Field Notes- Downtown Oakland- A City In 9 Movements

Each day for the last 6 years , I have taken the train to downtown Oakland , and headed up to the 13th floor of the office building where I work. I sit in a corner, with a panoramic view of downtown, and the Bay Area beyond. It’s a nice view.


Over the past 6 years , I have taken to walking all over  downtown Oakland at lunch, and I  began to see that Downtown Oakland is in fact not a single entity, but many smaller neighborhoods that make up the  whole. By my count, 9 distinct neighborhoods.

So  I created a map:

OAKLAND Map new 1

I wondered if I could combine my ambles into a single walk that would take one through all of these neighborhoods, in each case highlighting one public space that captured some essential element of each of the neighborhoods and the people who inhabit them.

So I came up with this one. It’s 3- 1/2 miles  through the heart of Oakland. 9 neighborhoods, or movements,  plus an epilogue. Here’s the walk:

OAKLAND Map new 2


Emerging from 12th Street BART, one can quickly navigate to what could be considered the center of Oakland- Frank Ogawa Plaza. Oakland’s has a loosely radial plan, and  all of its’ spokes- Broadway, Telegraph, San Pablo, East 14th, converge here. So it is appropriate then that one finds Oakland City Hall here, with the city’s namesake oak in the foreground.

The clarity of the city plan is undeniable  in this plaza, each of these spokes coming from a different and distinct part of Oakland , coming here to this hub. But what is more important than the Plaza’s place in the city physically, is its place spiritually. This is the place where the city comes together to rally, party, to protest. Oakland’s long history of activism has come alive for me on numerable occasions in the last 6 years , and let’s face it, there has been plenty to gather for. From the night after Trump’s election, to Occupy, to May Day celebrations, to Warriors championships, this is where all the parades end.


There are several elegantly defined urban spaces in City Center. In addition to Frank Ogawa as the hub of the spokes , fronting the Plaza opposite City Hall is the Rotunda Building. This building sits at the collision of two streets at odd angles,  and resolves this with one of Oakland’s grandest interior spaces , a soaring elliptical atrium surrounded by arcades .


After spending some moments in this often quiet location,  one can pop out to Broadway and another elegant space -Latham Square. This square is more a very small slice of pie, and it reminds again of Oakland’s loosely radial plan; here Telegraph begins its eventful journey to the Berkeley campus.


The square was recently restored and has all the trappings of a proper outdoor room, well defined edges, ample seating , a lovely old fountain, and of course an iconic building marking the moment, the blade-like Cathedral Building straight ahead. This building is like a fragment of fine lace. One thing I love about Oakland is how accessible it is. I once attended a party in one of the apartments above. A clown greeted us at the Ground Floor elevator with  “kool aid” in plastic cups, then shepherded us up to the sixth floor. The doors opened to a very large naked man painting people’s faces. So there was that.

To the right of the Cathedral Building is one of the many new additions to the city- a 30 story rental residential tower just coming to completion, replacing a parking lot. This also marks the unofficial start of the “Uptown” neighborhood. We head down Broadway, through the old retail heart of Downtown Oakland.


Urban space of course includes the  streets themselves, and Broadway has been, and has the potential to be again, a great walking street. It is as close to a main street as there is in Oakland, wide sidewalks, some stunning buildings, some not so stunning. The architecture in the area includes a series of Art Deco and Moderne buildings from the 30s, that together begin to form a sense of “district”. Walk up 19th to Telegraph and you will see the Old Oakland Floral Depot on the corner. It is reborn as the restaurant Flora. The building is a superb example of a style know as Zig Zag Moderne, from the 1930s.


Further on, at 20th and Broadway, one can regard a pair of Moderne beauties, the old I Magnin department store, from 1931,  dressed in luscious green terra cotta, and her date for the evening, the extraordinary Paramount Theater.


