It’s a Friday evening, and I’ve just finished an interview for a story in San Francisco. I’m driving to Oakland, the Bay Area’s long-time second city and now, perhaps, with San Jose’s digital-era ascension, its third city. The Bay Bridge I cross is grey, relatively squat and just gets the transporting job done – it leaves the preening for photographs to its orange, show-off sibling, the Golden Gate. To my left is a replacement bridge going up courtesy of Obama’s stimulus funds; to the right are Oakland’s cranes, which offload a decent portion of America’s imports from Asia.
This utilitarian bridge and these hard-working cranes have become civic symbols for no-airs-and-graces Oakland, their images printed on popular T-shirts. The old industrial city that lies on the flatlands and hills beyond is having a moment, albeit a best-and-worst-of-times sort of moment.
Early this year, The New York Times shocked many Oaklanders by declaring their city the fifth best place on the planet to visit (after London, ahead of Tokyo. Canada didn’t even place). “New restaurants and bars beckon amid the grit,” the article touted. And a recent San Francisco Weekly cover blared, “Is Oakland cooler than San Francisco?” – the answer, arguably, contained in its need to ask the question.
Part of a gentrifying trend, my partner and I, both from the Toronto area, recently moved into a small 100-year-old bungalow in Temescal, an area about a mile east of the downtown. As we settled in, a Times photo essay celebrated our adopted ’hood as, essentially, the West Coast’s answer to hip and creative Brooklyn.
Certainly, Temescal has the obligatory stores for knitters and board-game enthusiasts and lovers of artisanal cheese. You’ll find a sorbet and an ice-cream parlor (both organic) and, in nearby Rockridge, two apparently thriving independent bookstores. A local baby need never wear mass-produced clothing.
California’s enviable agricultural bounty is evident at the Sunday morning Temescal Farmers’ Market and, on a daily basis, at Market Hall, Oakland’s temple to food (and wine), with butcher, baker, wine merchant, fishmonger and deli. The urban enclave has not one, but two food celebrities – Doughnut Dolly (who pumps hazelnut or quince-flavored cream into your pastry puff ) and Bakesale Betty (whose fried-chicken-and-coleslaw sandwiches inspire long lineups).
And several esteemed San Francisco chefs have recently started their own eateries here. For instance, Charlie Parker joined Plum, restaurateur Daniel Patterson’s new venture in Oakland. After training in San Francisco, Oaklander James Syhabout started up Commis in his hometown and it became the first restaurant in the city to win a Michelin star.
While there’s much cause for celebration, unfortunately none of the city’s long-time problems show any sign of going away. Oakland is deep in debt, has a high violent crime rate, a poorly maintained infrastructure and pockets of intense, endemic poverty – a poverty that disproportionately affects its long-established African-American community.
Part of the local story is, indeed, similar to Brooklyn’s: For years, creative people have come to Oakland because they were priced out of San Francisco.
“That’s been happening for a long time,” Temescal historian and artist Jeff Norman says, as his chickens cluck in a backyard filled with spiky artichoke plants. (Urban farming is big here.) He sketches out the demographic mix. “Temescal used to be Italian, working-class, but, by the time I had moved here, in the 1980s, it had become fairly African-American . … Some Korean businesses were moving in, and a wave of immigrants from East Africa came, some setting up Ethiopian restaurants. There were a bunch of Cal [Berkeley] students living here, because of the low rents … and artists, like me.”
Oakland’s robust artistic community shows off its work during the first Friday of every month, in an event called Art Murmur. It is a quirky, moveable fest, with the city’s many galleries and artsy stores staying open late.