Get to know Oakland through its unique history of community, solidarity, and music — and the people who make it what it is.
Blues City. Birthplace of the Black Panther Party and the Chicano Revolutionary Party. Home of the nation’s first wildlife preserve and its largest urban saltwater lake. Home of the love ’em or hate ’em Golden State Warriors. Home of artists like Jack London, Frank Chin, Tupac Shakur and director Ryan Coogler. And for generations of families descended from Huchiun communities, Spanish colonizers, Chinese gold rushers and transplant 49ers, refugees of the Mexican Revolution, slaves, cowboys and black railroad workers, Oakland is just home. And it’s as beautiful and complicated as any home.
I lived in Oakland for several years, but I am not from Oakland. My background is too transient to really say I’m from anywhere. Still, coming to Oakland felt, for the first time, like coming home.
Oakland is like that.
It’s like opening the door to your favorite neighbor’s house, the neighbor everybody calls Auntie, and being greeted with the smell of collard greens cooking on the stove. It’s a place where they keep your favorite soda in the fridge, but where you should know better than to come in without taking your shoes off first. Until you’ve taken your lumps and put in the work, you’re still a guest, but you’ll always be made to feel at home, like a guest who’s gotten comfortable enough not to expect the fine china.
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Maybe that sense of community is part of the reason for Oakland’s present-day struggle with gentrification. Maybe guests feel so instantly at home that they think they can come in with their shoes on and put their feet up on the coffee table, forgetting that they’re in somebody else’s home. As they kick Auntie out of the house, convert it into a luxury apartment complex, and hawk her sweet potato pie out of the backyard beer garden, these guests mistake feeling at home in someone else’s house for actually being at home.
As an outsider, you have to earn Oakland before you can claim it. Some do this through years of involvement in the grassroots community organizing Oakland is known for, some by becoming longtime regulars at the local businesses and events that help create community, still others by starting them. You earn Oakland by becoming part of Oakland — not just by moving in. And that takes time.
Oakland is currently struggling against the effects of gentrification and the booming software industry that has begun to bleed out across the bay from San Francisco. Born Oaklanders or those who have earned the right to call Oakland home are being pushed out by rising rents and unethical housing practices.
This isn’t the first time Oakland has faced a wave of newcomers who don’t know the rules of the house. Before it was Oakland, it was the home of the Huichin people, who resisted Spanish colonialism but were eventually enslaved, massacred and displaced. The gold rush brought in a large Chinese population, which laid the foundations for Oakland’s bustling Chinatown. After Mexican independence and the Mexican Revolution, the Latino population in Oakland boomed. World War II brought African-American workers and more Latinos from the Midwest and the South, many of whom were eventually displaced by the beast of urban renewal projects. But like a force of nature, like the roots of an oak tree breaking through concrete sidewalks, Oakland adapts, integrates or absorbs. And its history of resistance and adaptation preserves a quality is undeniably, immovably Oakland.
History: ‘Still making it’
The tilted bar at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon on Oakland’s waterfront is the perfect metaphor for that unshakeable Oakland spirit. Opened in 1883 mere steps from the docks, the saloon was so named because it was the first chance for arriving sailors to get a drink after docking – and their last chance for a glass of whiskey before they set sail again. When the great 1906 earthquake shook the bay, the floors of the saloon sank and the clock on the wall stopped.
Rather than moving or rebuilding, the owners embraced and adapted, with the bar still askew, and the clock still reading 5:18, the time it stopped on the morning of April 18, 1906. The saloon’s bartenders have learned to pour at a slant; the patrons carry their beers down the sloped floor without spilling. The story of its off-kilter bar charms visitors and keeps the place alive, but the First and Last Chance Saloon remains a spot as much for locals as for those docking for the night.
The folk who serve up the drinks at the First and Last Chance Saloon are likely to be found after-hours down the street at Merchant’s Saloon, along with other night-shifters. Opened in 1916, Merchant’s Saloon is now the real first and last chance to get a drink in Oakland. The bar opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 2 a.m., and, yes, there will be patrons inside if you stop by when it opens. Its dark, dive-y interior represents another side of Oakland, one that winks at its somewhat more punk cousin across the bay.