If you get a chance, go inside the Paramount. Here one is transported to the highly stylized 30s of fantasy- golden chiseled figurines , sleek chrome railings, smoking lounges. To be in this lobby before a performance is an urban experience of the highest order. It gives me  an intense desire to take up smoking.


This is Uptown, the heart of the old retail and entertainment core of Oakland. And Broadway defines this neighborhood, both its past and potential. A few of the haggard lesser buildings on the street are slated to give way to new construction, which will be a good thing. The street should also get some big beautiful street trees end to end, which would help to make it a true boulevard.  At  20th , one can head east to another neighborhood, and era, of Oakland.


As you head down 20th, the environs change quickly, the landscape now second half 20th century urbanism, that is primarily office buildings and parking lots. This is 50s-80s corporate Oakland, a new downtown astride the old one. It doesn’t seem to have an agreed upon name, but it is dominated by the presence of Kaiser. So I  call it Kaiserland.

The urban space that embodies this neighborhood sits within the Kaiser campus, or atop it to be more precise, the Kaiser Roof Garden. When Henry Kaiser developed this complex in the late 50s, he was inspired by a trip to Rockefeller Center, itself an icon of corporate America, to add a park to the roof of the parking garage below. And in 1960 one of the first rooftop parks in the country opened. You enter from the parking garage entry and take the elevator up.

IMG_4120The garden is a rambling 3 acres, open during bisiness hours, and  populated with lunching workers. On the park side, the building’s gentle arc cups the roof garden, and on the other side, the curve dramatically anchors the end of Lake Merritt.


As you depart the Roof Garden, you can head south on Webster Street. After a couple of blocks, the offices fall away, and once more, you have a sense that you are entering a different place.


I had thought the name Oaksterdam  referred only to the Oaksterdam University, a school devoted to all things cannabis nearby. However, this area along Webster and adjacent streets is identified as such by several sources, so Oaksterdam it is.

At 17th and Webster, one can see the balancing act of a city undergoing its most significant changes in 60 years. A pair of new residential high-rises sit just beyond an exquisite 3 story building from 1925 covered in Spanish tiling. (It was the headquarters of a company …….who sold the tiles- The Howden & Sons Tile Company). This marks the start of Oaksterdam.


Oaksterdam , part place, part state of mind, has flourished for years in the under-utilized cheap rent spaces of these low-slung buildings just east of Broadway. It is such spaces throughout downtown Oakland where can find much of what makes Oakland unique. It is an Oakland that I find is home-grown, diverse, small, specific, low rent , quirky, creative.  And a key is the often exquisite smaller scale buildings that contain small footprint  retail and office space, both on the ground and up above. So along Webster, Franklin, between 14th and 17th, that’s what you see.







IMG_2783Here Oakland’s urbanism is “gap-toothed”, and in its gaps, typically along parking lots, another over-arching feature of the neighborhood reveals itself- murals.  Oakland is a city of murals and graffiti, and they are throughout Oaksterdam, and really all of Oakland.







Fortunately , many of these older buildings are protected, so it saves the physical form. But part of the charm comes from its missing teeth- the empty lots that present the canvases for the artists. One hopes that some of these gaps remain, perhaps as pocket parks , because I think they are vital to the essence of Oaksterdam.


All the new high-rises get a lot of attention in downtown Oakland , but of course, many people have been living in downtown Oakland for a long time. Back at 17th, one can head east towards Lake Merritt. Here you will begin to find a number of elegant larger apartment buildings along some of the streets near the Lake. It is a fine urban neighborhood that spills out and along Lake Merritt.




This is officially known as the  Lakeside Residential District and it fronts several blocks  along Lake Merritt.  The apartments , many built between the 20s and the 60s, include market rate and affordable rentals, senior, and low income. So the neighborhood serves a wide swath of the community. One of my favorite spots is the old Lake Merritt Hotel, now senior apartments, and its fine Terrace Room overlooking the lake. The building is a Moderne Mediteranean mash-up from 1927. Great tiny little bar, and a better dance floor.

