In praise of Oakland
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| By eyleenn on Friday, August 29, 2003 - 12:06 pm:|
From today's NY Times:
Welcome to Planet Oakland
By ISHMAEL REED
OAKLAND, Calif. — This city has often been called the ugly stepsister of San Francisco. And that's partly true. The town has more in common with Mustache Sal, the character created by Bret Harte (a former Oakland resident), than with Jenny Lind, who once sang here.
But when Gertrude Stein and her family lived in Oakland, it was known as the second Venice. There were mansions around Lake Merritt, the country's largest urban saltwater lake. Inside its park is Children's Fairyland, the inspiration for the Disney theme parks. One of the remaining mansions is the grand Victorian Camron-Stanford House, where President Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife, Lemonade Lucy, attended a reception in their honor. The mansion reminds us that Oakland was once a resort for the rich. When Gertrude Stein returned here on a lecture tour in 1935, the estates had been subdivided to accommodate the thousands of people who poured in after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Her childhood home had been demolished. For her "there was no there there," she was to write in "Everybody's Autobiography."
Despite the efforts of some earnest preservationists, the Camron-Stanford House has been allowed to decay while new condominiums — high-rise trailer parks — shoot up overnight. Mayor Jerry Brown wants to revitalize downtown by bringing in 10,000 residents of the kind who can afford high rents. He says he wants Oakland to be like Manhattan, but he isn't the first dude to try to tame this city. This planet city. Not "soft" but "husky, brawling" as Carl Sandburg wanted of cities.
I gained a fuller knowledge of Oakland's diversity — in one district, the Fruitvale, at least 80 languages are spoken — by spending my summer exploring the city from the waterfront, where Jack London and his friends got into drunken brawls, to the Chabot Observatory, in the Oakland Hills, where one of Einstein's telescopes is housed. I'd been postponing a visit to the observatory, but then my editor invited me to write a book about any city of my choice for a travel series. I chose Oakland, because I thought I knew a lot about this town. I was wrong. In what has turned out to be a remarkable summer, I discovered another Oakland, one buried beneath the lurid headlines, one dripping with rich heritage and a mosaic of cultures. I became acquainted with the fascinating details of landmarks that I'd passed by many times without a second glance.
Though crime waves are nothing new in this town where the first mayor, a Columbia Law School graduate, was a swindler and whose most prominent writers at the turn of the century, Jack London and Joaquin Miller (author of "Life Amongst the Modocs"), were a mugger and a horse thief, it would be a mistake to define this city by its crime rate. There is nobility just below the surface of this town that has acquired a grimy reputation.
The Peralta House is one of the reminders of Oakland's aristocratic past, when the favorite sport of the early Californios (children of the New Spanish who settled California) was bullfighting. It was built in 1870 by Antonio Peralta, whose father arrived from Mexico. The Spanish king granted him a spread that included Oakland and Berkeley. Another son leased some of his land to Horace Carpentier (born Carpenter), Oakland's first mayor, who violated the lease by selling the Peralta property to squatters. (One of his first acts was to ban bullfighting.)
The African, African-American and Caribbean communities contributed Carijama, a festival of arts and crafts and a parade in which the "saints" of the Yoruba religion march through the streets, accompanied by the sounds of steel drums (a neighborhood critic could only see "scantily clad women"). I attended a ceremony at Frank Ogawa Plaza, named for the late Japanese-American councilman, where Ramón Martínez was honored with a proclamation from Mayor Brown. Mr. Martinez arrived here in the 1920's. His orchestra, Los Caballeros, toured the region and entertained troops during World War II. He became president of the Pan American Club in the late 1930's and organized huge barbecues, fiestas and dances. The club became the United Americas Association and sponsored the first citywide Cinco de Mayo celebration in 1946.
Oakland is a town where one can step into different centuries within a few blocks. Preservation Park evokes the 19th century: 16 historic houses of the Victorian, Stick, Italianate and Queen Anne styles were renovated and moved there. They are home to artists, writers and organizations both profit and nonprofit. Sitting in the fantail of Franklin D. Roosevelt's yacht, the Potomac, where the president entertained King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and mixed martinis for his guests, I found myself in the 1940's. The Port of Oakland bought the vessel for $15,000 and with the aid of President Ronald Reagan and others, it underwent a $5 million renovation. Along the way on my tour, I sampled fine Oakland cuisine: Duck legs with pinot noir at the Bay Wolf, where the establishment dines; barbecue ribs at Everett and Jones; authentic Mexican food like they serve in Mexico City, according to Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, who took me and my daughter, Tennessee Reed, to lunch in the Fruitvale.
