The East Bay's many attractions should place it among this nation's most magnetic regions: stunning hilltop views of celebrated San Francisco Bay; one of the best urban park systems in the country; the large and quite beautiful campus of the University of California at Berkeley; an art-deco movie palace recently restored to mint condition; and a lively and varied street life.
Unfortunately, the East Bay -- the name given to the area comprised of Oakland, Berkeley and nearby cities -- has the misfortune to be located on the other side of San Francisco Bay from America's favorite city. It is also a misfortune for those travelers who neglect to visit the East Bay, which boosters call "the bright side of the bay" because of its superior weather.
Though Mark Twain quipped that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco, the new Rand McNally "Places Rated Almanac" judges Oakland's climate to be the nation's finest.
Visitors who venture across the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge to the other side can hike the Berkeley-Oakland hills (elevation 1,200 to 1,900 feet) and see the famous San Francisco skyline, often wreathed by fog. The more adventurous can go bird watching or even backpacking a few miles from downtown Oakland.
And all of this is possible without having to forgo the allure of California urban life -- its eclectic architecture, ethnic cuisine and street tableaux.
Although the East Bay has no official boundaries, it is generally thought to include those portions of Alameda and Contra Costa counties that lie between the Richmond and Dumbarton Bridges and west of the Berkeley-Oakland hills. This expanse -- about 35 miles long and varying from five to 10 miles wide -- includes five major cities (Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda and San Leandro) and an estimated population of 2 million. We explored the area recently, concentrating on Berkeley, Oakland and the "hills," with a foray south to the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
The Bay Area is a mecca for "vistaholics," and one of the best places for views in Tilden Regional Park.
One bright afternoon we hiked through forests of eucalyptus up over a sagebrush ridge to Peace Grove. Situated on a knoll, it afforded 360 degrees of impressive views, including San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge to the west, the Sacramento River Delta to the north, the Bay Bridge in the southeast foreground and Mount Diablo, an extinct volcano, inland to the east.
The plain stone monument -- dedicated quite simply to peace -- seemed aptly located. As we neared the top, hummingbirds flitted and dived ahead of us. On the summit the hiss of insects and the soft breeze emphasized the profound quiet of the setting. We contentedly sat and looked out over the bay and the hills for fully an hour before hiking back down.
Offering everything from wilderness trails to a petting zoo and steam train, Tilden exemplifies the broad scope of the East Bay Regional Park District. The core of the district's 60,000 acres was purchased in the 1930s, when the East Bay water utility found a new source in the Sierra Nevada and declared certain local reservoirs and adjacent lands to be surplus property.
Astonishingly -- it was in the midst of the Depression -- the residents of Alameda County (which contains Oakland and Berkeley) and adjacent Contra Costa County voted to tax themselves and buy the property rather than let it fall into the hands of developers. Although much of its acreage is located only minutes from urban centers, the park system protects towering redwoods and bay laurels, blacktailed deer and bobcats, even an occasional mountain lion.
The district's parks are laced with hiking trails, which range from short and easy to long and taxing. At some point nearly all of them present the hiker with a striking bay view.
Despite its proximity to civilization, the East Bay harbors a remarkable variety of wildlife, ranging from pygmy butterflies to Tule elk. Those interested in learning about these animals and many others should visit one of the few national centers for environmental education, the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Fremont, about 20 milessouth of downtown Oakland. It is, at 23,000 acres, the largest urban refuge in the nation.
On the day of our visit, naturalist John Steiner drove us in a creaky Land Rover along a dike separating marshy flats from the bay. Forster's terns skimmed the tidal ponds for water flies. Black-necked stilts scolded and performed the wounded-bird act to distract us from their young nesting in the muck nearby. In the distance thousands of sandpipers swooped over tidal ponds.
Steiner, an entomologist writing his thesis on butterflies, pointed out a pygmy blue perched inside the windshield, flexing its wings. Off to the left was the old Dumbarton Bridge, built in 1914 and closed a few years ago when the new one was completed; it will be reopened in October as a combination exhibit and fishing pier.
The wetlands, grouped around the southern reaches of the bay, provide habitat for a large variety of fish and wildlife species. Some, such as the California clapper rail and salt-marsh harvest mouse, are endangered species that depend entirely on tidal salt marshes for their existence. Three other endangered birds -- the California brown pelican, the least tern and peregrine falcon -- also frequent the refuge.
