OAKLAND -- As the scion of one of Oakland's leading families, Fred Blackwell knows exactly what he's getting himself into as he takes the reins at City Hall.
The new city administrator wasn't just raised in Oakland, he was reared on the city's struggle to escape from San Francisco's shadow and the desperate attempts of so many of its residents to escape generations of poverty.
His education began in a Black Panther run primary school. There were childhood nights where he "was dragged to" council meetings or community gatherings by his super-engaged family.
Blackwell's mother, Angela Glover Blackwell, and uncle, David Glover, both ran Oakland-based nonprofits focused on expanding opportunity for the city's urban poor. Family gatherings and even dinner table banter often got wonky.
"Oakland, its opportunities and challenges were always a topic of conversation," Blackwell, 44, said during an interview last week in his new corner office.
Today's Oakland looks very different from the city where Blackwell grew up in the affluent Trestle Glen neighborhood.
Waves of immigration and gentrification have made a city that 30 years ago boasted a strong black plurality far more diverse. And the departure of military and manufacturing jobs has made it harder for many residents to climb into the middle class.
But some things haven't changed. City revenue is too paltry to pay for all of the services residents want. And there is still a fractious political class, powerful unions and an anti-authoritarian streak that makes Oakland a notoriously difficult city to manage.
Blackwell's predecessor and former boss, Deanna Santana, saw her standing deteriorate in part because she had strained relationships with key constituencies, including the city's largest employee union, SEIU Local 1021.
When Mayor Jean Quan decided to replace Santana with Blackwell last month, city leaders praised his easygoing temperament and familiarity with the city's political culture as much as his many years in municipal government.
"He has an advantage that Deanna didn't have because she came from the outside without really understanding the politics and the personalities of the people here," former Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente said.
Concord Assistant City Manager Scott Johnson, who worked in Oakland alongside Blackwell for two years, said Blackwell's diplomatic skill would be one of his greatest assets on the job.
"He doesn't react; he responds," Johnson said. "Definitely in Oakland, that will go a long way."
Blackwell said he figured out early on he wasn't cut out to be a surgeon like his father. So he followed in the footsteps of his mother, a public interest attorney whose fight for economic and social equality led her to form the Urban Strategies Council and PolicyLink, a research and advocacy organization that focuses primarily on poor minority communities.
Blackwell rose up the ranks in San Francisco government, eventually heading the city's Redevelopment Agency, where he helped shepherd multibillion dollar projects such as the anticipated transformation of the 500-acre Hunters Point Naval Shipyard and military base into a neighborhood with homes, offices, shops and parks.
Since arriving in Oakland as assistant city administrator ¿three years ago, Blackwell has handled the city's biggest projects, including the redevelopment of the Oakland Army Base, where city residents are slated to get at least half of the construction jobs.
"As we go through a renaissance in the city we need to do it in a way that doesn't leave behind the folks who sometimes have lived through years and decades of disinvestment and neglect," he said.
Oakland appears to be kicking off a home building boom, but whether it's truly undergoing a renaissance remains far from clear. The city still faces a staggering long-term budget shortfall, untenable crime rate and a police department under unprecedented federal oversight. A new round of labor negotiations has begun with city firefighters and a new round of hiring is expected to get under way to replenish a sparsely staffed top management team.
Blackwell, who dressed casually in an open-collared shirt and understated Nike sneakers for last week's interview, didn't seem distressed about the state of the city.
He said Oakland had seen more challenging budgetary situations and praised his management team.
"I don't feel that we are lacking at all," he said.
He did note that one of his top projects, getting a new football stadium built for the Oakland Raiders, remained a struggle. Blackwell said the stadium project faces a $500 million to $600 million shortfall that would have to be subsidized by additional development within the Coliseum complex. While he praised the city's business partners working on the deal, he said "there are a lot of things that can go wrong in a negotiation of that complexity."
In his first public appearance dealing with police issues, Blackwell last week defended the department as it released data showing that officers disproportionately stopped and searched blacks more than other races.
At a news conference, Blackwell noted the majority of victims and perpetrators of crimes in the city's most violent neighborhoods are minorities.
"The police department from a strategy point of view can't ignore that," he said.
Blackwell said he didn't learn to be suspicious of police at the Black Panther-run Oakland Community School he attended from kindergarten through second grade.
"It was probably the most supportive school environment that I had been in," he said. "There was a pretty constant articulation of high expectations of young people who attended that school."
Blackwell would like to keep his job even if Mayor Quan loses her re-election bid this November. He said his idea of a successful tenure would be for his hometown to be "acknowledged for being the great place that it really is."
His mother, on the other hand, has a more practical goal in mind. Blackwell said "she told me if I could make it so she could run out and get a pair of pantyhose without leaving the city, I'd be doing a good job."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435
Job: City Administrator, Oakland
Prior Jobs: Assistant City Administrator, Oakland; Executive Director, San Francisco Redevelopment Agency
Degrees: Urban Studies, Morehouse College; Masters, City and Regional Planning, UC Berkeley