RHETORIC GIVES WAY TO REALITY IN OAKLAND

RHETORIC GIVES WAY TO REALITY IN OAKLAND

Ask a tattooed punk what he thinks of Jerry Brown, the former California governor who is now mayor of Oakland, Calif., and you'll get an instant measure of how dramatically Brown has changed the city in his months in office.

''Oakland used to be a cool town, but now we can't hang out on the streets without someone saying you gotta go,'' announces Scrappy, a blue-haired 25-year-old with tongue rings and dagger-shaped earrings.Oakland used to be known as ''Baja Berkeley,'' but those days may be over. Brown, who won the mayoralty in a landslide in June 1998, is on a fervent crusade to resuscitate this still-lovely port city long associated with urban failure.

Should he succeed, it will be a testament to an emerging national consensus regarding what cities need to flourish - public safety, order, decent schools and a respect for private creativity.

Having moved to Oakland from San Francisco not long after his disastrous 1992 run for president, Brown continued to hammer away at his presidential campaign themes of corporate greed and political corruption.

But once on the mayoral campaign trail, Brown noticed that Oaklanders cared more about crime, abysmal schools and the city's economic vacuum downtown than about ''social justice.''

Brown sagely jackknifed. He began speaking with ruthless honesty about Oakland's public safety problem. ''Muggings, car break-ins, burglaries - this is real, no matter what anyone says,'' he declared a month before the election. ''The city has to ensure your safety.''

Now that he's in office, the turnabout persists. Helping Brown is a new-generation black official, City Manager Robert Bobb, who has vowed to drive criminals out of town and clean up the city.

At his urging, the city council passed a tough blight ordinance that heavily fines businesses for broken windows and graffiti and homeowners for dumping couches and hanging laundry in their front yards.

''I'm trying to install a sense of pride,'' Bobb says.

''If you litter,'' he tells people at community meetings, ''it says it's OK to commit crime.''

Brown and Bobb even took on the city's first black police chief, Joseph Samuels.

The mayor and the manager saw Oakland's reputation as a high-crime city as its biggest bar to renewal. Oakland needed a crime-reduction target and a plan for reaching it. ''I kept waiting for the police chief to tell me his goal,'' Brown explained. ''He never did, so I got myself a new police chief.''

The new chief, a respected black department veteran named Richard Word, has signed on to Brown's crime-reduction goal of 20 percent a year. Word intends to meet that goal by questioning criminals about other crimes they know of, finding the city's 750 lost parolees and other innovations.

Brown's toughest challenge will be the schools, the greatest casualty of Oakland's decades of playing racial politics.

Even today, though Oakland students have among California's lowest test scores, the school board and teachers waste time in race-baiting and radicalism. This is, after all, the school system that introduced us to ebonics, the plan to instruct African-American students in black English.

Though the mayor has no direct control over education, Brown has tried to shame the system into reform and has urged parents to form charter schools. When teachers' unions pushed a bill requiring charter schools to unionize, the mayor used his hefty political clout to kill it.

Brown has also brought about a palpable surge in economic energy downtown, particularly noticeable among developers long-accustomed to bureaucratic inertia and crippling regulatory roadblocks.

Housing developers are flying into Oakland from across the country, drawn by the mayor's determination to sell off the city's properties.

Brown's market timing is excellent. Housing costs in San Francisco, just a few minutes across the San Francisco Bay via subway, are astronomical. Businesses are also moving from San Francisco and Berkeley, drawn by rents that are 50 percent to 65 percent lower.

''What continued to impress us was the city's very aggressive approach in getting major companies here,'' says one vice president whose company recently moved to Oakland.

If Brown succeeds in shaking up Oakland it will be because that for all his left-wing rhetoric, he understands the basic needs of cities for order, good education and private development and is willing to beat down all opposition to achieve them.