The bay's salt marshes have dwindled from 300 square miles a century ago to the present 60, some of which are now protected by the refuge. These marshes serve as essential feeding and breeding grounds for more than 200 species of waterfowl that commute along the Pacific Flyway. Ponds diked off for salt harvesting, to which much of the marshland was lost, are now themselves vital habitats for avocets, black-necked stilts and other birds that feed on the brine shrimp that abound there.
The Visitor Center, a striking wood-beamed loft perched on a ridge, affords panoramic views of the salt ponds and the south bay; inside are educational exhibits.
Later Steiner drove us to the southern tip of the bay, where the refuge's environmental education center is located. Nearby an enclosed observation tower stands above trails into the mud flats, where, in the more secluded marshes and sloughs, harbor seals give birth to their pups. Across the wide, diked-in slough, we could see the salty old cannery town of Alviso, one of the last of its breed, gradually sinking into a deflating aquifer.
The physical feature of Oakland that sets it apart from virtually every other city in the country is its downtown game refuge (the nation's first), located at Lake Merritt, 155 acres of tidal salt water in the heart of the city. habitat for sea gulls, egrets, pelicans, cormorants, Canada geese, coots, mallards and dozens of other waterfowl species. Though every foot of the 3.2-mile shoreline, bordered by stands of massive eucalyptus trees, is heavily used, the birds and people coexist smoothly.
In the 19th century the lake was the centerpiece for one of Oakland's most elegant neighborhoods. Today all the mansions are gone but one, the Italianate Victorian Camron-Stanford House, built in 1876 by Dr. Samuel Merritt, the Oakland mayor after whom the lake is named. The house is now a museum devoted to 19th-century period exhibits.
In place of the other great homes, the city has installed boathouses, an aviary in the form of a geodesic dome -- one of the first to be built in the United States -- a gazebo for band concerts and a small zoo within a children's park called Fairyland. The man who developed it for the city, William Penn Mott Jr., recently became director of the National Park Service.
If its many attractions were not sufficient, the lake's central location would ensure its popularity. A short walk from the downtown center and the Oakland Museum, the lake draws the lunch and office-jogger crowd on weekdays and leisurely picnickers, roller-disco dancers, fishermen and sailors on weekends. Until recently it also attracted drug dealers, but the increased presence of park rangers has sent them elsewhere.
The Oakland Museum, also known as the Museum of California, is actually three-in-one. The art collection features California artists: Last summer an array of Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" strips drew large crowds. The ecology collection's dioramas lead the viewer through a cross-section of northern California, from the bay through the Central Valley and gold country to the High Sierra.
The history collection tells the California story through a concatenation of outsized artifacts: a single-engine plane, early automobiles, a movie-palace box and an entire assay office from the Comstock Rush days. The collection's California Dream exhibits bring the story up-to-date. There is a street scene from Berkeley at the height of its '60s protest fervor, a wind-surfboard from the self-cultivating early '80s and even the very model of tent we have been pitching on our way west in the summer of 1985.
A few blocks west of the museum, Oakland's Chinatown makes up in authenticity for what it may lack in charm. The terrain is flat, the facades are nondescript, but the cuisine is inexpensive and very good. There are Chinese, Vietnamese and Laotian restaurants where outsiders might find themselves the only ones speaking English. Our discovery was Viet Huong, a Vietnamese restaurant on Franklin Avenue between Seventh and Eighth streets, where we lunched amply and spicily at just over $6 for two.
Also in the lake district, on Broadway between 20th and 21st, stands a monument to 20th-century glitter, the Paramount Theatre of the Arts. A spectacular example of the "Moderne" period, it was designed by San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger and built in 1931. The structure served almost continuously as a Fox theater until 1971, when it was acquired by the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association. Restoring the Paramount proved to be far less costly than building a proposed arts complex. The million-dollar renovation was completed only hours before the gala 1973 reopening, and the theater has housed the Oakland Symphony ever since.
A walk through the theater reveals an art-deco dreamscape. Pflueger integrated the profusion of leafy zigzag design and layers so characteristic of Moderne with natural and human figures, some depicting allegories from the movie world. In the entrance hall a huge translucent "fountain of light" sculpture swirls over an emerald-green cookie-cutter facade. None of the architectural features or appointments was changed in the restoration: The floriated tropical patterns of the carpets, curtains and mohair seats are exact copies of the originals. Most painstakingly restored was a muraled black-lacquer room that women once repaired to for a furtive smoke.
