I “met” Michele Brown when I did an open call on Twitter for guest-posters. She is a fellow SITS gal which means she is all about the support! When I saw that she was an Oakland native, the town I live next to but know relatively little about, I jumped at the chance to have her write about her favorite spots. Michele is the author of papoe, a blog about her life as a part-time worker, sometime writer, and full-time responder to two screaming children.
Here and There in Oakland
Gertrude Stein once wrote of Oakland, California that “there is no there there.” She was referring to the fact that when returning to her childhood home she could not find it. Many people have interpreted the quote to mean that there is no culture, no vibrancy, no life in Oakland. Years ago I may have found that version to be true. But what did I know?
I was born in Oakland in the mid-seventies. A second marriage (my mother’s, not my own) sent us in search of something better, which meant moving out of the city. And then moving, and moving again (and then a few more times). We settled in Santa Cruz, and only ventured back to Oakland to visit my grandmother. Her home, and a handful of scattered memories, was all I thought existed between the hills and the flatlands. I believed everything that I had read or heard about Oakland—the news reports that spoke of the crime and disparity—and closed the book on that chapter in my life. Or so I thought.
In 2004 I got a job that brought me back to Oakland. I came back begrudgingly, kicking feet and screaming on the inside, like a five-year-old having a tantrum. But being here calmed me. Being here, in my old and now new home, brought me a husband and children, and a place so diverse and vivacious that I could overlook the gray areas, the bleak streets that are scattered about, and find life.
In the spirit of that love and life, I’ve gathered a few of my favorite places that illustrate the There that is here in Oakland.
If I had to pick one place to visit
Lake Merritt on a Saturday morning
Oakland’s beauty shines around the edges of Lake Merritt. And the lake on a Saturday morning is an event in and of itself. You can enjoy a leisurely stroll or fight the crowd at the Grand Lake Farmer’s Market, one of the best in the East Bay (Saturdays 8am-2pm). Head to Arizmendi Bakery on Lakeshore for some blueberry/raspberry scones (a weekend-only specialty) or for the pizza of the day, and you can return home for a guilt-free nap.
My favorite place to take my children
If your child can walk and talk, this is the place for you. I took my girls for the first time in June, still thinking that Jocelyn, just shy of two years old, would be too young for it. Oh was I wrong. From the minute we walked through the giant shoe at the front gate, she was enthralled. We started with the afternoon puppet show, then headed around the box to listen to the fairytale story boxes (buy a key with your admission ticket), run in and out of tiny structures, and ride the miniature train and carousel rides again and again and again.
Close second: Oakland Zoo
It’s hilly but small enough to manage; when it’s 70 by the Bay, it’s about 80 degrees at the zoo, but they have a Children’s Play Area that is worth the price of admission.
Worth the wait
For months I would pass by the corner of 51st and Telegraph and wonder why there was a line out the door. And why on earth were there ironing boards set up as tables outside? There is no sign on the door and I couldn’t even tell if it was a restaurant, café, or a random meeting space for secret society members. Then I started hearing the buzz about town. There are only a few menu items available (two sandwiches and assorted desserts) but they obviously have perfected those recipes. The first time I had Bakesale Betty’s I had just given birth and my friend Kelsey told me she would bring over lunch. I thought that it was perhaps my post-baby hormones that made me love the fried chicken sandwich so much. Months later, after a night of celebrating, we made the excursion to try again. It was heaven. But was it just a hangover cure?
No. It was, and is, the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten. (My tip for extra goodness: add hot sauce) I have also heard people gush about the strawberry shortcake. And now there’s even a second location on West Grand and Broadway.
Best Cup of Joe
Blue Bottle Coffee Company
The first time I had Blue Bottle Coffee I didn’t know it was organic and I didn’t know they were a local company. I was at the Farmer’s Market in Berkeley and I just needed a jolt. It was hot and they had a New Orlean’s Iced Coffee on their menu. $3.50 for a small cup, but it was the sweetest cup of wonder that I had inhaled in quite some time. One sip and I was hooked. It was later that I saw them featured on a local show and I realized they had a storefront near Jack London Square. Sure, it’s easy to go to Starbucks but Blue Bottle is worth the trip. Plus, with all the improvements to Jack London Square, with new restaurants and the Jack London Market (opening soon), it’s a place worth visiting.
Restaurant that lives up to the hype
Uptown is a new hot spot in Oakland, especially for food lovers, and there’s no better place than Flora. Rustic and classic American food, it’s a restaurant and bar that the owners designed to echo the prohibition era and Art Deco style. The menu changes regularly in order to serve fresh local ingredients. My favorite: the dessert. Carmel pudding with sea salt, whipped cream, and a rosemary pinenut sable cookie. Yum.
Redwoods in the city?
Redwood Regional Park
There’s a hidden redwood forest just minutes (okay 10 or 15 minutes) from downtown. One of the first local hiking excursions my husband took me on was in Redwood Regional Park—a place I didn’t even know existed, and I was born here and he was born on the East Coast. There are great trails with beautiful views of the East Bay, and plenty of picnic sites to stop and enjoy the sunshine. It’ll make you forget that you’re so close to the hustle and bustle, and the trails are steep enough to get the heart racing.