Watts (chipotle) wrote,

Looking for the there

It's about three in the afternoon and I'm driving into Oakland, and if that's not scary enough, I'm here by choice. Today finds me in a slightly sour mood sparked by a stronger feeling of exclusion than usual, which I resisted venting over last night (and again this morning). Whenever Oakland is mentioned someone inevitably recalls Gertrude Stein's famous quip, "There's no there there." Well, on a day when you feel like something of a kindred spirit, maybe it's the right time to go looking for the there.

I've travelled up 580 rather than 880, and at first get off on Golf Links Boulevard, which promptly heads up into the attractive foothills east of the city. I fail to find the arbetoreum that's supposed to be on the road; I do find the county park that contains the Oakland Zoo, but decide that I'm not going to pay $4 parking today, and head back onto the freeway, coming into town on a circuitous route off 980.

This lands me on one edge of what's clearly Oakland's Chinatown, and from there I wend my way to the start of Telegraph Avenue. While Chinatown itself has an unkempt look, the heart of downtown is pleasant enough. But it's deserted. The businesses are mostly closed, some permanently, and few are interesting. The odd thing is that the buildings are interesting. Grand old art deco structures, including the canonical old movie palace people are fighting to resurrect. It isn't that there was never a there here, it's that they haven't been taking care of it.

I land at first in the Temescal district, south of Berkeley, just past the landmark of Original Kasper's Hot Dogs, a hot dog stand that's been there since 1929. I'd heard about this place on public radio's "SoundPrints" program, but the place has been "closed for renovation" since January of last year, never a good sign. I do find Doña Tomás, said by many to be the best Mexican restaurant in the whole Bay area. But it doesn't open until 5:30, so after a little on-foot exploration I head on, north into Berkeley itself.

I find that here, it's that Telegraph Avenue, the epicenter of 21st century urban bohemia, full of head shops and hippie sidewalk vendors and panhandlers on every corner. Berkeley's genteel socialism doesn't, however, extend to free public parking. Nonetheless, I head out on foot in search of a latte. After finding one at a curious place that's part independent coffee shop and part Subway sandwich shop, I decide I might as well make more use of the city garage time I'll pay for and wander to Rasputin Music, one of a half-dozen used and offbeat CD meccas in this local chain. A reggae band is playing upstairs, making the place even louder than normal. I wander around the racks randomly, checking a few of my typical target oddities like Renaissance (the prog-rock group, not the time period). I don't find anything new-to-me there, but I do come across a techno CD elsewhere by a DJ duo from Tampa called "Rabbit in the Moon." (To those of you in the know, yes, I knew of the group and the reference was deliberate.) I pick it up, discover happily that Rasputin does parking ticket validation, and drive back south.

It's still a little too early to contemplate dinner so I loop through some more of Oakland. Gertrude Stein actually wrote that "no there there" line in the 1930s, when she returned to Oakland while on lecture tour in California and failed to find her childhood home; it may have been more a personal lament than the indictment of suburban sprawl it's often been read as. In any case, I haven't seen suburbia. I've seen a pleasant but characterless downtown which, as I circle outside the knot of core office towers, is clearly a beach head against the urban decay that much of Oakland still succumbs to.

I've heard about the fierce fights that mayor Jerry Brown has caused in his program to rejuvenate downtown. The fights are, of course, because the program is working. In 2001, Oakland was ranked by Forbes ahead of both San Francisco and San Jose as a place to do business. I don't like the effects of gentrification on both affordable housing and commercial homogenization--the latter being those downtown areas "reborn" by sweeping away the struggling independent funky little stores and replacing them with mall brands. On the other hand, once the only remaining businesses are liquor stores with bars on the windows and corner drug dealers, managing to replace it all with yet another Banana Republic and a corner Starbucks is arguably a triumph.

In most areas I drive past, though, there aren't any signs of Banana Republics or Starbucks. Instead there are laundromats and churches and bus stations and a lot of missions. Most of the faces on the street are black, some Asian, very few white. This follows another stereotype for poor urban areas, of course. At some point I lock my car doors and feel vaguely disappointed with myself for having done it. Perhaps this is the real answer to finding Oakland's missing there: most cities had flight out of them in past decades, but most of them have found ways to bring people back--if not as residents, at least as workers and frequent visitors. After years of false starts, even Tampa successfully expanded its "urban comfort zone" from Hyde Park through to Ybor and the Channelside area. If Tampa can do it, you'd think any place could. But so far, Oakland can't.

By five-thirty I circle back to Temescal and park on a quiet, well-lit side street, and walk a half-block back to Doña Tomás. The exterior is so non-descript as to be eminently missable; inside it's cozy. I order a caipirinha, a Brazilian normally made with cachaca, a distilled sugar cane liquor, and look at the menu. This is too fine a place for someone who's unemployed, I realize, but I really knew that going in. I'm tempted by the chiles rellenos en nogada--poblanos stuffed with roasted vegetables and served with a walnut-pomegranate sauce--but decide to try their carnitas. I'm not at all disappointed; it's the best version of the dish I've had, the pork rubbed with fresh oregano and slow-roasted until it falls apart (rather than cubed and braised), served with soft corn tortillas, a salsa fresca and a wedge of lime. For dessert I have a devil's food cake whose frosting is made with Mexican chocolate--and ancho chile, making it somewhat more el diablo than people normally take "devil's food" to mean.

So will I end up back in Oakland? Maybe, given warmer weather and longer days. I'm curious about the zoo, and about the Chabot Science Center, and the missing Arbetoreum. Maybe I'll go back to Doña Tomás.

And is my sour mood gone? Yes, although I'm contemplating another rum drink. But I'll probably just have coffee.

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