24 hours in the offbeat side of the Bay Area.
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Technically, Oakland is a city completely separate from San Francisco, south of Berkeley and Walnut Creek, half an hour’s drive across the Oakland Bay Bridge. For plenty of residents, the East Bay Area is just an outer suburb of SF, an easy commute from city jobs, gigs and restaurants. Rents are lower across the bridge and life is a little rougher, but that’s exactly what makes Oakland such an interesting place. Hoards of artists, activists and environmentalists have made Oakland their home, breathing gnarly creative energy into the spare industrial landscape.
I visited Oakland on the way to Burning Man, a whirlwind 24-hour visit through the wilder corners of the city. A friend-of-a-trusted-friend said he’d show me around. He’s a welder and maker at American Steel Studios, one of the towering institutions of the Oakland art scene, and the trip was a behind-the-scenes tour of Oakland life. The New York Times called Oakland ‘Brooklyn by the Bay’ – a mix of hip culture, immigrant neighbourhoods and tech start-ups – but the city I saw had a unique vibe, much grittier than its east coast cousin.
24 hours began in a Ford
My new friend turned up at Oakland Airport in a Ford pickup; a big beast of a truck that rode high on the multi-lane highways girdling the city. I flew in late and we made straight for his place, a warehouse block converted into flats, in the backstreets behind Mandela Parkway, on the west side of the city.
Further east, you can find the 500-acre Joaquin Miller Park, home to towering redwoods and the Woodminster Amphitheatre. Residents hang out at the serene Mountain View Cemetery. There’s even a park on the roof of a prominent Oakland mall.
Sleep, with air brakes
I woke at 4am to the dulcet sounds of cement trucks – air brakes pumping and sirens wailing as they backed in under the Lone Star cement silos opposite the apartment. There was nothing in between me and those trucks but 40 metres and a few open windows. “It gets real bright in here real early,” my new friend had warned, but I liked my room and it’s wide-angle view over West Oakland’s pot-holed landscape.
Generally, Oakland is a city that is dominated by budget business hotels. You can shell out big bucks for The Inn at Jackson Square or get a bay view at The Waterfront, but stay Uptown around Telegraph Avenue or north around the Temescal/Piedmont Avenue districts if you want to be in the thick of things.
Unexpected chicken waffles
When the sun was well and truly up, we climbed into the Ford headed out for breakfast. We hit a diner on Mandela Parkway, a non-descript brown building, sitting on a busy four-lane road and facing a graffiti-covered cement lot. It was hard to imagine anything good was brewing inside that hut, but Brown Sugar Kitchen is a local favourite, and with good reason. We sat down to a breakfast of champions: buttermilk fried chicken and cornmeal wafﬂes with brown sugar butter and apple cider syrup – the Brown Sugar special – and it was a total taste bomb.
With its large African American, Hispanic and Asian communities, Oakland is known for its killer food scene, starting with the soul food at Brown Sugar Kitchen. Enssaro Ethiopian Restaurant is also a local favourite, as is Burma Superstar. For fine dining, try Michelin-starred Commis and don’t skip the fried chicken sandwiches at Bakesale Betty’s. I did – I was full of waffles – but my friend assured me that was a mistake.
A libertarian with a heart of gold
West Oakland in particular has rusty, sharp edges and is home to a culture of industrial creativity and radical self-reliance. In the early afternoon, my friend took me to visit a guy called Mudd – a grizzled, grease-covered mechanic who lived with a pitbull puppy named Daisy. Mudd’s workshop was a cavernous West Oakland warehouse filled with rusted out Pontiacs, Hummers and half-finished Harley restorations. A North Carolina native and a true libertarian, Mudd had a patriot’s love for the second amendment of the US Constitution, but he was a lovely guy. His partner was a giant American of Polish Catholic descent, who cranked Stevie Wonder’s greatest hits as he welded the frame of a motorbike together.