Oakland's poets gather at the Coffee Mill, on Grand Avenue, near another old-time California movie palace, the Grand Lake Theater (1926), which was restored down to the 5,000 light bulbs that grace its marquee. Oakland's hip counterculture book store, Walden Books, is on the same block. But the most popular Oakland verse is the blues. The Oakland blues sound of Texas and Louisiana origin has an international audience. When Oakland musicians perform, thousands of people show up, a sizable number wearing Stetson hats and cowboy boots.
Billy Collins has a poem somewhere that argues for vacationing in one's own neighborhood. The millions of Americans who spend millions of dollars on sightseeing tours abroad should try taking one in their own city and they might be surprised at what they uncover, because every city has hidden stories and even epics. Our beleaguered cities, whether soft or husky or androgynous, could use the revenue.
If I hadn't toured Oakland this summer I could have lived here for the rest of my life and not noticed that the author Amy Tan once resided in my neighborhood. So did the Black Panthers Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Bobby Hutton and David Hilliard. They walked across Martin Luther King Jr. Way as they headed to Merritt College and influenced the course of Oakland history, helping to elect a black mayor, congressman and supervisors.
Of the three cities, San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, Oakland is the blue-collar city, reminding one of the old industrial towns of the Northeast. It is the city with the big heart, accommodating 200,000 earthquake survivors and starting a free breakfast program. Oakland is Buffalo with weather. And no matter how much the developers, who seem to be running the town, continue to abuse landmarks and erase Oakland's history, even threatening Preservation Park, the beauty of the place will endure. A beauty that was captured by the African-American writer William Nauns Ricks in his 1902 poem, "Night in California."
When the sun is sinking slow
Behind the mountains blue and white
And the mist upon the town is falling low;
When the mocker's sleepy note
Seems to stifle in his throat
Then to us in California, it is night
Ishmael Reed is author of the forthcoming "Blues City: A Walk in Oakland."
| By jenmed on Friday, August 29, 2003 - 12:29 pm:|
For anyone who doesn't know, Ishmael Reed is also an acclaimed author, best known for his seminal prose and poetry works during the black power movement of the 60s and 70s. What a great choice to write the first guide devoted solely to Oakland.
You can pre-order this book from Amazon.com right now for only $11.20 for the hardcover edition. (Release date is 10/21/03.) Don't forget to use the link in the left column of this page; the OAFC will get a small kickback from Amazon if you do.
| By bloggsy on Friday, August 29, 2003 - 06:08 pm:|
Fantastic stuff. Someone had emailed it to me and I'd have posted it if someone else hadn't! Maybe we could email this to Ray Ratto?
| By ssblip on Friday, August 29, 2003 - 06:46 pm:|
That article is a story that needs to be heard...glad it's in the NYT.
I don't live in Oakland, but it's my favorite Bay Area city by far. My wife and I spent a lot of time scouring the area, looking for just the right city to call home as we're planning on buying our first house. Oakland was the prize in our eyes: great weather, diverse and distinct communities, the A's...
Unfortunately, even Oakland's off the scales in terms of housing prices, so we've got to leave the area. This is breaking my heart because there's just so much to love about Oakland.
I hope those of you who are here forever appreciate what you've got!
| By tekgraf on Friday, August 29, 2003 - 10:02 pm:|
SSblip, have you and your wife looked at the Laurel, Dimond and Millsmont areas of Oakland. They're still very nice and will only get better.
Another area you might try is the area just below the quarry off of Edwards Ave., near 580 freeway.
I've been an Oaklander all of my life and I love this city. Its so nice to read such a great article by a great American writer. I will buy his book as soon as I get a little extra spending money.
| By oaktownfan on Friday, August 29, 2003 - 11:29 pm:|
I was watching the weather on channel five at six and the meterologist said that Oakland was announced the best city in the US for weather.
Oakland is really underrated. All you hear is the crime and schools. Well what city doesn't have problems with those two issues.
I lived in the Laurel district of Oakland all my life and have never once seen anybody being mugged, killed, or anykind of violence. I know it's out there but every city has it's bad spots.
| By ssblip on Saturday, August 30, 2003 - 07:41 am:|
Thanks tekgraf...we checked out those neighborhoods and the rest of Oakland as well. We could have had something there for a comparatively low price, but usually when something fell within our range it either involved a lot of work or was too small for our growing family. Off to Portland we go -- we're in escrow right now.
But I'll be back for the playoffs!
| By jenmed on Saturday, August 30, 2003 - 12:47 pm:|
Oaktownfan - I live in the Laurel District right now! Do you still live here?
| By tekgraf on Saturday, August 30, 2003 - 09:08 pm:|
Portland is a very pretty city. If the expos move there you might get to see the A's play during an interleague game. Good luck to you and your growing family.
