Poor Oakland. California's eighth-largest city has long been the state's forgotten stepchild, crouched in the shadow of a glam sister in a sequined dress (San Francisco) and an ambitious brother with a great career in software (Silicon Valley). Oakland is a place more often defined by what it's not--"There is no there there," in Oakland native Gertrude Stein's famous phrase. The description has stuck to the town like a custard pie in the face. Even the way the Bay Bridge between Oakland and San Francisco is administered subtly disses the smaller town--it's free to drive into Oakland, but going into San Francisco costs two bucks.
Adding injury to insult, the forces of nature seem to conspire against Oakland. Most of the people killed in the 1989 Bay Area earthquake died in Oakland when the city's double-decked Cypress Freeway collapsed. Two years later, a huge fire swept through the Oakland hills, killing 14 people, destroying more than 1,000 homes and leaving natives to wonder whether their town was jinxed.
But lately there are encouraging rumbles, and they don't appear to be earthquakes. High-tech companies, priced out of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, have recently migrated to Oakland, joining a growing number of artists and musicians. In January, former California governor Jerry Brown was sworn in as the city's new mayor, promising to usher in nothing less than an urban renaissance.
"Oakland is very overlooked as a place to visit because of San Francisco," says Mayor Brown. "But Oakland is real. It's gritty. It's blue collar. San Francisco is more a package tour."
While the "We're a real town" defense is frequently the last refuge of cities with little else to claim, Brown's argument has some merit. Oakland residents display a small-town friendliness that stands in marked contrast to the behavior of its neighbors. Ask an Oaklander for directions and he's likely to ask you where you're from; ask a San Franciscan and he'll pretend not to know; ask a Silicon Valley resident and he'll try to sell you navigational software. Oakland's nearly 400,000 residents--43 percent black,14 percent Asian, 13 percent Hispanic--make up one of the most racially diverse communities in the country. And Oakland's weather-- reliably sunny and temperate year-round--is far more hospitable than San Francisco's often bitingly chilly fogs.
While there may never be a song about leaving your heart in Oakland--and few right-thinking Easterners would plan a trip just to visit Oakland--the city does have its distinctive charms. Here are nine reasons why, on your next visit to the Bay Area, you should consider crossing the bridge and visiting the Other City by the Bay.
1. Hoist a glass to Jack London. Jack London used to frequent the Oakland docks at the turn of the century, so what better way to honor the author of "Call of the Wild" than to build Jack London Square, a soulless retail compound littered with chains like TGI Friday's, Tony Roma's and Barnes and Noble? Skip the square's ersatz history and check out the area's only genuine article at Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon, an authentic 1883 watering hole where Jack London was a regular. The building, built from the timbers of an old whaling ship, is small, dimly lit by gas lights and packed with nautical curios. Tattered paper currency hangs from the ceiling, attached by soldiers who wanted ready cash for a drink upon their return. The floor of the bar is actually tilted, caused when the 1906 earthquake shifted the pilings underneath the saloon. Heinold's may be the only watering hole in the world where people stagger to the bar before they've even had a drink.
Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon, 56 Jack London Sq., 510-839-6761.
2. Browse a museum of print. Most cities these days have at least one mega-newsstand, a tastefully appointed store where you can buy the French edition Vogue and sip a cappuccino in the adjoining cafe. DeLauer's newsstand, on the other hand, is the antithesis of the modern yuppie reading room. Founded in 1907, DeLauer's is more than a newsstand, it's a museum of print, a holdover from an ink-stained era when newspapers were king and a cup of coffee was a nickel. The store has the usual array of foreign and domestic newspapers and magazines and then goes a step further with a mad jumble of true-crime publications, bodice-ripper novels, literary classics, racing forms and a selection of cheap, stinky cigars. There aren't many places where you can find the latest issue of Combat Guns Monthly sitting on a shelf opposite a copy of "The Iliad." The news never sleeps and neither does DeLauer's--it's open 24 hours, perfect when the 3 a.m. news jones hits.
DeLauer's, 1310 Broadway, 510-451-6157.
3. Revisit Hollywood's golden era. Even among restored movie houses, Oakland's Paramount Theatre is a stunner. The 1931 art deco building is a true movie palace, featuring lavish glass sculptures and walls festooned with bas-reliefs of cavorting maidens and warriors. Even the bathrooms at the Paramount are a treat, embellished with deco fixtures. Doors open 45 minutes before the show, giving you time to belly up to the bar and gaze open-mouthed at the opulent surroundings. Half an hour before the film, an organist sitting behind a Wurlitzer rises to stage level and begins to crank out tunes. Most of the films shown at the theater are Hollywood classics ("Casablanca," "Breakfast at Tiffany's") and are preceded by a newsreel, cartoon and the theater's cheesy giveaway game, Dec-O-Win--all for only $5. Films are usually shown weekends only; guided tours of the theater are available on the first and third Saturdays of each month at 10 a.m. for $1.
Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, 510-465-6400.
4. Get the blues. While the "San Francisco sound"--led by groups such as Jefferson Airplane--has come and gone, Oakland's indigenous music, the blues, keeps rolling along. The blues made their way to Oakland during World War II when a large number of African Americans from the South and Texas came to work in the East Bay shipyards. The Oakland sound emerged as a spare, country-style blues, often punctuated by smoky, woe-filled vocals. In the 1950s, Oakland produced blues legends such as Charles Brown (whose hits include "Merry Christmas Baby") and band leader Johnny Otis. When most of the big names in blues roll through Oakland, they play at Yoshi's, a combination Japanese restaurant and upscale jazz house. But to get a feeling for the gritty roots of Oakland blues, check out Eli's Mile High Club, a smoky honky-tonk roadhouse that bills itself as the "home of West Coast blues." Eli's draws a diverse crowd, ranging from college students from nearby Berkeley to old timers who play a little blues themselves. Don't be surprised if the grizzled guy standing next to you suddenly takes the stage and starts playing a mean harmonica.
