It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been here, if ever—the views from the airplane window are always captivating.

The newest one for me this time around was the revitalized East Span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, one of the busiest bridges in the country. It is a vital connection between these two iconic cities, each offering their own unique flavor and flair to what it means to live, work and visit the Bay Area.

It has well been over a decade since I left the Bay Area after living there–in both Oakland and San Francisco—for a good chunk of my formative adult years. And although I yearned for a little taste of the familiar, I was intrigued and, quite frankly, drawn to what the Oakland I knew has become.

The accolades are telling. Oakland was ranked the No. 5 place to visit in the world by The New York Times in “The 45 Places to Go in 2012.” Sandwiched between No. 4 London and No. 6 Tokyo, it was the highest ranked North American city.

Its downtown area, including Chinatown, Old Oakland and Jack London Square, was named among ”America’s Top 12 Art Places for 2013” by the organization ArtPlace. Last year, the Huffington Post named Oakland as the “Most Exciting City in the U.S.”

The organization Walk Score, whose mission is to promote walkable neighborhoods across the country, recently said, “Oakland isn’t the Bay Area’s second city anymore. With its stunning location on the shores of Lake Merritt and proximity to Silicon Valley employers, it’s come into its own. The ethnically diverse population makes it a cultural playground for food, art, music and more.”

What? Isn’t this the birthplace of the Black Panther Party that both galvanized and polarized the Black community and the nation around social justice issues in the 1960s? And where the tempestuous Occupy Oakland movement captivated the nation in 2011? How about where the attitudes of many communities here seem to follow the long-standing Oakland Raiders fan motto, “Take No Prisoners”?

Well, the answers are yes and no.

Like many cities across the country—and around the world, for that matter—Oakland has undergone its fair share of issues, whether social, political, economic or otherwise. But like a teenager who sometimes follows a path seemingly headed toward self-destruction and pure misery, that same path is often what leads to greater growth, maturity and a newfound freedom to blossom into all he—in this case, Oakland—can be.

Dynamic, diverse, soulful and culturally rich

Situated just 42 feet above sea level and encompassing over 56 square miles, including 19 miles of coastline to the west and magnificent rolling hills to the east, Oakland is a jewel in the Bay Area. Two-thirds of the city’s landscape comes from the flat plain of the San Francisco Bay, while the hills of the East Bay range make up the remaining foothill terrain. Its adjacent neighbors are Alameda, just across the estuary, Berkeley to the north, San Leandro to the south, Emeryville lying between Oakland and Berkeley, and Piedmont, which is completely surrounded by Oakland.

The weather is one of numerous attractive aspects here, with sunny skies and a moderate year-round climate of January temperatures ranging from a high of 56 to a low of 42 degrees and between 72 and 55 degrees, respectively, in August.

Oakland is also the home of Lake Merritt, which, at 155 acres, is the only natural saltwater lake wholly contained within the border of a U.S. city. The circumference of the lake spans 3.4 miles and encompasses a boating center, sailboat house, the Fairyland Amusement Park, a wildlife refuge (the oldest in North America), several gardens, a gondola ride, restaurant and more. Featuring a Mediterranean feel, it is truly the heart and soul of the city and where hundreds of residents and visitors come on a daily basis.

The truth is that discovering Oakland is like peeling back the layers of an onion. There is a great deal of complexity here that is revealed the deeper you go. It’s what makes it not only unique but is drawing folks here from all over the world.

Oakland was originally inhabited by the Native Americans for some 5,000 years before it was claimed and named by the Spanish, who occupied the area here beginning in the late 1700s. Its historical unfolding includes occupation and expansion between 1846 and 1848 during the Mexican-American War, the California Gold Rush in 1848 and finally, official incorporation in 1852.

Today, the population of just under 400,000 denizens is approximately 34 percent white, 28 percent African-American, 25 percent Hispanic or Latino, 16 percent Asian and then you have your “other” and mixed race groupings. Among all of this, you will find an astounding 100-some languages and dialects spoken here, making it one of the most diverse cities in the country.

But that diversity goes far beyond solely the people. It is beautifully and deeply infused into every nook and cranny of the geographic, social, economic, educational, tourism and other landscapes here. It is what flavors this truly international melting pot in every sense of the word. More importantly, when stepping out to dine, shop, play or enjoy any other lifestyle amenity here—although the place may be owned and operated by a particular ethnic or other group—it is simply regarded as a great Oakland spot. There’s not a lot of “This is only a (blank) restaurant, festival, etc.”

Many companies, both long-standing and in more recent years, have embraced all that the city has to offer as their corporate headquarters. These include Clorox, Ask.com, Pandora, Kaiser Permanente and Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, just to name a few. The lifestyle that kept them, or attracted them, here is telling, and what makes Oakland one of the most desirable cities for denizens and visitors alike.

We’ll delve more into this amazing city by the bay coming up!

Lysa Allman-Baldwin writes for numerous online and print publications, including as the cultural travel writer for www.Examiner.com and as a senior travel writer for SoulOfAmerica.com, an Afrocentric travel website. Allman-Baldwin can be reached at lallmanbaldwin@kc.rr.com.

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