Embracing the Unconventional in Oakland

Across the bridge from San Francisco, Oakland is bursting with cultural innovation. Experience its diverse arts scene, food and outdoor pursuits.
 

First Friday festivities in Oakland

You’ve surely heard the expression “There is no there there.” But what you may not know is that the person it’s attributed to, Gertrude Stein, had Oakland, Calif., in mind when she wrote it.

Well, that was 1937, and times have changed since Stein grew up there. Over the last 10 years, Oakland has emerged from San Francisco’s shadow, enticing new arrivals with affordable real estate and a burgeoning cultural scene. Artists, foodies, even nature lovers now gravitate to Oakland, forming a vibrant collaborative aesthetic that is much more than the sum of its parts. Mayor Libby Schaaf—who flexed her city’s muscular, unconventional spirit by riding to her inauguration on a motorized, fire-breathing snail—refers to the city’s funky authenticity as its “secret sauce.” Visitors now flock here to taste it for themselves.

 

Dragon School murals in Chinatown.

 

On any given day throughout the city you’ll find seniors doing Tai Chi near the Light of Buddha Temple in Chinatown or kids practising Aztec dance in East Oakland’s Fruitvale district. “This is the essence of the American experience,” says art producer Sage Loring about the constant collaboration that goes on in Oakland. “People don’t care where you’re from or what you look like. They won’t ask who you are, they’ll just ask, ‘What’cha bringing to the mix?’”

What Loring is bringing is dragons: lots and lots of dragons. He looked around Chinatown and realized the drab exterior walls of its apartment and office buildings were ripe for a creative explosion. With a few friends, he formed Dragon School, and the non-profit set out to paint 99 dragon murals in Chinatown. “We worked with local graffiti artists and said, ‘Come spray with us, come teach kids how to use a paint can the right way,’” says Loring. The goal was exceeded in no time, and the murals portray dragons, of course, but also local heroes, exotic animals and trippy outer-space scenes.

 

“It’s true diversity. Everybody interacts, and that’s something you might not even notice you’ve been missing.”
Michael Johnson

 

 

This enthusiasm for artistic expression is evident all over the city. For instance, Oakland Art Murmur’s First Friday sees more than 50 galleries open their doors for a multi-block street fair that’s held on the first Friday of every month. Alongside these galleries, independent artists decorate the sidewalks, pop-up “restaurants” pull food carts behind bicycles and a general air of anything-goes creativity rules. You’ll see saxophone trios on rooftops, kids playing basketball on unicycles and old movies projected onto commercial buildings. “It’s one big gumbo,” says Joyce Gordon, owner of Joyce Gordon Gallery. “Creative people coming together in every possible way.”

Photographer Michael Johnson echoes the sentiment: “It’s true diversity. Everybody interacts, and that’s something you might not even notice you’ve been missing. Interaction leads to conversation, conversation to understanding, and understanding is what makes culture.”

 

The Crucible

 

At The Crucible, Oakland’s most unusual art space, to say the scene is hot is to mean it literally. In this large warehouse nestled between Victorian houses and factories, artists work with materials ranging from steel and gemstones to fire. The space often exhibits flame-spewing public art pieces, in addition to holding Fire & Light Soirées, Hot Couture fashion shows and other fiery events. Both a studio for working artists and a training spot for art students, The Crucible also offers classes where you can get in touch—safely—with your artistic side.

The city also skirts tradition and convention with its food scene. You’ll find a white-tablecloth eatery or two here, but the heart of the city’s stomach is casual dining—pop-ups, lunch counters and food trucks. Though Oaklanders are laid-back, asking which taco truck is best will spark a shouting match (start with Taqueria Sinaloa and Tacos Mi Rancho). And, while casual rules, the city’s food scene also produces boundary-stretching fusion cuisines.

Juhu Beach Club

“Who says people with money are the ones who know what makes great restaurants? That’s a recipe for a lot of sane,” says James Beard Award nominee Preeti Mistry, owner of Juhu Beach Club, who adds that, for Oakland chefs, a touch of crazy is a key ingredient of culinary innovation. “We bring our personal story to the food and it feels like you’re walking into someone’s home.” The results are spectacular, such as the Indian-Chinese mash-up that Mistry calls Manchurian cauliflower and that Anthony Bourdain referred to as a “Stairway to Heaven” after tasting it.

“It’s the whole world in a couple of blocks,” says city councilman Abel Guillen, referring to his diverse downtown district. It’s common to find an Ethiopian restaurant sharing a wall with a Vietnamese bakery, across the street from an organic soul food place. Representative of this international mash-up are the oyster po-boy at Brown Sugar Kitchen, the Thai mustard leaf wraps at Soi 4 and the banh mi sandwiches at Cam Huong—how the sandwiches only cost US$2.50 is one of life’s enduring mysteries. Since so many cultures collide here, not every item on the menu will be familiar. On the weird but wonderful side are the Japanese fried chicken from Aburaya and the shrimp falafel from the truck that parks at 18th Street and Telegraph Avenue. Oakland food is messy, but never fussy; the best spots are humble, affordable and utterly unforgettable.

If Oakland’s art and food scenes don’t surprise you, the city’s open spaces and wild beauty certainly will. Bordered by San Francisco Bay and East Bay Regional Park, the largest regional park system in the United States with nearly 2,000 kilometres of trails, there’s no better city when it comes to getting out of the city.

 

The East Bay

 

An easy bus or cab ride from downtown gets you up into the hills, where you can hike under towering redwoods or bag a peak for an expansive view of the entire Bay Area. At Anthony Chabot Regional Park, pitch your tent just 20 minutes from City Hall or, “Come for a campfire, roast marshmallows and listen to a naturalist describe the birds and critters all around you,” says park spokeswoman Isa Polt-Jones.

Naturalists host various presentations, including a free campfire program, every Saturday through Labour Day at the campground’s amphitheatre.

Downtown, Oakland’s best natural feature is Lake Merritt, a heart-shaped saltwater lake that became one of the first wildlife refuges in the country in 1869 and is a key stopover for migratory birds. It’s common to see white pelicans, cormorants and great egrets there.

 

Rowing on Lake Merritt

 

“Our wildlife comes from around the world, and so do our people,” says Lake Merritt Rotary Nature Center supervising naturalist Stephanie Benavidez. Public gardens and walking paths ring the lake. You’ll also see toddlers chasing lines of goslings, birdwatchers in the heron rookery and young couples at sunset being poled along in authentic Venetian gondolas. “It’s a healing place,” says Benavidez. “The birds will always accept you for who you are.”

Locals refer to Oakland as “The Town”—big and diverse enough to offer international influences, yet small and inclusive enough to make strangers feel at home. There is most definitely a “there there,” and it’s time to experience it.

Getting there: WestJet flies to San Francisco three times a day from Vancouver and Calgary.

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