He’s Still Neutral

Roman Mars:
Criminal is a member of Radiotopia, and probably my favorite podcast depending on the moment you’re asking me. And we’re presenting a story from them today because it’s one of their best and most popular episodes. And also, in terms of subject, it’s the best episode of 99% Invisible that we never made.

Roman Mars:
It takes place in Oakland. It’s about the built world, liminal spaces and a statue that fights crime. It was originally broadcast in 2015, but updated in 2019, including an interview with our own Kurt Kohlstedt. It’s just delightful. It’s called “He’s Still Neutral”. Here’s Criminal.

Dan Stevenson:
We’ve had muggings in this neighborhood. We’ve had muggings and aggressive behavior, aggravated assaults and all kinds of things over the years here. So it is an issue for lots of people. Maybe like five or six years ago, the community group gave everybody whistles in case somebody, especially women or something, were accosted or somebody was following them. They’d just have to blow their whistle and alert other people that something was up.

Phoebe Judge:
This is Dan Stevenson. He and his wife Lu have lived in Oakland, California for 40 years. They live in a two-story purple Victorian in a neighborhood called East Lake. He says that crime’s been an issue there for as long as he can remember. But when you live in a city long enough, you just learn to deal with it.

Dan Stevenson:
A couple of times some guys tried to get my wallet, just city stuff that once you live in the city long enough, you’ve got to at least be accosted a couple of times or you’re not there. Once you know everybody’s position, as you go outside, you know who they are, and where they are, and what they do, there was no hassle.

Phoebe Judge:
So once you knew that the drug dealer was a drug dealer, you just went about your business, and he did his business and you did yours.

Dan Stevenson:
That’s correct. Yeah.

Phoebe Judge:
And you just stayed out of each other’s way?

Dan Stevenson:
Right. I mean, I wouldn’t call the police.

Phoebe Judge:
Why?

Dan Stevenson:
Well, first of all, I don’t trust the police. I probably trust a drug dealer more than I trust a cop. So that’s part of it. Part of it has to do with the times I have called the police. They just don’t seem to be able to come in and do it in a common-sensical way. They they have to come in like an army or something over somebody selling drugs. I don’t really care about that.

Phoebe Judge:
It’s one thing not to call the cops when you suspect the guy down the block might be selling drugs, but it’s another thing when there’s a man right outside your bedroom window at 3AM. This is what happened to Dan and Lu about five years ago.

Dan Stevenson:
My wife was here and we went to bed. About 3AM, she nudges me and says, “There’s somebody on the deck.”

Phoebe Judge:
Dan says he actually built a special deck to keep random people from wandering up there. There are no stairs. You have to climb partly up a tree and then lift yourself up over the railing.

Dan Stevenson:
So I get up and I look out and sure enough, there’s a guy on the deck. And so, I yell through the door and tell him to get off the f**ing deck, and he kind of is totally gone. I mean, the exchange we had was, like this guy was strung out on something big time, and he was just out to lunch.

Dan Stevenson:
So my wife wanted me to call the police, but I thought, if I call the police, they’re going to come … This guy’s just screwed up. It’s not a… He’s of no danger that I could see. He didn’t have any weapons or anything. He was just out of it. So we started to talk …

Phoebe Judge:
It took Dan 45 minutes, but he talked the guy down. Nobody got hurt. If he had gone the official route with the cops, he says it would have been a real pain.

Dan Stevenson:
And then I’d have been up for another two hours filling out reports with them. Within 45 minutes, I was back asleep, and it was all good.

Phoebe Judge:
But even this guy, the most patient live-and-let-live guy in the neighborhood, eventually hit his limit. And when he got fed up, he did something desperate, something that makes absolutely no sense to anyone, maybe least of all to Dan himself.

Phoebe Judge:
I’m Phoebe Judge. This is Criminal.

Phoebe Judge:
What wound up pushing Dan over the edge wasn’t drug dealers or sex workers, it was garbage. A gigantic pile of garbage. The city put in a traffic diverter across the street from their house. It’s about 500 feet from their front door.

Dan Stevenson:
A concrete divide with a space in the middle with trees, and nobody took care of it.

Phoebe Judge:
Nobody took care of it, and so it became a de facto garbage dump.

Dan Stevenson:
People that were moving decided that that would be a place to move anything they didn’t want to take with them. So the stack could be like six, eight feet high sometimes with dressers, mattresses, and garbage, and bags of crap, and clothing. I mean, just intense.

