There was another shooting on the news last week.
Oakland, the only city I have heard of to offer cash rewards for
murder suspects, is up to a staggering 111 homicides in this year
alone. Nobody could figure out why I left my safe university in the
suburbs of San Diego and plopped myself here, in the middle of
that, to finish off the last two years of my education.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been warned about this
city. It has a pretty bad reputation, it seems, and I guess the
probability of my getting shot is alarmingly high. When I took my
father to see Mills last summer he pointed to the wide expanse
south of us and said, short and to the point, “don’t go down
there.” I shrugged, and told him I wouldn’t.
Of course after a few weeks of hanging around this place, I
couldn’t resist the temptation. I decided to brave the danger and
wander off exploring my new home.
I suggest the bus system for this grand adventure, it’s a tour
of Oakland without having to worry about being honked at.
For less than two dollars, I sat comfortably watching the city
move past my window. I noticed the buildings first. They are
beautiful, nearly all of them. They make the city feel still,
despite the people everywhere, and seem almost sacred. Sort of like
Sesame Street. After a few minutes I realized I had, as I had
expected, fallen in love with Oakland.
Now the trick is to talk to the people sitting there with you on
the bus. I come up with creative and brilliant opening lines to
trick the fantastic people around me into conversation: “Does this
bus go to the East, um, 14th Avenue?”
That one always works best for me, I pretend I’m lost and a nice
dialogue ensues. My first try I met a man who works as a forensic
scientist for the city. He was cool.
He was the one that suggested I get off at the corner of 14th
and Broadway…this is downtown, and is in my opinion the best of
what Oakland has to offer.
City Hall stands here, a large and painfully breathtaking
architectural masterpiece, over a plaza spread out beneath. There
are birds to be fed here, statues to be admired, and cubicles with
benches facing each other to make little homes for conversations. A
lady named Mrs. Brown tried to sell me a jewelry box doll, offering
both Raider and 49er fashions to me, taking a bipartisan stance for
the sake of capitalism. A panhandler on the grass told me I looked
peaceful. People shouted hello to each other all around me.
If you go south from City Hall you will reach Oakland’s
Chinatown, a place that smells like rotting fish, just like in San
Francisco, and has my favorite dried mangoes. If you go west you
will reach Preservation Park and will tour the nineteenth century.
Go north a few blocks and you will see a shop called Wigs by
Tiffany, where they let you see what you would look like with red
I suggest, however, an unexpectedly long walk east, to the
Oakland Public Library.
This really has to be the quintessential public library, the
most unpretentious and reading-rainbowesque library I have ever
seen. None of the chairs at the tables match, large oil paintings
sit on top of rows of dusty bookshelves, and everything is
colorful. The second floor displays a gallery of pictures from
Oakland’s early days. Mills Hall is there among them, I found it as
I sat in there for an hour staring at them all while behind me a
teacher was talking to her kids about pandas.
The telescopes at Chabot are open to the public,
24-hour newsstands offer perfectly dirty newspapers, art
galleries celebrate the diversity that characterizes this city.
Oakland offers all this. Those of us who are new to this area, who
have grown up in gentler places, might be afraid to take ourselves
outside the gates of Mills and onto the streets.
We have walls all around us. We stand behind fences with one
tenderly guarded opening that leaves fifteen feet to pass through
to the outside world. But do venture outside. Be careful, and use
common sense, but go. A wonderful city is out there.