As hip San Francisco residents flee high rents, Oakland is reacting, rebelling and adapting. The “History” section of the Merchant’s Saloon website captures Oakland’s sense of ongoing history: “Still Making it,” it reads, above a gaudy logo of a skull meshed with an anchor.
From the gold rush to the Black Panther movement, Oakland is steeped in history. But as many local haunts become boarded-up “used to be”s in residents’ stories, it’s the strong community support that keeps some of these places and their history alive.
Opened in 1960 in San Francisco, Marcus Books is the oldest independent black bookstore in the nation. At the Oakland location, opened in the 1970s, a mural spans the outside wall, depicting the iconic image of a rifle-wielding Malcolm X peering out of a window. The mural also includes the store’s namesake, Marcus Garvey, and original bookstore co-founders Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson.
The Richardsons became Bay Area legends when they put up their house as collateral to bail out San Francisco State University students arrested during the 1968 protests in San Francisco. After that, their stores became as much community gathering spaces as places to buy books. Today, you will likely find the Richardsons’ daughter and Marcus co-owner Blanche Richardson behind the counter, talking with local Oaklanders, who will happily tell you her family is something like black royalty around here.
Speaking of royalty: Lois Davis used to bake pies for her church. When she and her husband opened up Lois the Pie Queen in 1951 (the original shop was in Berkeley; it moved to Oakland in 1973), Lois and her famous lemon icebox pie became Oakland-famous. Twenty years after Lois passed on, her legacy and her pies continue to feed Oaklanders through her son, Chris Davis, and the support of regulars who swear by the Reggie’s Special (a hearty combo named for baseball player Reggie Jackson, featuring two pork chops, two eggs, a biscuit, and a choice of grits or hash browns).
At the counter seats, regulars munch solo and couples try to guess the identities of celebrities in photos filling the wall behind the counter; many feature a smiling Chris Davis as he poses with the likes of Alfre Woodard and Queen Latifah. The dining room is on the small side, but 65 seats squeeze in, and the community vibe makes the physical closeness feel like all is as it should to be. When I was there last, the whole dining room sang “Happy Birthday” to Pop Pop, a Lois the Pie Queen regular who was celebrating his 92nd birthday with waffles and pie.
Bay Area blues
In Oakland, you can’t count the old folks out. Many are local icons, and that may be why history seems to hold on so firmly here, despite sweeping change. Wandering Jack London Square on a Saturday night, you might stumble across Wilbert McAlister, president of the Oakland Black Cowboys Association, as he shakes his hips and shouts over bluesy tunes before a rowdy crowd of seniors at famous BBQ joint Everett and Jones.
The night I’m there, McAlister is doing just that, and he captivates. His shout-outs and hollers bring dancers who tapped out on the last song back to the dance floor, shrouded in sweaty towels. When he sees me taking photos, he comes right up to the camera for his close-up; it’s unclear whether he’s serenading me or the lens. When not singing the blues, McAlister brings the history of black cowboys in the West to life, through events like Oakland’s Annual Black Cowboy Association parade. The parade’s 44th outing is slated for October.
Onstage, McAlister is accompanied by a three-piece band. Ronnie Stewart’s on guitar. A sign attached to a plastic bin next to Stewart’s feet asks the audience to “Support the ‘Music They Played on 7th Street’ Walk of Fame.” Stewart is the co-founder of the Bay Area Blues Society and the Walk of Fame project, an effort to place 88 plaques honoring jazz and blues artists and the city’s blues history along Seventh Street in West Oakland, once the hub of entertainment and social life for the black community. In 2015, the plaques were finally unveiled. The legacy of Seventh Street lives on.