Dan Stevenson:
And it’s been a big problem with Oakland for years all over the place. Somebody will dump whatever they have in your front yard if you’re not careful.

Phoebe Judge:
Dan says he’d watch trucks pull up at night and unload mountains of furniture and garbage. And he called the city. And called. And called. And called.

Phoebe Judge:
So you would wake up in the morning sometimes to like an eight-foot pile of crap?

Dan Stevenson:
Yeah. Yeah. And if the city didn’t come fast enough, it could get higher, because… it’s like a magnet. Once you’ve got a stack of stuff, other people think, “Oh, there’s an idea,” and they keep stacking it.

Phoebe Judge:
So what did you decide to do about it?

Dan Stevenson:
Well, that is a good question. Lu and I discussed this for quite some time, and we came up with the idea of a Buddha – to put a Buddha there.

Phoebe Judge:
Are you Buddhist?

Dan Stevenson:
No, we have nothing to do with Buddhism at all.

Phoebe Judge:
But you figured if there’s one thing that might help here, it’s Buddha?

Dan Stevenson:
Well, yeah, because he’s neutral. I mean, if we through Christ up there, he’s controversial. Everybody’s got a deal about him. But Buddha, nobody seems to be that perturbed in general about a Buddha.

Phoebe Judge:
So Dan and Lu had made up their minds, and it turns out they had a lot of options.

Dan Stevenson:
We’d looked at the different ones and she picked out one that she liked the face. Because they come out of a concrete cast, so some of them look more mellow than others.

Phoebe Judge:
Lu went off to Ace Hardware and picked one out.

Dan Stevenson:
Which she brought home, and I liked him. He looked cool to me. And then he sat in the basement for about three or four months because I couldn’t figure out a way to put him over there without having him stolen or ruined. And those things would have really pissed me off.

Dan Stevenson:
So finally I came up with a plan, and I drilled into him and put a epoxied rebar into his body, and I fixed the Buddha so he’d be looking at our house. In fact, looking through the window where I could look at him. So when I’d get up in the morning and have my coffee, I could look over and see how he was doing.

Phoebe Judge:
Wait, are you allowed to do this? It feels like this is breaking some sort of city code.

Dan Stevenson:
Oh, allowed? That’s another thing. It’s best not to ask before you do things because it’s always, no. You kind of just do it and, um, see what happens.

Phoebe Judge:
Dan didn’t tell his neighbors about his plan. He dragged some extension cords from his house and used a drill to affix the Buddha to a slab of concrete. And that was it.

Dan Stevenson:
And there he was. It’s like a surprise. And he just sat there.

Phoebe Judge:
How long before something happened?

Dan Stevenson:
It was probably about maybe four months or something of him just sitting there being concrete. But one morning, I wake up and look over, and Buddha’s white. Somebody’s come and painted him a soft white.

Phoebe Judge:
This was, someone had kind of carefully done this on purpose.

Dan Stevenson:
Oh, very carefully. I mean there’s no paint around him or anything. I mean, strictly, whoever did it took care in painting. And I thought, “That’s interesting.” And then after that, he’d have an orange, and pretty soon two oranges, and maybe a pear.

Phoebe Judge:
Just as mysteriously as Dan had installed the statue, people began leaving little gifts, oranges, or coins. One day, he said he came home from work and there was a big stack of pears, and he had no idea where they were coming from or what they represented.

Dan Stevenson:
I assume now, because of what has happened, that the Vietnamese community decided that he needs to be cared for. And from there, it just grew to where it is today, which is a total shrine.

Phoebe Judge:
Yeah. Will you describe what the Buddha looks like right now?

Dan Stevenson:
Well, the Buddha now is upgraded considerably. I mean he’s gold now, and his eyes are painted in, and he just … he’s got gold-draped clothing. And he’s just really top drawer, cool looking Buddha. I mean, he’s come a long ways in terms of his dress. Now he sits on kind of a rock pedestal kind of thing that’s granite or something. And then he has a house that you could probably live in if you were a single person, and small.

Phoebe Judge:
The house is now around Buddha, so Buddha’s protected from the rain and such?

Dan Stevenson:
Oh, yeah. And so, if you wanted to pray there, which they do constantly, you just slip inside the little building and you kneel down, and Buddha’s there. And he’s got other friends of Buddha’s, and there’s a big Quan Yin outside, which is the goddess of mercy.

