Sunday, July 11, 2010

Oakland

If you follow the news in or from the United States, you may may have heard reports about a mob running amok in Oakland, California, in the wake of a court decision.

The reports are true. A mob did run amok in this city due east of San Francisco after a white former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the New Year's Day 2009 shooting of an unarmed black man; the officer testified he meant to use a Taser, not a pistol. Many people demonstrated peacefully early in the evening last Thursday, convinced the eventual sentence won't be heavy enough to fit the crime. Most kept their cool. A relative handful took to the city's streets after nightfall, looting a Footlocker store, burning trash bins, breaking shop windows and running around, pursued by Oakland Police Department officers.

After all that, a traveler might wonder why anyone would want to visit Oakland. In fact, there are good reasons to alight in Oakland, especially if you have visited San Francisco before and want to see something new in the Bay Area. Although it is riven by class and race - like the rest of the U.S. - and can be dicey in some spots at night, Oakland is an ethnically diverse, unpretentious, real-world city that travelers can enjoy. It's a 10-to-15 minute BART ride from San Francisco, accessible by ferry on San Francisco Bay - and by car, of course.

Here are some highlights for travelers that I - a long-ago Oakland resident - can recommend:

* Uptown, an entertainment district along Broadway just north of downtown, between roughly
17th Street and 24th Street. Uptown features the beautiful Fox Theatre (1807 Telegraph Ave., tel. 510.302.2277, http://www.thefoxoakland.com/), renovated a cost of $75 million after being shuttered since 1966, and reopened in 2009. If you're in the neighborhood, Neil Young is playing solo shows at the Fox on July 12 and 14. Nearby, on Broadway at 23rd, is Pican (2295 Broadway, tel. 510.834.1060, http://www.picanrestaurant.com/), a toothsome restaurant and bar that features top-shelf bourbons, bourbon cocktails and elegantly reimagined Southern specialties such as fried chicken that's been marinated in spices for three days before being battered and cooked. It falls off the bone. BART station: 19th Street.

* Lake Merritt. As old as Uptown is new, this downtown jewel - formed in the late 19th century when a tidal pool was sealed off from from San Francisco Bay - is a key stop on migratory bird routes for species such as snowy egrets. Lake Merritt, 3.4 miles around, is a brackish mix of fresh and salt water; you can rent kayaks at the Lake Merritt Boathouse, go jogging, skateboarding or rollerblading or just chill out. The vintage Grand Lake cinema and shop-lined Piedmont Avenue branch off from lakeside. BART station: Lake Merritt.

* Rockridge. A shoppers' and foodies' haven in North Oakland that snuggles up with neighboring Berkeley, Rockridge has some of the best food and drink in the Bay Area, matching more famous places in Napa Valley and San Francisco in quality. One of the Bay Area's most innovative restaurants, Oliveto (5655 College Ave., tel. 510.547.5356, http://www.oliveto.com/), serves California Italian fare, has a great (if pricey) wine list, and is located in the European-inspired Rockridge Market Hall, where fresh produce, fish and flowers are on offer. Also on College Avenue is the accomplished deep-dish pizza source Zachary's, the admirable independent bookstore Pegasus and Pendragon and a cluster of antique shops and other locally owned businesses. The commercial district stretches 14 blocks from the Berkeley city line on the north to the intersection with Broadway in the South. BART station: Rockridge.

There is more, of course. I could mention the lavishly restored Paramount Theatre, the up-and-coming foodie favorite Temescal district, the local politicans' fave soul food restaurant Lois the Pie Queen, and many others.

Oakland's delights don't, and perhaps can't, surface in quickie news reports about the violent side of the city. But just for context, local media reported several days after the mob rampage that just 19 of 78 people arrested by police were actually from Oakland. Most of the rest were self-described anarchists who use any pretext to loot, break things and protest the world as it is.

"On Thursday,'' reported a local newspaper, "people in the Oakland crowd were incessantly texting, and hooligans who smashed store windows were stopping to snap photos and record videos of themselves to share with their friends.''

Decency and common sense didn't stop these people from having their fun in Oakland. No reason why the sporadic actions of a few should stop us from having our fun in Oakland. This soulful, gritty, working-class city by the bay deserves a chance, and a good look from travelers.

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