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Visiting Oakland: Does It Get a Second Chance?

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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?

Art Deco Fox, Oakland

The Fox Theater’s Indian and Middle Eastern influence was typical of the Art Deco era (it was built in 1928)

Art Deco Paramount Oakland

The Fox Theater is only one of Oakland’s great Art Deco venues; another is the landmark Paramount Theater (photo Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Preservation Park

Preservation Park 

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.

Street mural in Oakland

Even the dullest corner of Oakland is brightened by creative street art

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.

Bryant Cross

Bryant Cross

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.

Black panthers mural Oakland

Harking back to the Black Panthers

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.

Telegraph Avenue Oakland

Telegraph Avenue in Temiscal is changing fast

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.

Oakland redwoods regional park

They may not be California’s largest redwoods, but Redwood Regional Park is almost right downtown

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.

Dog-walking among redwoods in Oakland

Matt and Sharon from Outbound Hounz keep their charges almost at attention. (How do they DO that? Perhaps they could try it on my two disobedient hounds…)

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.


  1. Amanda on September 12, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    Nice read about Oakland, thanks! 🙂

  2. Kimberly on September 12, 2014 at 10:53 pm

    Lovely article about Oakland. Just goes to show if you can set aside the outdated stigma you can see a lot of beauty and appreciate a wonderfully rich heritage. Preservation Park looks really neat and Redwood Regional Park…gorgeous! I wasn’t even aware that Oakland had something like that. Thank you for a very informative, thoughtful article.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on September 13, 2014 at 12:48 pm

      Thanks Kimberly – and it also goes to show that when you come at something fresh, without any preconceived notions, you can also see things differently. This was my first time, I wasn’t aware of its reputation, and both things contributed to my seeing it in ‘discovery mode’.

  3. Andi on September 13, 2014 at 1:01 am

    Oakland definitely doesn’t always get a fair shake. The food alone is what keeps me coming back from more! I have been both the art deco theatres and they are fab!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on September 13, 2014 at 12:46 pm

      Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that some of these cities were considered so blighted old buildings weren’t even worth razing. I’m not sure that was the case with Oakland but it’s unusual to have Art Deco remain standing nearly 100 years later…

  4. Elaine J.Masters on March 2, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    Good tips about Oakland. I lived there decades ago near Lake Merritt & with street savy so enjoyed the architecture, shops & museums. Looking forward to returning one day to see more.

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