As we sat on some couches, cuddling up to the dog, Mudd told us he would soon be filming a reality TV show for the Discovery Channel, some Chop Shop/Mythbusters hybrid. He seemed legit, in a wilding rebel way, and he could obviously fix anything. He fixed an espresso machine while we watched, then made us a decent set of lattes with his big, oil-blackened hands.
We killed the better part of the afternoon with Mudd, but there are plenty of other ways to spend time in the city. The Oakland Museum of California takes in natural history, art and craft, and comes highly rated. There’s a retro game arcade in nearby Alameda and urban hiking is a thing. If your timing is right, try Nerd Nite, or an Oakland Ping Pong Party. We were content with Daisy and the fiery welding noise.
Where art meets industry
Art is a big deal in Oakland, and the monthly Art Murmur draws a massive, diverse crowd. But the culture is less ‘stand and watch’ than ‘get your hands dirty.’ One of the easiest ways to become a true Oakland creative is to take a class at The Crucible in West Oakland, which offers serious skills for the nascent craftsman. Interested in glass blowing, blacksmithing, ceramics or stone masonry? How about working with neons and lights? The Crucible is the place.
The other heavy-hitting art facility in West Oakland is American Steel, and my friend took me on a backstage tour as the sun was beginning to set. We debated visiting Homeroom for 50 shades of mac ‘n’ cheese but opted for a quick stop at Taqueria Sinaloa on the way, gobbling a spice-laden El Pastor before rolling on to the studios.
American Steel is a vast warehouse in sight of the Oakland Bay Bridge that is the homebase for Oakland’s industrial arts scene, which is closely linked to Burning Man. In a vacant lot beside the building, Olympian sculptures of women made of warped and rusted metal towered fifteen metres high. Once carried out to the desert for Burning Man, they were now gatekeepers to a monolithic underground manufacturing plant.
Inside, the American Steel Studios stretched out under a vast tin roof, at least a hundred metres deep and several hundred wide. The floor space was divided into huge working bays, each broad enough to fit a semi-trailer and braced overhead by a mobile gantry crane. At first glance the bays seemed piled high with junk – junk as far as the eye could see – but on closer inspection the piles resolved into fragments of sculpture, heavy machinery, abandoned cars, and an old white bus.
Someone had built a full-sized western saloon, labelled The Bordello, and left it on a path that cut across the working bays. It was built for an American Steel party held several years prior, my friend told me, for which the owners had covered floor in sand and sold 10,000 tickets.
In one of the bays, an artist called Mike Ross was working late, welding two Vietnam-era fighter jets together for an installation in Seattle. He’d made the Big Rig Jig for Burning Man one year (which later turned up in Banksy’s Dismaland) and it was right beside us, impossibly twisted, looming up out of a steampunk paradise.
We could have checked out Wurlitzer Night at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre or caught a burlesque show at The Uptown, but we opted to ride in a gantry crane over a valley of rust. Safety third, as the Burners say.
Back there, over the water
We rounded out 24 hours in Oakland on the roof of American Steel. My friend led me through the art and debris to the ‘white wall’ warehouse next door – a warren of cyclone fencing and plasterboard, arranged in loose cubicle studios for printers and soap makers, graphic artists and painters. We made our way through in low light, climbed a ladder and emerged under stars.
On top of American Steel, the whole Bay Area was laid out for us: the Bay Bridge, San Francisco and the glittering hills of Berkeley. We sat for a long while watching the fog roll in, turning the San Francisco lights to haze. The Golden Gate Bridge was off in the distance, stretching spectacularly northward.
San Francisco is a beautiful town, no doubt, and it made for a stunning view, but I was pretty happy on the other side of the water. If San Francisco is the belle of the ball, Oakland is the party.
(Lead image: Steven dos Remedios/Visit Oakland)
Note: This article has been amended from its original state to remove a reference to Oakland being the dark side of the Bay.