DSC_0269 copy.jpg

But the signature outdoor space for this neighborhood, and all of Oakland, is Lake Merritt just outside. Walking along its edge, as I wrote about a few years ago, is to really feel the whole of Oakland and its residents . If you want to know Oakland, walk around this lake, because the entire city is there. It is a magnificent urban promenade.


IMG_2690More residential buildings from the neighborhood sit on the lake. But the real eye catcher  is the imposing block of the Scottish Rite Center, a masonic hall built in 1927, now a performance space. A huge pair of doors is the only opening on the ground of a building that looks almost funerary, apropos masonic mystery. It stands out, and helps begin the transition to civic uses ahead.



The neighborhood officially known as Civic Center sits at the southwestern edge of the lake. This is perhaps the least compelling area to walk downtown, but if  one is to find a space that captures the area, it has to be the Oakland Museum


Built in 1969, designed by the firm of Roche Dinkeloo, it is less a robust civic form than a series of terraced gardens that rise from the earth- museum as public park.. Its exhibit spaces intertwine with the landscape, one can almost walk through the building without ever entering it. The intersection of inside and outside is the joy of the building, the opportunity to see through, look over, peer up. On this day , one could see a group of elderly women having a luncheon in the restaurant, while below , a slightly bored group of  middle school boys waited for the rest of their class to finish up with the Queer California exhibit. So very Bay Area. There are many fine period government buildings in the area- the Courthouse, the Post Office, the Library, but the civic spirit is best captured here.


As  one heads west on 13th to Neighborhood 7 (almost done!), we pass two intriguing buildings. First, a magnificent temple to the automobile on 13th Street- Alcopark!! .It was built in 1962, when cars were king. It also once had a heli-port on top. I need to park in the uppermost space in this thing.


And one last landmark at 13th and Oak, the old Oakland Hotel.  Completed in 1912 , situated near the terminus of the trans-continental railroad, it heralded Oakland’s arrival post earthquake. 4 presidents stayed there, so did Charles Lindbergh when he christened Oakland airport.


y2n0fhjh8laqhumx copy.jpg

Tough times in the depression led eventually to its conversion as a VA Hospital. And that gave way to its current iteration ; as senior apartments . It is a gracious building on 14th- two wings surround an arcaded entry courtyard and porte cochere. Gracious lounges are within, if the photos above are any indication, and it has been a tremendous success story as a senior building.



As one moves west on 13th or 12th, we come to Chinatown proper. Oakland Chinatown lacks the picturesqueness of San Francisco ,at least that of Grant Street. But the urban retail environment here is still distinct, largely due to the intensity of activity. But a square nearby; Lincoln Square, at 11th and Harrison, is the best place place to stop.

This was one of Oakland’s original squares, originally 7 as laid out in 1853 as Oakland was first planned. There are still 5, including this square.


This is an urban park at its finest, maybe not the prettiest, but the most used. Kids from the adjacent school playing here,  some intense basketball games over there, a recreation center with many seniors from the neighborhood over there, and best of all, a Chinese junk play structure, seen here. The young girl is overwhelmed.


Kevin Durant, already missed:


It captures a nice slice of Chinatown . I like that it was one of the original squares of Oakland, and over a century and half later, is so vital to its neighborhood. From here, one can head down 9th, through the heart of Chinatown, and for a moment , think you are in Hong Kong. As seen throughout Hong Kong,  an otherwise nondescript high rise will always be teeming with shopping at the street. But crossing Broadway, we leave this behind.

Screen Shot 2019-07-27 at 5.14.58 PM.png


In the 70s , some of the oldest buildings in the neighborhood known as Old Oakland, were in bad shape. Over the next couple of decades, the buildings were restored, and today one can see the results. The block of 9th between Broadway and Washington is one of the finest urban blocks in all the Bay Area. Extra wide sidewalks with mature trees, generous Ground Floor heights and a rich amount of facade detail define it.

