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Robin Wilkey

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Oakland 160th Anniversary: An Editor's Ode To The Town

Posted: 05/04/2012 3:06 pm

In January, the New York Times released its coveted "Places to Go in 2012" list: the 45 best spots to visit in the world this year. Panama led the way, followed by Helsinki, Finland. But when the first city in North America graced the list, New York was passed over. As was Chicago, Los Angeles, Montreal, Miami and San Francisco.

This year's star, the number one place in North America to visit in 2012: Oakland. My town.

I was surprised (as were the commenters), but I suppose I shouldn't have been. Of course, the Times focused on the unbelievable renaissance downtown, citing its "new restaurants and bars beckoning among the grit," reinforcing the "Oakland is the new Brooklyn" stereotype that people love to mention. But for more than a century and a half (160 years today), Oakland has been much more than that.

Oakland is home to 400,000 people, a lush regional forest, three professional sports teams, and a history of rap, punk and hip-hop that blows every other city out of the bay. Until federal agents made an example of us last month, we had Oaksterdam: the world's first marijuana university. And before Jerry Brown's second stint as Governor of California, he served in Oakland.

Perhaps most worth noting is Oakland's art scene. Not the SFMOMA/de Young Museum kind of art scene, but the one that fuels the furnace at the Crucible and the Fire Arts Festival. It's this art scene that draws hundreds of people to Telegraph every month for Art Murmur, and keeps nearly every block buzzing with underground projects.

Take my block, for instance.

My neighbor, Jon Sarriugarte, runs the art car program at Burning Man and uses his front yard as his workshop. (It's not uncommon to see a 50-foot metal serpent wind down the street.) My other neighbor is the Phenomenauts - a Devo-inspired band with a dedicated cult following. On the other side of the block is First Church of the Buzzard: a warehouse metal venue that fills the street with sound once a week. And upstairs: GZ Soulye - a mixed-space showroom, studio and gallery that hosts fashion shows, Breast Cancer fundraisers and photo exhibits from Occupy Oakland.

Our street sags beneath the weight of their creativity. It must be the reason for the potholes.

The night before this story was published, I attended my first Tourettes Without Regrets - an underground variety show and a reminder of how much Oakland can shine. Acts included slam poets and storytellers, beat boxers and rappers, glass walkers and hula hoopers and the host of NPR's "Snap Judgment", Glynn Washington. All was wrapped up by the show's mischievous, red-headed founder, nationally recognized beat poet Jamie DeWolf. I went to bed electrified.

"Where we live is a unique place in the world. And I mean that - world," said my neighbor, Sarriugarte, when I interviewed him for a Burning Man story.

Of course, Oakland is not without its struggles. Struggles with schools. Struggles with infuriating political and penal corruption. Struggles with gentrification. Struggles with the senseless murder and violence. And deep-rooted struggles that a white girl from the suburbs wouldn't pretend to understand.

But in spite of the city's problems, Oakland residents seem to have a pride and sense of ownership that is unmatched by other cities. In the comment section of my interview with Sarriugarte, one reader noted that he'd seen him scrubbing down the sidewalks downtown after Occupy protesters covered them with graffiti.

When Sarah Filley and Alfonso Dominguez founded Popuphood, an innovative approach to infusing Old Oakland with a successful retail industry, they refused to look for help from San Francisco, making their new venture a for-Oakland-by-Oakland project.

"It had to be here," said Dominguez. "Oakland had to own this project. I didn't want to hear, 'Oh you brought someone from the City to 'help Oakland.' I didn't want to hear that."

Filley and Dominguez, already successful business owners, donated their empty retail spaces rent-free for six months to a handful of local retail businesses, believing that what's good for Oakland is good for them.

People call Oakland "the town," and it sure feels that way sometimes.

Today, May 4, 2012, Oakland turns 160. I don't know if Oakland will figure out its political problems any time soon. I don't know if it's the "new Brooklyn," and I don't know if it's the best place to visit in America in 2012.

But I know it's the only place I ever want to be.

Happy Birthday, to my favorite city in the universe.

Check out a few of our favorite spots in Oakland in the slideshow below:

The New Parish
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A small but formidable concert hall right downtown, The New Parish is perhaps the most amazingly underrated music venue in town. The layout offers a good view from any point in the house, and the bar serves up surprisingly good drinks. On stage, expect both local bands and big name headliners like Estelle, as well as the occasional secret show by old time favorites like Too Short and The Chris Robinson Brotherhood.