Traffic, vendors, and crowds at Lake Merritt on July 4. Credit: Courtesy of Scott Bodarky

Lakeshore Avenue residents have complained to the city for at least three years about excessive noise, large crowds, and late-night partying at Lake Merritt. Fireworks, unpermitted vending, alcohol sales, speeding cars, and people urinating and defecating on residential doorsteps have become everyday burdens for some neighbors of what has become Oakland’s most popular park. Some say the situation has gotten considerably worse during the pandemic, and that the city isn’t moving quickly toward a solution.

One resident who lives on Lakeshore told The Oaklandside she dreads the weekends “because of the chaos the lake dives into. This isn’t stuff that is inconsequential or inconvenient, it’s straight-up dangerous to everyone.”

She asked to remain anonymous for fear of being labeled an anti-Black “Karen,” and added that she is a formerly undocumented Latina woman who grew up in Pinole. “Will this be the weekend I get COVID because I have to go through the crowds to walk to the grocery store or walk my dog in the crowds?” she said, and noted that she is 22-weeks pregnant. “What is this stress and anxiety doing to my unborn baby?”

Some residents who are part of the neighborhood group Lakeshore Neighbors are calling for a crackdown on vendors who set up daily on the grass and sell everything from jewelry to CBD oil to Italian ice without permits. (It’s illegal to vend in Oakland parks without a temporary special event permit.)

The Oaklandside spoke to several vendors along the lake two weeks ago. Many said they ended up working in the park after they were laid off from previous jobs, and that they feel safer vending outside during the pandemic, compared to driving for Uber or working in some other enclosed space.

Some vendors say they don’t have many other options to pay their bills right now, and they’d like to see the city create a pilot program to permit vending at the lake or nearby.

Lakeshore residents, including some who are Black, say the current situation isn’t about pushing any one group of people away from the lake. Most residents who attended a virtual meeting of Oakland’s Parks and Rec Advisory Commission on Wednesday spoke in favor of allowing unpermitted lakeside vendors, who are mostly Black, to continue selling their goods in a different nearby location, possibly including Splashpad Park or the parking lot under Interstate 580. They said the narrow strip of grass along Lakeshore is simply unfit for vending and large groups.

City staffer Joe Devries shared photographs during the meeting backing up these claims. The pictures showed large amounts of trash, damage to bushes and trees, and broken sprinkler and irrigation systems, the results of too many people congregating every weekend in a relatively small area.

Trash on Lakeshore Avenue has become an increasing problem as crowds continue to gather. Credit: Courtesy city of Oakland

Many residents also want to see strict enforcement of parking laws, saying their streets have become clogged with vehicles on the weekends. “There have been a number of incidents in which they parked cars right in the traffic lane, and had their party in the traffic lane as well, blockading the whole street and trapping people in their cars for hours,” Scott Bodarky told The Oaklandside in an email.

Bodarky shared several videos showing what Lakeshore Avenue has looked and sounded at times on weekends this summer. His videos show the lake and the surrounding street packed with cars and people playing loud music, partying late into the night, shooting fireworks, drinking, or burning rubber on motorcycles, sometimes in view of police officers nearby. Few revelers in the videos wear face masks.

The pandemic has made social gatherings of any size dangerous, and cases are still increasing in Oakland and most of the Bay Area. Lakeside parties also violate the ongoing shelter-in-place order issued by the county.

“I think the main issues are enforcement,” said Laura Sutta, resident and co-chair of Lakeshore Neighbors, during the virtual PRAC meeting. “And I know enforcement is a bad word, somehow, in Oakland. It doesn’t mean using teargas, but it does mean giving tickets, and parking enforcement can give tickets too.”

But according to Parks and Rec staffer Joe Devries, code enforcement and fire officials in charge of regulating unpermitted vending have been threatened when they’ve tried to write citations for vendors at the lake.

Credit: Courtesy city of Oakland

At the moment, Oakland police are generally not interested in using their resources to strictly enforce parking rules, ban vending, or write tickets for other minor infractions. “We’re not looking to take a heavy-handed enforcement approach,” Jake Bassett, an OPD captain, told members of the Parks and Rec Advisory Commission (PRAC) at their Wednesday meeting. Bassett said OPD is focused on violent crime instead.

The city’s Parks and Rec Advisory Board, which is comprised entirely of volunteers, is tasked with figuring out solutions to the situation at Lake Merritt and making recommendations to city staff and the City Council. It’s no easy job: the conflict between residents, partying visitors, and vendors evokes decades-old feelings among many Black Oaklanders of being pushed away from the lake. In the 1980s, ‘90s, and early 2000s, Oakland police tried to strictly enforce rules at parks around the lake, resulting in several violent incidents and allegations of police brutality

More recently, the “BBQ Becky” incident, in which a white woman called the police on a Black family grilling by Lake Merritt, led to a movement of Black Oaklanders claiming equal access to the lake.

PRAC member Dwayne Aikens said Lake Merritt has become so crowded with partiers, especially during the pandemic, in part because other city parks haven’t benefited from the same investments and attention. He described that as an inequity in its own right.

“Right now, there’s no place to go in Oakland,” said Aikens at Wednesday’s meeting. “Lake Merritt is the best park. So people are going to be out here.” Aikens said it’s possible people would gather at other parks, like Arroyo Viejo in East Oakland or DeFremery in West Oakland, if the city fixed them up.

Greg Anderson, a white resident who told PRAC members that half the residents of his Lakeshore apartment building are people of color, blamed the situation at the lake on a lack of leadership from the city.

District 2 Councilmember Nikki Bas, whose district includes the eastern side of the Lake, has been working since she got into office in 2018 to address the situation. She said a pilot program to relocate, spread out, and legitimize vending might help reduce crowds and improve safety. But Bas has no ability to direct city staff to enforce existing rules because Oakland’s City Charter forbids councilmembers from giving direct orders to city staffers; that’s the mayor and city administrator’s job.

After hearing from upset neighbors and a few supporters of the vendors, PRAC members voted Wednesday to create a committee to further investigation solutions and to report back at the commission’s next meeting in September.

“Thus far the city has assiduously tried to avoid taking action,” said Bodarky, the Lakeshore resident who shared videos with The Oaklandside. “I understand that the situation is fraught, and OPD is worried about bad press and violence. But refusing to set limits for bad behavior never causes the behavior to stop. It just gets worse.” He said he’s “cautiously optimistic” after the PRAC meeting that some kind of solution is in the works.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.