Around Lake Merritt

Who doesn’t love a parade. Last week, I strolled around Lake Merritt in Oakland, and took part in one of urbanity’s finer tradition; promenading.

The urban promenade ennobles any city. Ideally it is a multi-use way that allows people to stroll, run, bike, meet and greet , and of course, watch everyone else doing the same thing. While any broad sidewalk can provide this experience, I find it is more compelling  when  bordering a natural feature. In the Bay Area, perhaps most well-known promenading can be found along stretches of the Embarcadero , as well as the beach along Chrissy Field. Farther afield, the street theater observed on a stroll along Venice Beach is unforgettable. There is also perhaps a most direct comparison to Lake Merritt found in encircling the Jackie Onassis reservoir in Central Park in New York.

Central Park reservoir

Lake Merritt is the  literal and figurative center of Oakland. The Lake is surrounded by a diverse cross-section of the city, from the edge of downtown’s highrises, to some of its most vibrant neighborhoods, and a stew of cultural facilities.

Lake Merritt Aerial

This collection of varied uses creates many different edges along the walk,and draws a wide range of users; runners and rowers to be sure, but also museum and church goers out for an outing, and nearby residents simply living their lives.  One is also struck that Oakland is not just a diverse city, but a city where that diversity seems more integrated than other cities, right down to the partnerships you often see. This is on full display as you walk around Lake Merritt.

Unlike the linear Embarcadero, the beauty of walking around the Lake is just that, you return to where you started. I began on the downtown side, astride the stunning new cathedral. Its singular form anchors one corner of the lake, and is well worth a trip inside, which we will do at the end. It’s some of the local office of SOM’s finest work.

Oakland Cathedral

Along this side of the lake, one passes a number of cultural and government buildings that give credence to this as the heart of the city. They are all seated at the Lake Merritt table in their stripped down cream-colored finery; the Scottish Rite Building, the Courthouse, the Veteran’s Memorial Building:

Scottish Rite Temple
Alameda County Courthouse

Oakland Veteran's Memorial

Perhaps the most compelling addition to the lake, along with the on-going restoration of the lakeside trail itself, has been the refurbishment of the Lake Chalet. It began life as a high-pressure pumping station for the Oakland Fire Department, and was designed by noted Architect John Galen Howard. The wings were added later to accommodate a boathouse and several restaurants. The building was restored and the new restaurant opened in 2009. It is a stunning place for a cocktail:

Oakland Lake Chalet

In all, these buildings and the surrounding lawns form a splendid backdrop for an amble. They grace the view on one side, while the lake sits on the other:

Lake Merritt

The Oakland Museum sits along this stretch as well, though not really present along the lake. The experience of the walk is its weakest along the south end of the lake, passing the white elephant that is the Kaiser Convention Center. It has been closed since 2006, and here, again, we see a file photo of the Occupiers trying to Occupy, as is their wont, the unused building earlier this year. The bridge in front is under reconstruction, so this part of the walk one speeds through.

Occupy Oakland

The east side of the lake is a completely different character: hilly and residential. As the hills tumble to the lake, a classic California mish-mash of apartments lands at the bottom, and I was particularly struck by these odd apartments, each amply endowed with balconies:

Lake Merritt

Ding Bat Apartments Oakland

Past this stretch, the northeast corner of the lake is embraced by a humbler icon , turning the corner with a delightful pergola which marks the transition to the bustling Grand Lake commercial district and its namesake theater.

Lake Merritt Pergola

Grand Lake Theater

 The Saturday we were here this area was rather festive, and couldn’t help but think the almost carnival air of the sign fit well, it added to a certain beach town vibe. Maybe it was also the presence of the drive-in next door, ice cream in abundance:

And of course, the bustle could be found along the promenade –  runners, dog-walkers, kids fascinated with ducks.

Lake Merritt

People sitting by the lake, laying on the grass, and bustling the passerby on blankets:

Lake Merritt

Finally there was the water itself, where a number of small sailboats plied the waters. In short, on this day, I felt like I was witnessing  a bit of urban perfection, a stew of people doing their thing on a Saturday, all astride one another.

Lake Merritt

As I headed for the home stretch, I got to thinking more about diversity. The promenade and space around it is blank slate for the citizens, and the diversity of destinations beckons a wider range of visitors. And the City of Oakland’s buildings add to that, liberally taking cues and offering suggestions of other places. The apartment buildings above felt like they would be home in LA, and this fine residential tower felt dropped from New York (except for the entry), and many of the 3 and 4 story apartments that spread horizontally near downtown remind me of those in Chicago. Yet together, they hang together and speak uniquely to this place.

Lake Merritt Hi-rise apartment

 Too much sun meant a need for a reprieve inside, and I wrapped up at the Cathedral. The building is a shell within a shell, a wood latticework inside the glazed shell. It is cool inside, and its hushed light and tones felt good.

There is a lot to like about Oakland, and I am glad we now call this side of the Bay home.

Oakland Cathedral SOM
This was Hike 14 in my chronicling 50 urban ambles in my 50th year. 

Hike 14:  5 Miles

Distance traveled  to date:  89