By European, Australian, British, or Japanese standards, California’s a violent and crime-ridden place. Cities like Oakland, Richmond, East Palo Alto, bits of East LA., and Compton have murder rates much higher than those of places like New York or London or Sydney.
As a tourist, however, you are likely to be away from the worst of it. But don’t be complacent — even in the tourist areas, you need to be aware of what to do and what to avoid. This section concentrates on the problems most likely to be encountered while driving; more general tips and hints can be found in the various California tourist guides.
Some things to watch out for or remember:
- Try to avoid driving or parking in bad neighborhoods. If you do have to drive through bad areas, try not to run out of gas or break down in such a place. This advice is obvious, but it’s not always easy for foreigners to tell bad from good here (when I first arrived my London common sense about these things nearly proved fatal). So how do you tell whether a neighborhood is possibly bad? Again, most of these are obvious, but they need to be said somewhere:
- Are there lots of old, beaten-up, large American cars parked on the street or driving around?
- Are there lots of liquor stores in the area, i.e. one on nearly every corner of the larger streets? Do these stores have bars across the windows and doors?
- Are there lots of check cashing stores in the area? Are they heavily barred?
- Is the area covered in graffiti?
- Are there “donuts” on the streets at nearly every intersection? (“Donuts” are the circular skid marks left on the street by cars “doing donuts”, i.e. repeatedly making fast small-radius turns in the street with screeching / burning rubber…).
None of these things, taken separately or all together, means that a neighborhood is necessarily bad (far from it — the area of Berkeley I used to live in failed three of these tests, but it was a reasonably safe and pleasant place to live). However, as a foreigner without a native’s sense of what’s good and what’s bad, be cautious. If you stray into what you think is a bad area, go back out the way you came (if you can) unless you know that there’s a quicker way out ahead.
Also, as several people have reminded me, there are plenty of areas that are relatively safe during the day but that you definitely do not want to go through at night. These include many of the downtown and industrial parts of most cities (and the particular part of Oakland that I used to live in).
- Carjacking. If someone comes up to you and attempts to take your car with a gun or knife, or just generally forces his way into your car, do what he says — give him the car. Don’t try to be heroic — you’ll probably end up dead, particularly if you don’t know how to “read” the person trying to take your car.
- Car break-ins. Places like San Francisco and Oakland are suffering from an epidemic of car break-ins, usually quick smash-and-grabs. If you park on the street in a place like Fisherman’s Wharf or South Of Market in SF, you have a reasonable chance of your car being broken in to. I work in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, and I’ve seen it being done in broad daylight right in front of my office — by the time you call the police, the thieves are long gone. There isn’t much you can do about this except try not to make your car too attractive to being broken into — hide those valuables, at least. And think about taking Muni or Uber or a taxi instead of driving.
- Car theft. Car theft is not as bad in most of California as it is in (say) New Jersey or New York, but again, don’t be complacent. Always lock your car’s doors and close the windows securely, and try not to park your car in a bad area or away from the light. Use a car alarm if you have one (but take pity on the nearby residents if it’s not a reliable one). Remember that in general, if you rent a car and it’s stolen while in your possession, you will be responsible for it. Hopefully your insurance will cover this, but it’s one good reason to keep your car well locked.
Here’s a video I did in the Oakland neighbourhood (Jingletown) I used to live in, that highlights some of the fun sights you might see behind the tourist scenes. This particular place — a park with a path in it we used to call “Trash Alley”, one of the very few ways you could walk from one side of the neighbourhood to the other without being hit by a car or flattened by a speeding truck — wasn’t particularly unsafe, at least by Oakland standards, but I was attacked by an off-leash pit bull there twice (I survived) and threatened by a gun-toting drunk (once only, thank god):
It’s all a long way (except in distance) from the Hipster cafes and coffee shops, food trucks, and medicinal marijuana stores that make up the New Oakland. As the rest of Oakland gentrifies, my neighborhood became the dumping ground for the garbage, the junk, and the people socially-cleansed from those gentrified neighborhoods. Life goes on, I guess, for some at least.