Work took me to Oakland, California this past week. It’s the first time I’ve visited that fair city.
I stayed at a downtown hotel and had a chance to walk around a bit. I visited Jack London Square, which is a development on the waterfront. Unfortunately, a walk down Broadway from the center of downtown to Jack London Square takes you through a sketchy neighborhood and under a highway overpass, through a dark area that is liberally coated with bird droppings and probably is a haven for homeless people at night. From a city planning standpoint, it is unfortunate that visitors can’t simply walk from downtown to what is intended to be a destination area without seeing the underside of the city.
Jack London Square itself is nice, with a boat docking area, a marina, and an interesting view of the industrial docks nearby. It has the kind of restaurants and entertainment options you would expect, as well as some curious public art. (The piece shown in the photograph at right, called “Cheemah, Mother of the Spirit-Fire,” seems a bit over-the-top in its overt symbolism.) I found myself wondering how well the area is doing, however. I was there shortly before lunch on a Thursday, and the Square was pretty much deserted. In fairness, though, the middle of September probably isn’t the high tourist season in Oakland.
Oakland also has a colorful and very interesting “Old Oakland” section that features some beautiful buildings that look like they date from the turn of the century. The architecture of the area is replete with the distinct touches and flourishes you would expect in buildings constructed in a vibrant, rapidly growing city of that era. It appears that modern-day Oakland is trying to rejuvenate the area. From my walk-through, I’d say it is worth the effort — but I think establishing a feeling of personal security among visitors will be an issue in that area as well.
My exploration also took me through Oakland’s “Chinatown” section, which seems to be a vibrant area where lots of people were out and about, and around the newer part of downtown, which features memorable structures like the Oakland Tribune clock tower, the municipal building, and a lavish complex of new federal buildings. The area near the federal buildings includes a pedestrian mall with an outdoor eating area, restaurants, and shops. It was a busy place Thursday afternoon, but was pretty much deserted when I walked by Wednesday night at around 7 p.m.
Oakland reminded me of many cities in the Midwest: a once thriving blue-collar city that is trying to deal with an aging downtown, the departure of businesses to greener pastures, a considerable homeless population, and tough economic times.