A Love Letter to Oakland, California
I remember when I knew for sure that Oakland was going to be the right home for me: About five years ago, I was in the process of moving out of a temporary sublet in Berkeley and into a tiny new apartment in North Oakland. A friend of a friend was helping me to move, volunteering the spacious back of his old, listing, tied-together-with-a-bungee-cord biodiesel Mercedes Benz station wagon.
We were sputtering down Shattuck, heading towards the intersection of 52nd Street, having just crossed over the border from Berkeley into Oakland. The area was a good deal grittier than my temporary Berkeley Hills sublet. The Grove Shafter freeway overpass brutally sliced the neighborhood in half, turning it into a canyon of graffiti-covered concrete. Many of the houses looked sad and weary, with bars on the windows and busted concrete sidewalks.
Just before the smog check/drive-thru espresso bar, we drew up to a stop light, the car shaking and heaving under the strain of waiting. I was feeling tender and tentative. This move was a big one and I wasn’t yet sure of the direction I was going in or why I had ended up in Oakland after an almost 15-year love affair with San Francisco.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spied a beautiful chicken by the side of the road, plump and healthy, her copper-colored feathers glowing in the sunshine. She was quite unperturbed to be hanging out at a busy intersection, pecking away at the road gravel, probably clucking to herself. I don’t know why, but in that moment I knew that everything was going to be OK; I felt that I would find my true home in Oakland and that this quirky, magical, formidable city would not let me down.
The chicken pictured above belongs to my neighbor and is a reminder that, five years later, I was almost right. The truth is, Oakland has given me a lot more than I asked of it, but it has also asked a lot more of me than any place I’ve ever lived. And for that I am grateful.
Oakland is a complicated place. It can be tough and it can be beautiful, often simultaneously. Living in one of the most racially and economically diverse cities in the country means that we’re living in the middle of an ongoing social experiment, one that we haven’t quite figured out yet.
But everyday, sometimes just by sheer proximity and sometimes with more deliberate intention, we engage in the questions of tolerance, diversity, inclusion, justice, and belonging. I am proud and encouraged by the fact that Oaklanders are committed to living with these questions, even as we grapple and fight about the answers. In other words, we see our struggles not as a flaw but as our strength, and we are the better for it.
So, what is Oakland to me? It’s a stroll in a redwood forest up in the hills; it’s hitting up a taco truck on International Boulevard; it’s shopping for a leg of lamb at the halal market down on Telegraph and 31st.
It’s the used bookstores that stay open late and the nightclub that morphs into a tea parlour during the day, offering up single-origin pots of tea, great music, and a robust Wi-Fi connection.
It’s color-washed walls of graffiti, and it’s jazz and hip hop and a kid playing the cello in the BART station corridors.
It’s a gas station parking lot BBQ and a cafe in Lower Bottoms where everything is painted glossy white and you can only order coffee, cinnamon toast, and whole coconuts.
It’s the dim sum place off of International Blvd; it’s the street altar that brings peace to a tough neighborhood; it’s the A’s and the Dub’s and who knows what’s happening with the Raiders, but for now it’s them too (sports teams are not necessarily my thing, but I get it).
It’s the half-dozen or so year-round farmers markets that bring in vibrant organic produce from the nearby Capay Valley; it’s Creative Growth, a nonprofit arts program for developmentally disabled adults whose work is hung all over Oakland (and in my kitchen).
Clearly, Oakland is a lot of things to me. There are many (so many!) things that I couldn’t shoehorn into this Bite-Sized piece. I know I’ll wake up at 3 a.m. saying “Damn, I wanted to tell them about … ” and then toss and turn the rest of the night about all that was left out.
But more than anything, more than the food and the art and backyard chickens eating up the figs from the backyard fig trees, for me Oakland is its people, who shine in all the lovely colors that people shine in. They are by far some of the most passionate, warm-hearted, kinda crazy, kinda holy, inspiring bunch of people I have ever met. It is a privilege to call this place home with them.
This is the second installment of our new Bite-Sized Guide series, your guide to destinations near and far for cooks who love food and love to explore the world. See the whole guide to Oakland here, including recipes, a walking tour of Temescal and Rockridge, and visits with local cooks who guide you to their favorites. Happy travels!