Phoebe Judge:
But what do you mean “when they come to pray”? Who’s coming there? Do people come there often?

Dan Stevenson:
Every morning at 7AM, they pray. And they have this little clacker thing. They have a little … it’s like a little drum that goes, “Clack, clack, clack, clack, clack, clack, clack, clack, clack.”

Dan Stevenson:
And sometimes they’ll set up tables and have a feast. They put out food and all these people come, and they pray and they go through that, and then they eat and they have a kind of a community.

Phoebe Judge:
Do you ever go out and introduce yourself?

Dan Stevenson:
Oh, they know who I am.

Phoebe Judge:
So they know that you are the man who brought the Buddha from Ace Hardware in 2009?

Dan Stevenson:
And there lies the problem. Yes, because at every feast day, they bring over a stack of food, and fruit, and wine, and a bottle of whiskey one time. Just presents for…

Phoebe Judge:
To thank you.

Dan Stevenson:
Yes. Yeah. And I keep telling them, “Thanks a lot, but there’s only Lu and I, and we can’t eat all this stuff…”

Phoebe Judge:
But these aren’t your neighbors bringing over food, these are people who are coming to visit Buddha from other neighborhoods and appreciating what you started?

Dan Stevenson:
Yes. And they all bow. And none of them speak English, so I bow, and we all bow. It’s embarrassing kind of for me because I don’t even know what they’re thinking. But I keep trying to tell them that it’s their Buddha, and good luck with him, and adios. But they don’t kind of go for that.

Phoebe Judge:
How many people are coming? How many people are coming on a daily basis, would you say, to see the Buddha?

Dan Stevenson:
Oh, at least 70.

Phoebe Judge:
A day?

Dan Stevenson:
A day, yeah. And then there’s also the (laughs) tourist thing. They’ll knock on my door, and they’re from Minneapolis and somebody on Facebook posted something… They want to take my picture with them in front of the Buddha. It’s just, for me, as cynical as I am, this is like, what is happening?

Phoebe Judge:
Remember, Dan and Lu put the Buddha up as a sort of desperate shot in the dark, a truly random attempt to curtail dumping and crime, and he accidentally created a sacred place for members of Oakland’s Vietnamese Buddhist community. But that’s not the end of the story.

Dan Stevenson:
Oh, the crime has pretty much disappeared in a sense. The drug dealing definitely is gone, and so is the prostitution. I mean, there’s none, zero, within quite a distance from our area now. But it’s a slow process that I didn’t really notice happening, and didn’t even think of it in those terms until I read it in the paper.

Phoebe Judge:
In September, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle did a story on Dan and the Buddha, and asked the Oakland Police Department for the updated crime statistics for the neighborhood. Here’s what he wrote: “Since 2012, when worshipers began showing up for daily prayers, overall year-to-date crime has dropped by 82%.”

Phoebe Judge:
I mean, I think we all have some respect for religious symbols, whether it’s the religion that we ascribe to, whether we ascribe to a religion at all. I mean, there’s something rather sacred about things like this.

Dan Stevenson:
Well, I agree. And I don’t know if it’s superstition or whether Buddha says, “Don’t f**k with this,” or what. I have no idea. But it works. So you’re right. I think people do have a feeling of either respect or fear. I don’t know.

Phoebe Judge:
I guess it doesn’t matter. Crime is down 82%.

Dan Stevenson:
I guess it doesn’t.

Phoebe Judge:
I spoke with Dan Stevenson in 2015. In the past four years, things have only gotten bigger at the Buddha. It’s all thanks to one Vietnamese family.

Phoebe Judge:
Here’s Vina Vo and her husband with some translation help from their son, Cuc Vo.

Vina Vo:
Every day and morning – 7 o’clock every day, and 4 o’clock. One day, two times – 7 o’clock and 4 o’clock. 6 o’clock, I go home. Every day. I make over here and make my husband make over here.

Cuc Vo:
My dad says, all thanks to Dan here, we can have a peaceful shrine here and make the neighbors calm down a little bit. And so we can have a peaceful mindness and tranquility.

Phoebe Judge:
Vina says some mornings she arrives to find that other people have brought new incense and fresh flowers. She says it’s a peaceful place. If you’d like to visit yourself, it’s easy to find these days. The Buddha is on Google Maps. Just search for “the Buddha of Oakland.” It even has reviews. One says, “Best Buddha.”

Dan Stevenson:
This is beyond my wildest thought pattern. I just couldn’t … I wouldn’t even fathom it at that time.