Yoshi's, 510 Embarcadero West, 510-238-9200.
Eli's Mile High Club, 3629 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, 510-655-6661.
5. Stroll small-town streets. When the big city starts feeling too big, head to Rockridge, one of Oakland's most agreeable neighborhoods. Charming without being precious, Rockridge feels more like a small town than a part of a large city. Take a walk along the main commercial strip, College Avenue, and browse the small, locally owned shops. DBA Brown Records is home to a small but wonderfully idiosyncratic collection of rock, jazz, blues, classical and spoken-word vinyl LPs--Phil Silvers and Malcolm X share adjoining bins. Just down the road, the Great Harvest Bread Co. is a small family-owned bakery that makes nearly two dozen different kinds of bread, all from scratch. (Hot bread starts coming out of the oven at 10:30 every morning and continues into the afternoon.) The Sierra Club Bookstore has an amazing selection of maps and guides to parks and wilderness areas nationwide, a great resource if you're planning an outdoor side trip. To do the neighborhood right, ditch the car and ride Bart, the Bay Area's version of Metro, to the Rockridge station, which is on College Avenue.
Rockridge commercial strip, College Avenue between Broadway and Alcatraz Avenue.
DBA Brown Records, 6095 Claremont Ave., near College Avenue, 510-547-8133.
Great Harvest Bread Co., 5800 College Ave., 510-655-4442.
Sierra Club Bookstore, 6014 College Ave. 510-658-7470.
6. Sit on the dock of the bay. While San Francisco has abandoned nearly all of its heavy industry in favor of the tourist dollar, Oakland has remained true to its blue-collar roots. Nowhere is the collar bluer than at the Port of Oakland, the sprawling shipyard that serves as a kind of service entrance to San Francisco. The best place to view the port in action is, logically enough, at Port View Park, a pocket park on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay. The park offers spectacular views of the Bay Bridge and San Francisco while simultaneously affording an up-close look at the nation's fifth-busiest port. Cranes tower overhead, unloading cargo containers from ships and loading them onto trucks, like something out of a geography class film. You can hike a trail that snakes along the water's edge past a picnic area and a fishing pier, or just sit on the dock and gaze at the San Francisco skyline, which from this perspective looks like a page from a children's pop-up book.
Port View Park, at the western end of Seventh Street.
7. Take a hike in the redwoods. For all its natural beauty, not even San Francisco can boast its own 2,000-acre redwood park. Redwood Regional Park, in the East Bay hills overlooking downtown Oakland, is one of the Bay Area's best-kept hiking secrets. Naturalists believe that one redwood tree in the park--now, alas, no longer standing--grew to more than 33 feet in diameter, at the time perhaps the largest tree in the world. Although the area was extensively logged in the 19th century, many of the second-growth coastal redwoods have grown to more than 100 feet tall. A network of trails (maps are available at the park office) meanders through a wooded canyon that's bisected by a creek. Sunlight filtering through a grove of redwoods has an ethereal quality, a shimmering radiance that seems to make objects glow. The park also contains an equestrian center, an archery range and picnic areas, some with wooden rain shelters built by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression.
Redwood Regional Park, 7867 Redwood Road. For information, call the East Bay Regional Park District, 510-562-7275.
8. Visit Uncle Walt's inspiration. Oakland's 122-acre Lakeside Park is a swath of green and blue amid the gray of the city's high-rises. The park wraps around Lake Merritt, a large saltwater tidal lake created in the 19th century. The north corner of the park contains Children's Fairyland, a 1950s-era theme park for young children, said to have inspired Walt Disney to construct the far more ambitious Disneyland. Fairyland's live animal and nursery-rhyme-themed exhibits are heartbreakingly low-tech, a throwback to a more innocent time when you could call a theme park Fairyland and no one would smirk. Farther along the lake is the Lake Merritt Bird Refuge, three islands inhabited by hundreds of ducks and shore birds, which at feeding times resemble a scene from Hitchcock's "The Birds." To really get away from it all, rent a boat at the Lake Merritt Boating Center. Canoes, rowboats, pedal boats and kayaks are available ($6 to $8 an hour).
Children's Fairyland, 510-238-6876.
Lake Merritt Boating Center, 510-444-3807.
9. Party like it's 1899. Resolve the Y2K problem by returning to Oakland as it was at the turn of the last century. Preservation Park is a splendid collection of 16 restored Victorian homes, most dating from the late 19th century. The Victorians are now occupied by small businesses, but many people come to the area for a quiet stroll around the landscaped grounds or just to sit on a bench and have lunch. The time warp continues a few blocks away at Ratto's, which for more than 100 years has been selling specialty foods to Oaklanders. This is the way every delicatessen used to be: salamis hanging from the ceiling, pasta stacked in wooden bins, and strange spices from around the world (Hungarian paprika: 75 cents an ounce) in heavy glass containers. Just smelling this place is worth that trip across the bridge.
Preservation Park, bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Castro, 12th and 14th streets, 510-874-7580.
Ratto's, 821 Washington St., 510-832-6503.
For more information, contact the Oakland Convention and Visitors Bureau, 510-839-9000, or check out www.oaklandca.com and www.oaklandnet.com.
Tom McNichol, who lives in San Francisco anyway, last wrote about Korea for Travel.