In Jingletown: Who needs City Hall when you’ve got Cynthia Elliott?
on December 1, 2023
“I’m a mechanic,” explains Cynthia Elliott, reclining in her chair and propping her feet on her office desk. A TV episode from the 1960s show “Wagon Train” plays in the background and drawings of human anatomy hang on the wall behind her. She continues, “I approach everything as: What’s broken and how do we fix it?”
Elliott is not talking about her day job running an exercise equipment repair service. She is describing the after-hours work that has made her the most recognized face in Jingletown, a pocket neighborhood running along the Oakland estuary. Jingletown is a mixture of industrial warehouses, single-family homes, artists’ lofts and live-work spaces. Elliott, who has lived there since 2002, serves as a cross between neighborhood trouble-shooter and therapist. Many regard her as the unofficial mayor of Jingletown.
Every day from 5 to 6 p.m., Elliott sits on the same bench along the estuary waterfront near Lancaster Street. She calls these her “office hours,” where she does what she can to fill the city’s shortcomings in everything from trash pickups to policing. Residents know where to find her, and they come, sometimes as many as 10 per day, bringing concerns about crime, traffic, abandoned vehicles and even ideas for beautification projects. Elliott listens carefully while throwing a ball to Dodger, her black Labrador retriever.
Although she has never held an elected office, Elliott is not without political experience. From 2018 to 2019 she worked for Councilman Noel Gallo doing homeless outreach. But her political savvy and skill at operating outside of official channels are self-taught. She attributes her ability to listen and compromise to growing up in a large Mexican American family.
“I always ask myself, ‘How can everyone get a little bit of what they need?'” She grins and adds: “We guerilla a lot of stuff here, too.”
In September, after five warehouse burglaries in Jingletown, Elliott and the Jingletown Arts and Business Association held their own public safety meeting. According to Elliot, residents of Jingletown rarely call the police for property crimes, as police often do not show up for a day or two. In an email to Oakland North, an Oakland Police Department spokesperson said they encourage community members to report crimes but acknowledged that responses to non-violent incidents may be slower than to violent ones.
Thwarting a burglary
At the public safety meeting, residents created their own improvised 911 system — a Slack messaging channel to report crime. They agreed to take turns monitoring and checking it daily. If a neighbor witnesses a crime in process, they report it in Slack. Those monitoring the channel then take turns calling the police until someone gets through.
One night in September, a neighbor saw people breaking into a warehouse, posted to Slack and phoned the Police Department, where he said he was kept on hold for close to 30 minutes. Elliott saw the Slack message immediately and phoned the warehouse owner, the Oakland Museum. The museum sent its own security, interrupting the burglary and thwarting the thieves.
Elliot has also recently spearheaded the “Derby Traffic Calming Project.” For months earlier this year Jingletown had been plagued by sideshows — illegal street gatherings where car enthusiasts perform disruptive and often dangerous car stunts. Elliott and a small group of other Jingletowners devised a simple but effective solution: They strung a sturdy chain and a padlock between two planters marking the entrance to two sideshow gathering spots. It has drastically reduced the incidence of sideshows. Now residents unlock the chains in the morning, allowing cars and trucks to pass during the day. At night, they lock up and kids come to play basketball on the street.
“She is the glue that keeps us all together,” said Jan Watton, owner of Gray Loft gallery. “She keeps us meeting, with all of her different community projects. She really is instrumental. She’s soft-spoken about it, but everyone loves her. She’s our O.G.”
Now 70 years old, Elliot is looking to share some of her responsibilities. “I keep saying, what if I’m driving along on the freeway and get into a fiery crash? Then what?”
Elliot knows that she can’t remain in her Jingletown live-work space forever. Her unit has steep stairs and her knees are already giving her trouble. Many of her friends have already retired to Mexico, where money stretches further. Still, she’d hate to leave. She’d miss the family feel of the neighborhood. She’d miss riding her bike along the channel and happening upon art shows in her building. She’d miss that feeling of knowing everyone around her. She’d miss being the mayor, unofficially.
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