Phoebe Judge:
We called Dan last week to see what was new.

Dan Stevenson:
It’s insane in terms of what has happened to a concrete garden Buddha which was just on the shelf with a whole bunch of other Buddhas, all just sitting there in the nursery. And different things have happened along the way, like cars will miss the corner or something and hit something, or there’s been some vandalism over the years.

Dan Stevenson:
But every time anything happens, the response is they make it bigger. It used to be just a small one little building, and then it’s two, and then somebody tried … they broke a statue or something. So then it’s three, and then four. And then there’s a little shed, I guess you’d call it a shed, but a little side building where I understand that the guy in that building is the god of war or god of protection, or god of somebody, that has done a pretty good job since they put him in to keep things calm.

Phoebe Judge:
Do you ever sit back and think to yourself, “Well, that was really something, that was quite an idea I had”?

Dan Stevenson:
Well, Lu and I had the idea. Neither one of us expected much of anything, except maybe it would shift the garbage. And it did that. But then this has been outrageous.

Dan Stevenson:
Do you still have anybody knocking on your door, coming and saying, “Hi, are you the guy? Are you the famous Dan that put up the Buddha”?

Dan Stevenson:
I pretty much get that, not a whole lot, but more than I would expect at this point in time. And also people stopping me on the streets, somehow they’ve … and not even close to my house, and they have a reference point. Or somebody in some business someplace will recognize me, I don’t even know where they find that information out, to tell you the truth, or how they figured it’s me, but they do.

Dan Stevenson:
And I guess it’s nice. To me, I put the Buddha in, and I’m done. The rest of this is somebody else’s work. So I helped start it, and Lu and I had lots of discussions before we did it because she’s much more positive than I am. So I always look at how they’re going to wreck it as opposed to the possibilities, and she’s much more of a possibility person.

Phoebe Judge:
You know, she was right.

Dan Stevenson:
Yeah. (Chuckles) She definitely … Well, she’s right on a lot of things, not just the Buddha. We spend a lot of time talking spirituality and the greater things, and she’s pretty much on the mark on most of it. Way Ahead of me, just way ahead of me. She’s much more positive.

Phoebe Judge:
This is one of our … We have 119 episodes, and this is one of our most popular episodes ever.

Dan Stevenson:
Wow.

Phoebe Judge:
Why do you think this story gets to people?

Dan Stevenson:
Well, I would say that it’s positive. It’s a positive story of actually hope. I mean, it truly blows my mind that it exists in the world that we live in. It’s just like, it’s almost counter to everything that I hear constantly. But it’s not really, because it’s happening everywhere. It’s just that we only hear the bad parts most of the time.

Dan Stevenson:
So it’s just kind of a giving thing. The people that are involved with it are … I mean, they give, it’s a giving of their beliefs and their stuff. And people that come just respect that. I mean, we now have certain … I haven’t kept track of it, but there’s tour buses now that come to visit. And here’s this huge bus coming, trying to get through the streets, they’re rather smallish in terms of buses, to drop people off to take photos and stuff. It’s impressive. I never realized how something like this could be this, you know? I mean, it certainly inspires people to better things I think.

Phoebe Judge:
Anything else going on in your life?

Dan Stevenson:
(Laughs) Too much to mention! I keep busy all the time.

Comments (5)

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  1. Paul Kniha

    Thank you for a very interesting episode. When we moved to our home at the end of the street in Oakland, there was an old sign that looked very depressing and said END on it. No one the block liked it, so I “vandalized” it — i gave it a fresh coat of yellow paint and changed the message to say “HOME” instead. Now when we arrive, we know that we are home, not at the end. I don’t think it changed the crime stats, but we had 4 families who moved in on our block since then, and I see people taking pictures with the sign like once a week.

  2. Renee

    I went to visit the Oakland Buddha this weekend. It’s a peaceful quiet little corner. What a delight.

    As I’ve walked around my own neighborhood since listening to this episode, I’ve been noting the corners and pockets that could use a little guerrilla art intervention. Thanks for the inspiration!

  3. Chris Camfield

    Thank you for adding additional context about Vino Vo on the website.

    To be honest, the fact that the people who have erected and care for these shrines don’t play a larger role in this episode bothers me immensely. How important are the shrines to the community? Do they have access to a larger shrine or temple, or did Dan’s Buddha create a location for worship that they didn’t have previously?

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