most loyal residents of Oakland, a city of 420,000 that has long seen itself as California’s scrappy answer to San Francisco.
Across the bay, San Francisco has become a national poster child for pandemic woes, its downtown suffering from vacant storefronts, public drug use and absent workers. But beyond the spotlight, Oakland has had worse problems with crime and homelessness since Covid-19 began, blunting the momentum that had made the city a more desirable — and affordable — alternative for artists and young professionals.
In July, the Oakland chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. published an open letter denouncing the “intolerable public safety crisis that overwhelmingly impacts minority communities.” Homicides have surpassed 100 for the fourth straight year, while vehicle thefts have risen nearly 50 percent this year.
There are other problems. A fifth of the office space downtown remains empty, a vacancy rate that is second in the region only to San Francisco’s. The city’s homeless population has swelled by more than 1,000 people since the start of the pandemic, many of living in tents, mobile homes and cars.
Unlike its neighbor to the west, Oakland lacks the powerhouse civic institutions, from big businesses to sports teams, that have tried to reverse the tide of negative attention in San Francisco.
Oakland’s struggles were punctuated last month by the announcement that the Athletics had won Major League Baseball approval to move to Las Vegas after the club could not figure out how to build a new stadium, marking the end of major professional sports in a city that had three beloved franchises just five years ago.
“What has happened has been basically an institutional exodus from the city,” said Mitchell Schwarzer, a historian who has lived in Oakland for 24 years and is the author of “Hella Town: Oakland’s History of Development and Disruption.”
In the last three years, he noted, at least three colleges — Holy Names University, Mills College and the California College of the Arts, where he is an emeritus history professor — have shuttered campuses in Oakland or merged into more financially secure institutions based elsewhere.
Tech headquarters, still thick on the ground in nearby Silicon Valley, have largely steered clear of Oakland, leaving the local economy to rely on government and health care employment. The hometown Oakland Tribune, once a strong civic beacon, was mostly folded into a regional newspaper several years ago and is owned by an out-of-state hedge fund.
Tracy Hadden Loh, who specializes in urban development at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, said that many of the trends assailing Oakland are beyond the city’s control. She cited the shift to remote work, the interstate crime syndicates that now specialize in the theft of catalytic converters, widespread consolidation and the economics of professional sports teams.
“This is playing out in cities all over the country,” she said. “Institutions that a generation ago might have been really tied to a particular place, with ownership that was regional or local, are now owned by national or even multinational investors.”
Civic leaders, past and present, vehemently defend Oakland and warn that outsiders have long underestimated the complexity of its challenges and the city’s capacity to rebound.
“I think a lot of it has to do with what happened during the pandemic,” Mayor Sheng Thao said, noting the financial and mental health strains suffered by many low-income families and the hollowing-out effect that Covid-19 precautions had on Oakland’s downtown.
Ms. Thao, who took office in January, said that her administration has taken steps to bolster police patrols and use technology to address crime hot spots, as well as to draw crowds back to the city center. The city, she said, still has a wealth of attractions, including its waterfront, regional parks, culinary scene and growing film industry. “Oakland is the heart and soul of the Bay Area,” she said.
Crime has increased, she acknowledged, but rates remain lower than they were in the 1990s. The California Highway Patrol has dispatched officers to help with enforcement on some of the busier thoroughfares in Oakland, and the city is installing some 300 license plate readers whose cameras will help combat crimes from car thefts to illegal dumping, Mayor Thao said.
The city has lost 15,000 residents since the pandemic began, but she said Oakland’s economy still has strong fundamentals. The Port of Oakland directly employs about 50,000 people and indirectly supports nearly that many more jobs throughout the Bay Area. Kaiser Permanente, the giant health care provider, is based here and remains a major employer. Samuel Merritt University, which specializes in training nurses and other health professionals, broke ground this year on a new campus in downtown Oakland.
And given the severe housing shortage and high living costs in California, the city’s problems are mitigated by its enduring appeal as a more affordable alternative to San Francisco. Monthly rents hover around $2,200 for a one-bedroom apartment, according to city figures, and the median home value is about $815,000.
“Oakland will always have more soul and more grit than any part of the Bay Area and it will not lose that any time soon,” said Libby Schaaf, who led the city for eight years as mayor before she left because of term limits this year. “Don’t count Oakland out. Oakland will be fine.”
Still, some longtime residents who remember the blight of the 1980s and the terrifying gang crime of the 1990s say something is different about this rough patch.
David De Hart, 72, a retired teacher in the Lower Glenview neighborhood, situated between the upscale hills and lower-income parts of the city, said he and his wife rarely venture out anymore in the city he has loved since 1976, when he bought their modest bungalow for $36,000. “There were Hells Angels across the street when I moved here,” he said, referring to the motorcycle club with an outlaw reputation. “But we never felt like we couldn’t go out at night without having someone break into our car or steal our catalytic converter.”
Last year, Mr. De Hart said, a nearby car burglary ended in the shooting death of one of their neighbors, and not long ago, he had to gently confront a homeless man from a nearby encampment who was strewing trash on the sidewalk as he rummaged through garbage cans.
“I like the new mayor,” Mr. De Hart said. “But this is part of a national problem. The guns, the greed, the homelessness, the mental illness. Cities can’t do this on their own.”
Back at The Coffee Mill, some Oakland residents who were enjoying their breakfasts under sunny skies were trying to stay optimistic.
Marina Emery, 41, moved to the Grand Lake neighborhood, dotted with family homes and quirky small businesses, in September 2020. She left San Francisco so she could buy a house with a backyard, rather than rent an apartment, and raise her children in a more diverse community. Not to mention swap the cold fog for reliably warm weather.
She said the crime is scary, but she’s still glad she moved.
“I have hope,” she said. “I still love it here.”