Sitting across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, Oakland is a bit of an unruly kid brother, smaller, rebellious and trying hard to be noticed.
When questioned, friends arch their eyebrows in wonder: Why Oakland?
Well, take a look at the Fox Theater and tell me. Wouldn’t you make the trip just for this magnificent building?
Historical preservation is serious business in Oakland. The Fox was almost torn down in the 1970s to build a parking lot but sanity prevailed, ensuring the survival of this Art Deco jewel. If like me you love the past you’ll enjoy the (far too small) cluster of 1870-1911 Victorian buildings in Preservation Park, an enclave now used mostly for meetings and conferences.
Oakland, against all odds, is blooming into a city of the arts. Its more frequented streets are dotted with brightly painted twisted metal sculptures and lined with vibrant murals and art galleries, signaling a hip, progressive 21st century city that very much cares about how it is perceived.
My day in Oakland began as all good days should, with the pungent aroma of a double espresso, the only kind they make at Awaken, a self-styled ‘community café’ where coffee comes with soul, technology and art – and a roomful of well-dressed tech consultants who use it as their office.
“We engage with the community here,” said Judy Fliris, one of Awaken’s managers, raising her voice above the tapping on laptop keyboards. “We encourage interaction, not transaction, and try hard to book local talent and to employ locals.”
And local is what Oakland is all about: extracting its individuality from the behemoth that is San Francisco across the Bay.
As I was leaving Awaken, I crossed a man wearing a lanyard with a single word on it: Poet. Who walks around like that?
Bryant Cross, that’s who, along with some 200 other poets from 73 US cities, all visiting Oakland for something called the 2014 National Poetry Slam.
“I’m from Chicago and came here just for this,” said Bryant. “The poetry community here is very strong. Poetry is all about truth and people and Oakland has captured this spirit perfectly.”
Oakland packs plenty of history
Oakland was an early transport hub on the West Coast and attracted immigrants from many lands to work on the docks and railways of the 19th century. By the early 20th century blacks from the South would arrive in huge numbers, establishing a thriving community in what eventually became California’s African American heartland, the ‘Harlem of the West’.
The city has given birth to some pretty impressive names – MC Hammer, the Pointer Sisters, and of course the Black Panthers, whose Ten-Point Program was drafted in an Oakland bungalow nearly half a century ago.
Gentrification and price hikes are changing the city’s makeup: young professionals are converting factories into condos, fixing up Victorian houses, or opening studios and urban eateries. Artists are acquiring lofts and homes they couldn’t dream of affording in San Francisco.
Many of these newcomers are linked to high-tech industries which are only too happy to pay $2 per square foot of office space compared with the $16 across the bay. Oakland is, after all, home to the likes of Google and Twitter.
There are those, especially longer-term residents, who fear Oakland’s character will be lost in the transition, but like any vibrant city, it grows and changes. For many new arrivals, the changes are what makes Oakland so attractive.
Not even the high crime rate is a deterrent and according to mayor Jean Quan, downtown crime in Oakland is no worse than in downtown San Francisco.
“If you’re staying away from Oakland because you are afraid of the crime, that’s not a reason anymore,” she told a meeting organized by the San Francisco Business Times in January. “When people ask what’s going on in Oakland I say jobs are up and crime is down.”
It’s all a matter of interpretation.
Violent crime has fallen, but it’s a bit of a rollercoaster, down one year and up the next. And don’t forget, crime varies wildly from one neighborhood to the next.
Still, for those who live or work here, there’s a new Oakland in the air. Most people agree that downtown, some of the better residential areas, and parts of trendy Temiscal are perfectly safe – at least in daytime. They also agree that walking around at night, especially on your own or if you’re a stranger to town, is not a good idea.
What is a good idea is to take the time to get yourself away from the streets and into… this.
After nearly three weeks on the coast of California, I was still desperate to see my first redwood so Oakland, thank you for this little forest, a patch of peace where dogwalkers, children, hikers and bikers all share the serenity.
Not even the dogs break the silence.
So do yourself a favor. Next time you’re in San Francisco, hop across the bay and have a double espresso at Awaken for me.
And if anyone asks why you’re visiting Oakland, give them a knowing smile and tell them, “It deserves a second chance.”
All photos by Anne Sterck unless otherwise noted.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- It’s a ten-minute (noisy) BART subway ride from San Francisco’s Embarcadero to 12th Street in Central Oakland. But be forewarned, getting around by public transportation – although possible – isn’t easy. There’s a (clunky) transportation site with schedules and maps, or call 511 and say ‘AC Transit’ to speak to a real human during office hours.
- Awaken is right around the corner from the 12th St. subway station.
- Note my advice above: go in daytime, don’t wander around on your own at night. Common sense in a big city.
- On the first Friday evening of every month, part of Telegraph Avenue is shut to traffic and art galleries are open (as opposed to by appointment only). Food vendors set up shop, music goes live and everyone gathers for a big, happy street fest.
- If you’re really, really anxious to know more about crime in almost real-time, visit Crimespotting.