Laura Soble of the theater staff led us up the grand staircase to the lacquer room and upper foyer. Soble, who hopes to make a career in theater, was drawn almost irresistibly to the Paramount project. "Even the bathrooms are architectural marvels," she said, throwing open the door to the ladies' room after a cautious knock. And, with authentic period stonework and appointments, they were indeed.
The main auditorium features gold plasterwork walls -- which were restored by adding gold leaf highlights -- and a grilled ceiling with an elaborate indirect lighting scheme. The intricate side walls, covered with densely sculpted relief figures, seem to cascade toward the proscenium and stage, which are dominated by a huge Wurlitzer, also deco-styled. Four times a year there are "Mighty Wurlitzer" concerts, one with the symphony and another with a jazz ensemble.
"The East Bay is a highly literate community," says Andy Ross, owner of Cody's bookstore on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, a few blocks south of the University of California campus. "Everybody's got a PhD, even the carpenters."
Cody's 60,000 titles make it the largest seller of new books in the East Bay. (Two doors away stands Moe's, the largest used-book store.) Cody's also serves as a literary center, offering poetry readings every Wednesday night and author appearances by such luminaries as Joseph Heller, Susan Sontag and Jerzy Kosinski.
Telegraph, Berkeley's main north-south artery, became famous in the '60s for its street life. Although the carnival of street performers has abated, the scene is still lively. "The old street people have mostly been replaced by a new professional class of panhandlers," bemoans a longtime observer.
Fixtures like the espresso cafe's are still flourishing, and the barter economy is alive and well, but the frozen yogurt culture is encroaching. "What you are seeing is the cultification of Telegraph Avenue," a friend says. Maybe, but much of the old milieu survives.
One afternoon we took a walk down Telegraph from the U.C. campus. We browsed for used records in Rasputin's, window-shopped a comic-book store, hit Cody's for a book-purchasing binge and thumbed through our purchases over cups of espresso in the Cafe' Mediterraneo. Outside, Julia Vinograd, a poet and street personage who dresses as if the '60s had never died, drew a small crowd simply by blowing bubbles.
There may be more cookie and yogurt parlors per capita on Telegraph than anywhere else, we reflected, but there are also more bookshops of every kind. Enough of the old mix of political, artistic and intellectual ferment has survived to make the nickname "Berserkeley" still seem apt.
Modeled after the campanile at St. Mark's in Venice, Sather Tower rises high above the hilly U.C. campus, one of the nation's most beautiful. The campus climbs in a long rectangle from downtown Berkeley right up into the high Berkeley hills. Students whose dorms are at this end of the campus begin their day with grand views of San Francisco Bay as they walk toward class. Returning to the dorms, the view is the mostly undeveloped hills that are a backdrop to Berkeley.
The variety and density of foliage at the university make it as much a lush garden spot as a campus. There is a eucalyptus grove near the main gate with trees more than 200 feet high. Brooks flow past banks of laurel and under winding walkways.
The campus boasts an excellent museum and observatory, and there are perhaps a dozen exhibits scattered around at any given time. Above the stately eclecticism of the older campus, newer research facilities, notably the Lawrence Hall of Science, crowd up into the Berkeley hills.
If a single institution can symbolize Berkeley's unorthodoxy, perhaps it is the dog run, a grassy acre in Ohlone Park where canines can run wild. Since its establishment in 1979, the plot has become so popular among pet owners that Oakland may soon set aside one of its own. Berkeleyites may take some things too seriously, but the dog park -- where you might stumble upon a canine birthday party completely with hats and favors -- is a place where frivolity holds sway.
The East Bay is a far-flung region and, of necessity, we've had to leave out entire cities -- such as Richmond, which has its own raffish port district. But BART, the Bay Area's subway, knits the east side together, and an indefatigable traveler could visit many of the sites we've mentioned in a single, marathon day.
But why do that? One of the East Bay's advantages over its more famous neighbor is the slower pace. Take two days. Take a sunny hike into the hills for a picnic. Idle away an afternoon sitting in a cafe' or browsing in bookshops. Be glad you aren't shivering or looking for a parking space in San Francisco.