I live in the Fruitvale and find that it's getting much better than it was ten years ago. So I'm glad it's getting better.
| By linusalf on Saturday, August 30, 2003 - 11:48 pm:|
I grew Up in the Laurel DIstrict. I love oakland. I want to move back in the worst way
| By oaktownfan on Sunday, August 31, 2003 - 02:12 am:|
Yeah, I live across from Laurel School.
| By tekgraf on Sunday, August 31, 2003 - 11:57 am:|
linusalf, where are you living now? If you don't mind me asking.
How many here grew up in Oakland during the sixties?
| By bloggsy on Monday, September 01, 2003 - 03:03 am:|
what is the average price for a 2 bed house in oakland?
| By jayho on Monday, September 01, 2003 - 08:23 pm:|
Way too much. I was lucky enough to live in Rockridge my whole life. Grandpa bought the house in '78. Needless to say, it is a gold mine now. Right off College Ave near the library. Now I live off Keller which is great too...
Where is the Laurel District? I had a friend that just moved recently to Dimond area right off Fruitvale...
| By mutiny on Monday, September 01, 2003 - 08:43 pm:|
i just bought my first house. it is a two bedroom on oakland ave, near piedmont ave., the 19th street BART, and lake merritt. i think it is called the adam's point district. it is a great neighborhood -- i walk to piedmont ave every sunday. anyway, we paid $295 for it -- pretty steep, but well worth it! i love living in this great city. and, if the a's get a new ballpark and stay here, i will be here for the rest of my life.
| By ssblip on Monday, September 01, 2003 - 09:26 pm:|
Here's one site listing homes in Oakland...
| By tekgraf on Tuesday, September 02, 2003 - 04:11 pm:|
The Laurel District is roughly between 35th Ave to High St. From just below 580 Freeway to about Verden up in the Oakland hills. Above that is Redwood Heights. Another beautiful area, but again very expensive.
| By jonnymax on Tuesday, September 02, 2003 - 04:43 pm:|
Portland is a really great place to live, you wont be disappointed. I can only hope we really do get the Expos, cause if the A's came here it would make my life complete!
| By eyleenn on Tuesday, September 02, 2003 - 09:23 pm:|
Hey, jonnymax! Don't be such a stranger!
| By ssblip on Wednesday, September 03, 2003 - 03:05 pm:|
johnny: where do you live in portland? we're moving to sellwood. i noticed that most of portland are mariners fans, presumably because of the closer proximity...any a's bars up there?
| By deajay on Wednesday, September 03, 2003 - 10:30 pm:|
Chabot Observatory! Wow! That brings back memories of some of my grammar school field trips there. Always my favorite field trips, too.
Yeh, I was born and raised in Oakland, but have lived in Sonoma County for many years now.
Interesting, Portland is in this discussion. I am so sick of this state and its politics and other things, that I am strongly considering moving to Oregon (perhaps the Portland area) or to Seattle area, as I also lived there for a couple grammar school years, many years ago. I also like Vancouver, BC., very much. Been checking housing on the net for the Portland area just for the heck of it, so who knows.
| By tekgraf on Wednesday, September 03, 2003 - 11:26 pm:|
deajay, have you been to the new observatory? It's puts the old site to shame!
It's further up the hill, out of the city lights way. It now has three telescopes. And it has two new theatres, one is an IMAX style screen and the other is an incredible planitarium [sic].
Vancouver is beautiful, but I would rather live in Victoria.
| By oaktownfan on Thursday, September 04, 2003 - 12:35 am:|
I don't know if this is the place to put it, but did anybody watch the Discovery Channel's special about the SF earthquake of 1906.
Very interesting to see even back then, how the media made it out that SF wasn't all that badly damaged after the quake and hid the city's negatives so it wouldn't lose it's appeal to tourists and the national media.
Doesn't that sound familar to how the media portrays SF today. Check out the speical if you have the chance.
| By dorrit on Thursday, September 04, 2003 - 01:13 pm:|
Ha-that IS interesting. My 12 year old also brought up something on sports news-when the A's lose, the S.F. T.V. guys bring their game up first....otherwise, they show them after the Giants.
| By deajay on Thursday, September 04, 2003 - 07:44 pm:|
Tekgraf, I have not been to the new observatory. I bet it's really nice. I've just not even given any thought to it (not having lived in Oakland for years) for a long time, until I read that today. We loved our grammar field trips there (may have even taken one when in Jr. High), and through a kid's eyes, the then observatory seemed just grand.
I also agree about Victoria. I love both places, but haven't been to either in a number of years. I'm sure (knowing some people who live there) that Vancouver would be too metropolitan for me, compared to Victoria.