One reason I feel so close to Oakland is that I see myself reflected in its streets and people. I am such a conglomeration of my past, mingled in with my present, and am reluctant to toss out parts of the old me until I see if I really might still need them. But with 68 years of experiences it is getting crowded in my sense of self. So I enjoy the crazy contrasts of bold new ventures and risky ideas but still value my sense of caution and traditional values. I feel sometimes as young at the twenty year olds on the skateboards, and at other times, crotchety as the hunched over bag lady on the corner. As an artist I am not neatly organized in a type, but demand the freedom to hop around among personas. And like these seemingly tilted structures next to a moving crane, I like to play with perspectives.
Not too many places agree to keep the old sign for the former business when they move in with a new one. But the new restaurant that moved into the Crab Shak understood that such an ancient landmark could be beneficial to their business. Lots of Oaklanders respect the old, even glorify "vintage" as they call it, even while they patronize the newest, most high tech new cafe that somehow knows, when they walk in the door, that they are there and will have their custom made latte ready for them, paid for and delivered without the bother of credit cards or even taking out their phone and pushing some app. This leaves more time for everyone to go on to more important tasks like writing the next best seller, whether patron or server, in the free time created.
The philosophy of preserving history whether it be an art deco theater from the 30's or a "mid century" neon sign fits well with the culture of recycling and inclusion. Still I find it hilarious that generation millennium will pay a fortune for a refurbished Danish "Modern" chair we baby boomers scoffed at in the sixties as being like Grandma's house - so uncool! It makes me wish I kept the old hippie clothes I threw out in the seventies, since I see they go for big bucks on Ebay. UPDATE: they changed the name on the sign to the new place: Copper Spoon!
Oakland's religious population is mostly Catholic. Missionaries include Fr. Serra, whom the Pope recently made a saint: controversial since Native Americans say missionaries destroyed their culture. Many beautiful old Catholic churches remain in Oakland but most are now multi-purposed. Aside from mainly Hispanic congregants on Sunday, the buildings house twelve step groups, homeless services, dance classes, and food pantries. Some buildings have been totally given over to non religious interests, but like many of the Bay Area's institutions, they have a spiritual edge. Book stores, yoga classes, health food centers, even art classes advertise benefits to the spirit as well as the body and mind. A lot of these old churches still look a little like churches since the style in Oakland is to do make-overs rather than complete renovations. I see crosses all over the place. Sometimes it is just a telephone pole, but other times it is a hangover for when churches were the center of communities.
The Hudson Bay Café was my refuge when I first moved to Oakland two years ago, after living in Boston for 45 years. I had no permanent home, no job, and no friends. But across the street from where I was staying, was the cozy Hudson Bay run by Tanya that opened at six am. I am an early riser and was also just getting used to west coast time, so I waited for the lights to go on every morning to fill up with warmth from coffee, and observe the locals. There are regulars at this café, and the place has long been a popular hang out for writers who like company, and moms with kids catching their next hit of caffeine after story hour at the library. The gym across the street brings in sweaty exercisers who feel they deserve a shot and a cookie for all their hard work, and a man with a long beard and many bundles sits in the outdoor area nursing a cup of coffee I suspect Tanya gives him every day for free. Tanya learned my name quickly, and let me paint quietly in the corner many mornings. Eventually she let me hang paintings on the walls. I meet my friends there often now and will never forget my first home away from home that offered comfort to a refugee from the east.
As a newcomer to Oakland, I have fresh, if uneducated, eyes. My painting of Temescal prompted natives to tell me the story of the hardware store that left years ago, but the sign remains as part of Oakland trying to preserve the old while welcoming in the new. The rusting windmill on Telegraph painting brought comments about the old furniture store there, and three of the paintings of half finished demolition and construction are already out of date since a month later, the urban landscape changed yet again. Many of us know that disconcerting feeling of visiting an old haunt years later, and not finding enough landmarks to orient oneself, but Oakland seems to have an unwritten law that whenever possible, preserve some old mosaic wall or neon sign. Hipsters and artist flock to the Can’t Fail Café, flashing their phones to pay for gluten free pastries and lattes, all nestled under the fantastic restored Fox Oakland Theater sign. Retro is cool, like vinyl records, because it contrasts so attractively with technology.
I love my new city, despite it being the third worst for crime in the country. Partly this is due to low officer to citizen ratio, because the city is still poor. But money is flowing in like the gold rush from tech companies escaping San Francisco, and those who work for them seeking a cool place to live. This intoxicating mixture of cultures and clashing purposes makes my blood run faster through my veins. Representatives from all classes of society from the one percent to the homeless mingle at farmers markets, where African bead sellers and food trucks serving Indonesians plates flank artisanal honey booths. It is almost always good weather, so even the indigent people smile at you. They may not have a shower but there are enough soup kitchens to keep them from starving, and many prefer camping out in empty lots to shelters. I don’t want to be shielded from the poor, because I don’t want to forget my obligation to them: to vote right and give what I can. Downtown Oakland, construction is constant, parking impossible, and car break-ins persistent, but I love walking by art deco buildings with an intriguing history, then coming upon a sunlit outdoor café with musicians catering to workers on lunch break and runaways alike. The crime dots most areas, and is intense in a part of town that is too littered with gun shot to walk around in, but there are dozens of other neighborhoods. Chinatown is lively with food stands spilling out on to the street sporting weirdly shaped roots and vegetables, and the locals resent me a little for sightseeing in their private world, but I need some snow peas. Walking around the 2.8-mile perimeter of Lake Merritt offers a look at exotic waterfowl, Uber executives jogging, and spread eagle vagabonds taking in the morning sun among the birds of paradise. Jack London Square is an artsy boat dock area, with a gigantic freight train barreling thought every so often. My neighborhood on the border of gentrifying Rockridge has upscale restaurants and boutiques but plenty of bookstores and a community oriented library as well. There are many more neighborhoods to explore, but they are constantly in flux from week to week. This is some of what I was trying to capture in my new show of paintings called Oakland in Transition