Visible from the heights of Berkeley and San Francisco, the sunlit city of Oakland looks like a playground filled with oversized lego bricks.
Claiming an indelible place in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, Oakland was the birthplace of the 1960s Black Power movement, with the Black Panther Party founded by two students at Merritt College. Today, Oakland remains a vibrant hub of local activism, community and culture.
Drawing individuals from all over the Bay Area, Oakland’s famous monthly First Fridays pack the streets with performers, vendors and artists. Every month, 20,000 wide-eyed and hungry attendees gather on Telegraph Avenue to dance, get to know one another and bond over the street food. A melange of delicious smells mingle, each fighting for supremacy as the most delicious foodstuff.
Oakland has its finger on the pulse of modern art, music and creative culture, in part because it knows how to keep the past within reach. One of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture and design in the United States, the Paramount Theatre of the Arts stands on Broadway as a testament to Oakland’s history.
Dragged to the theater on my precious Friday night for a film review assignment, my mouth dropped, stunned, when I entered the immaculately preserved interior. Gold decor and red velvet adorned every surface and the ceiling soared. The Paramount hosts classic movie nights, and at $5 per ticket the doors are thrown open to people who would never otherwise have entered such a place.
Before the film for the evening (the serious, fast-paced historical thriller “All the President’s Men”) began, we were treated to another classic: a selection of three Bugs Bunny cartoons. The audience cheered. When the cartoons faded, a lift under the the stage floor (yes, you read that correctly) brought two characters from another age to the center of the stage: an emcee in a pink suit and a beautiful, blonde bombshell in a floor-length golden gown. A wheel-spinning raffle game called Dec-O-Win was introduced by the dapper announcer, and his glittering female assistant spun.
Every person in the crowd participated, having swapped our tickets for tokens at the door. Sadly, for all of our enthusiasm, neither Charlie nor I left with any treasures. The audience, however, was a winning one: the hoots, clapping and laughing extended throughout the evening. The opening credits brought on more cheers for each name revealed, and all who attended the classic movie night depart with a handful of new friends. An older gentleman attending the movie on his own had a lucky break when my sweet friend, feeling sorry for him, gave him her number. She said they might be able to go see movies together, as friends, in the future.
He asked her out for a dinner date the following night, and that, unfortunately, was the end of his luck.
For another memorable Oakland occasion, my friend Jasmine, herself a UC Berkeley graduate, visited for the weekend. We both wanted to find somewhere new to hang out, and with Oakland a short stroll from my College Avenue apartment, we thought that might be a good place to start.
Ravenous, we stumbled upon a beer garden called Brotzeit — German for “snack” — Lokal. The name proved massively misleading. Overlooking Alameda and the sailboats in the Oakland Estuary, our party remained at the restaurant for four hours, laughing around the table, soaking up sun and unable to move for our exploration of the sausage selection. Your typical Friday afternoon — three gay women gnawing unabashedly through a menu of vegan sausages.
Like so many places in Oakland, Brotzeit is a family affair, the product of one good idea and a life’s savings. Its location along the San Francisco Bay Trail means that dogs, friends and family alike can wander in and out, enjoying the fare and the views on a sunny day.
It is places like these, places where you can stop and breathe, be yourself and recreate yourself, that are at the heart of any city.
As the sun went down, we drove Downtown, lured by the promise of laughter. In the floor above Howden Restaurant & Bar lives Comedy Oakland, which hosts regular comedy nights with both up-and-coming comedians and industry pros. We watched as comedians went back and forth in a competition for the audience’s applause, each fan whooping and yelling for their favorites to move on to the next round.
After the comedy subsided, the night’s winner sat down with us for a drink. “You should get up there next time,” she said. I’m working on a routine already.
Visit Brotzeit Lokal’s website for a happy afternoon snack by the water. For comedy night dates, open mics and more, visit Comedy Oakland’s website (18+).
Isabel writes the Thursday column on discovering Berkeley and the greater Bay Area. Contact her at [email protected].