But it lives on in more than just plaques on a sidewalk. The music scene in Oakland is lively any day or night of the week. From big names at Fox Theater to local bands jamming and sipping grapefruit greyhounds on the cramped stage at Cafe Van Kleef, you can find music in every corner of Oakland.
Sometimes even literally on the corner: Almost every Saturday morning, Aaron Davis Warren, aka Drummer Boy Aaron, can be found on the corner of Grand Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard, banging out beats on his drum set just across from the lively Grand Lake Farmers Market. His Saturday jam sessions have become beloved by the community. So when a Lake Merritt resident nearby complained about the noise and threatened to call the cops, even kicking down one of Warren’s cymbals, the community rallied for him. Even Mayor Libby Schaaf encouraged him to continue playing, and to get a permit to use a speaker.
You’ll find more music at Lake Merritt, a community hub known to locals as the jewel of Oakland. Just down the street from where Warren plays, you might see the West Grand Brass Band playing popular songs or find folk dancing to the Afro-Caribbean beats of drumming group SoulBeatz Oakland. Even on Sundays, nearby Caña Cuban Restaurant and Cafe serves up dangerously delicious cocktails that loosen the hips for their Sunday Salsa parties.
On my latest Sunday visit, the entire west side of Lake Merritt was lively with music, picnics and barbecues. Though this was likely a joyous reaction to the Golden State Warriors winning the NBA finals that week, the scene was likely a smaller version of what it looked after the infamous #BBQBecky incident, when a local resident on April 29 reported a group of black men barbecuing to the police. Oaklanders responded to the racist incident by coming out by the hundreds, some barbecuing in solidarity at Lake Merritt, while others rallied at City Hall to show that such behavior won’t fly here.
This community solidarity is what makes Oakland Oakland. And it’s hopefully what will save Oakland – and the people and history that have made it – from the forces of displacement.
Oakland may not be the first place people think of as a tourist destination. And maybe that’s because it’s not. Oakland isn’t where you go to be a tourist; it’s somebody’s home. It’s a place where strangers strike up conversations that make you feel like you’ve known each other for years, where you get a homemade meal at a local restaurant and an insider’s history from neighborhood elders. It’s where you can drink and dance, hike, stroll, explore and engage, and never feel like the awkward outsider. It’s where you can feel at home. So, visit, enjoy, listen and learn. But don’t forget to take your shoes off at the door.
If you go
Where to stay
Washington Inn for a budget-friendly, LGBTQ-owned option in the heart of Old Oakland.
Waterfront Hotel in Jack London Square for a taste of luxury and waterfront views.
What to do
Walk Lake Merritt and enjoy the wildlife at the Oakland Nature Preserve.
Hike the many meandering trails and crane your neck to see the tall new-growth redwoods in the Redwood Regional Forest.
Start at the Oakland Museum of California for a look at the latest history and culture of Oakland. Then download the Detour App and take a self-guided tour of Oakland’s Black Panther history.
Stroll the docks at Jack London Square and play some cornhole or bocce at the outdoor patio and bar at Plank.
Grab a couch, some pizza, and a glass of wine and enjoy the latest films or old classics at the New Parkway Theater.
Where to eat
Shan Dong in Oakland’s Chinatown for handmade noodles and dumplings and what’s likely to be the best, freshest Chinese food you’ve ever had.
Tao Yuen for budget-friendly dim sum to go. Snack on it at Lake Merritt or the nearby Jack London Square docks.
Miss Ollie’s for an upscale yet homey atmosphere and large helpings of Caribbean specialties like jerk shrimp and salt fish and ackee.
Lago Grill Taqueria for grilled stuffed burritos that’ll leave you satisfied for half the day.
For a loud and lively Saturday night, try the house special grapefruit greyhounds and an up-close-and-personal stage at the crowded Cafe Van Kleef.
For sweet, unique cocktails, hit up Caña, where you can sip in the sun on a sidewalk patio with views of the lively Grand Lake neighborhood, then dance your Sunday away at the weekly salsa party.
For heavy pours, comfy couches, dope DJs and no nonsense, try the Layover downtown.