Wednesday, November 13, 2013

One Day in Oakland

California Research Adventure: Days 52-54

On Day 51 I visited Oakland in the evening for dinner with friends. Then on Day 52 I went back. This is the story of that one day. One day in Oakland...

Oakland City Hall

 In front of Oakland City Hall is this plaza officially named for Frank Ogawa, but since 2011 renamed (unofficially) for Oscar Grant, the young man shot and killed by BART Police at Fruitvale Station on New Year's Day in 2009.

I got off the BART train at 12th Street in Oakland, which is the site of City Hall. It is also site of the plaza where Occupy Oakland took root in Fall 2011. I followed those protests closely at the time, and so it was nice to finally see the place where it all went down. As of November 2013 it is extremely quiet here, at least on a Sunday morning.

From there I walked down to the waterfront, an area now named for Jack London, the writer, socialist, and itinerant traveler who actually spent the last few years of his life in Hawaiʻi. He cut his teeth, however, as a young man in Oakland before setting out across the Pacific World.

A mural of scenes from Jack London's life and stories, Jack London Square

Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon, a tavern from Jack London's time that is still standing and still operating! (The mural above is from the other side of the tavern.) If it wasn't 9am when I was there, I would have gone inside and grabbed a drink, to drink in the drinksteps of Mr. London himself.

Perhaps strangest of all at Jack London Square: half of Jack London's original Klondike Gold Rush cabin, from Alaska, which was apparently split in half. And then Oakland got half and rebuilt the thing right here under palm trees [huh?] on the Oakland waterfront. What would Mr. London think to come back and see his Alaskan cabin sitting down on the shoreline here in the East Bay!

There was a farmer's market in Jack London Square that morning. I was able to try some persimmons, which I do not think I have ever eaten before and yet my dinner hosts the previous night were going on and on about how good they are! So, they are good. Now I know that because I tried one. :)

And that was it for my tour of downtown Oakland on a Sunday morning.

Jack London himself, in the stone, at Jack London Square

But before heading back to Berkeley I wanted to visit the Oakland Museum of California. I thought that I would spend perhaps one hour there. But I spent four hours there! What a great museum, perhaps better than any museum I have visited in San Francisco. Yes, my friends: Oakland's got it! Top-tier museum right here, not in San Francisco.

And so here is just a quick walk through my extended four-hour museum experience.

First, the History Galleries.

When you walk in, the main wall says "Coming to California" and museum visitors have affixed little red dots on the places where they come from. I like the participatory aspect of this wall, and the welcoming message that we are all immigrants and all part of the California narrative. But what of the indigenous peoples of California? Well, the exhibit actually begins with a lot of indigenous history, so that's good, even if this "Coming to California" wall doesn't exactly capture the conflict between indigenous peoples and settler colonialism!

As the indigenous galleries bleed into "first contact" galleries, there is this interesting room. It is completely dark except for these two exhibit cases. One has a Spanish conquistador's helmet, the other an indigenous headdress. Audio speakers play the recorded voices of Spanish and indigenous peoples, perhaps narrating what might have been said at those initial meetings between two very different peoples. I really liked this sensational (as in, asking us to use our senses) approach. (Look and listen, but no wall labels and other museum-y distractions.)

Yup. I found Hawaiian stuff. In a small gallery on the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, a "cabinet of curiosities" holds an explorer's bounty, including this lei palaoa (human hair and sperm whale tooth necklace, not walrus tusk [as labeled]!).

As with the above, also these Hawaiian poi pounders. How the Oakland Museum of California came across these objects, I do not know. They may be reproductions, or they may be originals from the eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries.

An example of good exhibition design, in my opinion. I spent a lot of time here at "Comercio con el Mundo" (Commerce with the World), all about early Mexican interactions with the Pacific World in the period between 1821 and 1848. This is such an interesting period of history, and I wish I had the time to read more about Mexican history.

Later on, in an exhibit about Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, and other 1930s-era socialist writers, the museum invites visitors to participate in a debate for and against socialism. It was interesting to read what visitors think. (Many are pro-socialism! But hey, this is Oakland.) I commend the museum for inviting this level of participation in numerous places throughout the galleries.

The history galleries go all the way up to the present day. This sign, "memed" online in so many ways so many times that it has become a familiar sight, even to a New Yorker like myself, is an actual historical object. It dates to the last few decades of the twentieth century. It is a sign designed by the government to place along highways near the U.S.-Mexico border. The sign's message to motorists is: watch for migrant families running across the highway. When you think about it, this is a very scary history captured in this object.

Next I visited a temporary exhibition all about San Francisco Bay. Both history and science.

A huge reproduction of a satellite view of San Francisco Bay covers the ground of the exhibition gallery. Again, really interesting exhibition design!

Next I visited the permanent Science Galleries.

I was less impressed with the Science Galleries. It covers seven different eco-regions of California, but the one I found most interesting was their exhibit on the local eco-region: that of Oakland. Here I learned why Oakland is called Oakland—because it used to have lots of oak trees! And I also learned the sad story of how almost every single oak tree in Oakland has been uprooted over the course of the last 150 years. Now Oakland is really no longer "Oakland."

I couldn't believe how much time I spent in these galleries. And so I needed to eat something before moving on to another floor of galleries. I did not expect much from the museum cafe, but boy was I wrong about the museum cafe! This was one of the fanciest and most delicious lunches I have had in my whole California Research Adventure!
Bread and cheese and soup and kale/beet salad and a peach soda. Yum!

Then I visited the museum's rooftop gardens.
View of Lake Merritt from the rooftop of the Oakland Museum of California

Finally, I visited the museum's permanent Art Galleries.
Occupy Space (2011)

Fittingly, for a day that began at Oscar Grant Plaza and the recent history of Occupy Oakland, I was pleased to see this banner from the Occupy Oakland encampment of 2011 hanging on the walls inside the art galleries. This museum clearly has a strong and effective collecting mission. Their art and history galleries are particularly up to date, which really makes you feel as if you are part of the ever-evolving story of the past and the present and into the future. (Hopefully not a future like the one depicted in Occupy Space, though!)

Oakland has got something going on. It's hard to say what it is, but it is. It is old and yet it is still vibrant. It is certainly left-leaning. It is certainly "real." It's hard to say what Oakland is. For hundreds of thousands of people, it is home. For tourists like myself? I don't know. My guidebook calls Oakland "the Brooklyn to San Francisco's Manhattan."  I'm not sure what that even means. I actually think Oakland is a lot better than Brooklyn. But San Francisco is certainly no Manhattan. :)

Who knows. But one thing I do know is that I had a great day in Oakland.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I'm from Oakland and I haven't seen half of that stuff. Glad you enjoyed yourself.

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