Let’s be clear. When I left California after 30 years (10 in the Bay Area), I was done. I loved most of it (e.g., the lifestyle, weather, scenery) and other parts I could leave, but overall, I was done. I’d had my Golden State fill and was ready to try something else.
But Oakland has changed dramatically in the 14 years since I left, offering so much more for denizens and visitors alike. And to my surprise, I think I could go back.
Behind the headlines
A big part of Oakland’s history—for better and worse—centers around the tumultuous heyday of the Black Panther Party. It was here in the 1960s that this radical, progressive, political organization led by Dr. Huey P. Newton, that both galvanized and polarized the Black community and the nation, was born. Yet the very definition of moving forward is looking at your past and present to see where you’re going in the future.
I learned a great deal about the Black Panthers at the African American Library and Museum at Oakland. Located in the former Charles S. Greene Library, an architecturally stunning and historic 1902 Carnegie building, the entity is “dedicated to the discovery, preservation, interpretation and sharing of historical and cultural experiences of African-Americans in California and the West for present and future generations.”
The reference library and 160-plus archive collection here encompasses books, magazines, newspapers, microfilm, videos, DVDs, oral histories and more covering a wide array of people and educational, historical, political, and social subject matter.
The second-floor museum is a captivating, lofty space featuring original and traveling exhibits highlighting the art, history and culture of African-Americans. Of note are the colorful murals depicting numerous historic Black personalities from Oakland and significant figures in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the voluminous screens imprinted with black-and-white images of African-American Oakland families from back in the day.
Through the library and museum, visitors can take part in a wide array of Oakland tours, including their popular Black Panther Tour, drawing travelers of all races from around the world. The tour provides a lot of insight into relatively unknown aspects of the Panther organization, such as their influence in establishing a free school lunch program, a safe school intersection initiative and heightened awareness of sickle-cell anemia disease, which is pervasive in the Black community.
Not just a city, but a destination
Part of what makes Oakland a true destination is the fusion of distinctive neighborhoods, including Old Oakland, Uptown, the Piedmont Avenue area, Temescal, Rockridge, Montclair, Park Blvd, Lake Merritt and Trestle Glen.
Jack London Square is the city’s very accessible waterfront area, featuring a marina, open green spaces, spacious boardwalks, picturesque views of the Bay on one side and the downtown skyline on the other, unique local boutiques, restaurants and cafés and entertainment venues.
One of the focal points here is the Waterfront Hotel, featuring a nautical theme infused with modern and luxurious designs, including a heated pool, 24-hour sauna, plentiful meeting and event spaces, and it’s dog friendly.
Accommodation options in the city run the gamut from intimate bed and breakfast inns and homestays like Dean’s B&B and the Hills Bed and Breakfast, to full-service hotels including the Courtyard Marriott Oakland Downtown, the Washington Inn and Clarion Hotel Downtown Oakland City Center, in addition to numerous budget hotels and motels.
One of the most popular city neighborhoods is Chinatown, the fourth largest Chinatown in the U.S. And it’s not just a tourist attraction, but a real, working Chinatown. Its early history includes being where thousands of former internment camp survivors came to start a new life, opening businesses that capitalized on the wealth of regional farms and the area’s close proximity to one of the nation’s biggest ports. Today, investment and commerce is so integrated here that you’ll find 10 banks within a two-block radius.
Headed by the first Chinese– American woman mayor of a major U.S. city, Chinatown—encompassing immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea, India, Japan, Laos and the Philippines—is culturally rich, offering everything you need from dining to entertainment, cultural organizations, attractions and more. One of the highlights here are the daily fresh markets selling the best produce, meats, herbs, baked goods, specialty beverages, plants and flowers.
Getting around Chinatown is easy with its central location, public parking lots and the Scramble—a distinctive, crisscrossing sidewalk system where pedestrians traverse in all directions simultaneously, making it safe for the throngs of residents and visitors that interact here daily. The food scene here is amazing, covering the traditional to the bizarre, to the nouveau, at a variety of mom-and-pop diners and restaurants. One of my new favs is Restaurant Peony, the first in Oakland to offer authentic Hong Kong-style dim sum. Other noteworthy stops include Szechwan Restaurant, Buffet Fortuna, Cam Huang and Gum Kuo Restaurant, among others.
Popular for its community center events and programs is the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, attracting people across all ethnic lines for the Chinese opera, martial arts, weddings, performances, Asian family associations and activities and more.
Beyond “Fruitvale Station”
Most people never heard of Fruitvale Station before the 2013 movie depicting the violent and senseless death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant at the hands of the police. But it’s much more than an infamous rapid transit stop. It’s the heart and soul of a vibrant East Oakland community.
The Fruitvale District roots go back to the early 1900s, when it was a booming business district encompassing railroad, manufacturing and other related occupations. In the 1960s and 1970s, the community suffered a decline in residency and business due in part to suburban sprawl.
Nevertheless, the numerous generational businesses that remained (restaurants, grocery stores, coffee shops and the like), coupled with traditional cultural events and new development over the past decade or so, have continued to revitalize this historic enclave.
Today, this 2.5-square-mile area centered around International Boulevard is home to over 71,000 denizens. Representing one of the most diverse and densely populated Oakland neighborhoods, the population is 58 percent Hispanic/Latino, 39 percent white, 13 percent Asian and 12 percent African-American.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the centerpiece is Fruitvale Village. Garnering national acclaim as a successful, award-winning model for livable communities, it’s comprised of prime residential and commercial entities, health, medical, educational, social and financial services, and a wide array of retail spaces.
Fruitvale Village draws folks from around the metro to enjoy its wide, pedestrian-friendly plazas, dramatic mosaics, thrice weekly farmer’s markets, event spaces and popular eateries like Powderface Beignets and Coffee Shop, Emil’s Burger & Breakfast, Lee’s Garden Restaurant and Mary Tierra Restaurant and Taquería.
The other city by the bay
Dynamic, diverse, soulful and culturally rich, Oakland is truly a jewel in the Bay Area. From its multifaceted history to its amazing cultural entities, iconic landscapes, dynamic culinary scene, popular entertainment offerings, fantastic year-round weather and wonderful denizens, Oakland is an incredible travel destination.
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. Lysa can be reached at email@example.com.
- African American Library and Museum at Oakland: 510-637-0200, www.oaklandlibrary.org/locations/african-american-museum-library-oakland
- Chinatown: www.oakland-chinatown.info
- Fruitvale Village: 510-535-6900, www.unitycouncil.org/fruitvale-village
- Jack London Square: 510-645-9292, www.jacklondonsquare.com
- Oakland Asian Cultural Center: 510-637-0455, http://oacc.cc
- Restaurant Peony: 510-286-8866, www.restaurantpeony.com
- Visit Oakland: 510-839-9000, http://visitoakland.org
- Waterfront Hotel: 877-290-1145, 510-836-3800, www.jdvhotels.com/hotels/california/san-francisco-hotels/waterfront-hotel