Mayor Jerry Brown invites Oakland over for deep thinking

Ex-presidential hopeful has round table at home

September 17, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

OAKLAND, Calif. - The phrase "back to school" has acquired new meaning here. It's time to grab the ballpoints, the highlighters and the 450-page binder of reading materials and head to the mayor's house for a little "Medieval Philosophical Latin: Part 1."

Call it Jerry 101. Mayor Jerry Brown, former presidential candidate, former governor and former Jesuit seminarian, has invited the citizens of this city on the move to participate in the Oakland Table, a casual intellectual exchange over six weeks - a sort of Ivory Tower in a loft - in which two dozen scholars, headlined by the historian and philosopher Ivan Illich, have been brought in to ponder the city, citizenship and the deep meaning of it all.

Part salon, part graduate-school seminar, it might be the Northern California equivalent of the Algonquin Round Table, frequented by Dorothy Parker, in 1920s New York, except that instead of whiskey and cigarettes there are tai chi and yoga classes in an adjoining room.

"Socrates said, `The unexamined life is not worth living,' so we're examining it," Brown said the other day, having spent two hours "in colloquy," where the discussion drifted from Daedalus to whether washing dishes constituted slavery.

"The big question is," Brown said, "how do we create a place?"

The Table, which will be held twice a year for three years, is being financed with $120,000 from the We the People Foundation, the nonprofit educational organization that Brown started in the mid-1990s before becoming mayor.

The speakers, who have turned Brown's quasi-communal loft building in Jack London Square into a Zen-like faculty club, include architectural theorist Joseph Rykwert and Mexican intellectual and activist Gustavo Esteva. One result will be a book, Brown said.

The Table has also attracted plenty of interlopers from nearby Berkeley, including Debbie Moore, organizer of the ninth annual Nude and Breast Freedom Parade to be held today in Peoples Park, who believes that the presence of nude bodies can soften cities and "tenderize the sidewalk," she said.

Not present are Brown critics - such as Wilda White, president of the Jack London Neighborhood Association and an Oakland school board member. They are concerned about rising homicides and the "Jerrification" of Oakland at the expense of the poor.

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