1- Old OaklandBeyond this block , 8th and 9th Streets continue the character with a number of fine mixed use buildings . These blocks have less continuity, and begin to orient a bit towards the small community that inhabits this neighborhood. A union hall mural, and here’s to Engineers and Scientists!!


And Man Must Wak nearby.


The neighborhood transitions back to full residential , but unlike Lakeside, this is of a different scale. It is an area that seems to feel more a part of another place, perhaps one on the other side of the freeway.


In my time in downtown Oakland I have become fascinated with this tiny corner of the city, our last stop. A small area along MLK, Jefferson  and Castro Streets, it is considered Old Oakland , and yet it shares little with the polish of 9th Street. These are blocks of small humble victorian houses, along with quite a few churches. It is the scale and texture of West Oakland, but a block or two from city center. This stand along the freeway is filled with some fine homes, some less fine, and half a dozen churches. A bit like West Berlin, it has been broken off by a wall, or in this case, a freeway.




There’s even a Carnegie Library on 14th:


What was once a continuous neighborhood of this scale was torn apart by the Grove Shafter freeway, or 980. The 980 was originally conceived to feed a second bridge over the Bay, but that of course was never built. Construction began in the 1960s, until lawsuits held it up til its’ completion in the 1980s. You can see in this 1970s aerial photo it stopped halfway.  That’s downtown on the left, West Oakland on the right. 60s hatched redevelopment plans always targeted the blighted (re:black) neighborhoods for demolition and relocation, to be replaced most often by unnecessary transportation infrastructure . This racist legacy can be seen in nearly every American city.


The highway has never come close to reaching its capacity, and there is growing support  to remove this superfluous freeway, as 880 sits close by. You can read more about that here:

I often walk here when I want to get away from work for a bit. It is a  place that seems very far from my 13th floor office 3 blocks away.

2- Cornithian Baptist

Above is the first Greek Orthodox Church in Oakland . The Greeks long ago left for another part of Oakland, it is now the Corinthian Baptist Church. One day , I heard the most beautiful singing coming from within the church. I went up the steps and there was a solitary woman singing at the front of the church. She didn’t know I was there. My knees buckled at the luck of this moment of it, on the middle of a Tuesday. I felt so far away from work.

I turned to leave and looked across the street at the freeway, and a  new tent city that wasn’t there two weeks ago appeared, and likely wouldn’t be  in another two. So in neighborhood 9, the defining space for me, is this- the freeway and everything associated with it, in the past as well as today.


I sometimes think cynically that the one thing the freeway does provide is shelter overhead for tents. A tragedy of epic proportions, and a subject of a coming post, but suffice to say it is hard to be excited about a revitalized urban landscape when people have to live like this. We have much work to do.



The final few blocks of this walk bring it all together , an Epilogue I suppose. At 12th Street between Castro and MLK, one comes to Preservation Park, a bit more of preserved Old Oakland . It is a lovely spot consisting of some of the original gracious homes of the block,  as well as some others that were moved here. It is truly another world in the park, and offers a window to a genteel 19th century Oakland, a stark  counterpoint to our last stop . It is now mostly law offices and non-profits, and as it is private, it closes in the evening.

1- Pres park

From here, the 13th Street promenade takes you through eons of Oakland development in 3 blocks, from this Oakland of the 19th century, through a more recent housing development, right through the atrium of the 90s era Federal Building , and finally at City Center and BART. Despite its uninspired  80s architecture, City Center is as lively a place as there is Downtown Oakland , and as one pauses here, one can take it all in- from the past of Preservation Park behind you, to the present of this space , with its focus on on Oakland’s signature Tribune Building , and the residential towers of the future, now emerging overhead.


And that’s it.

Downtown Oakland is changing, faster than it has in decades. I think that is mostly for the good. I am astonished by the raw beauty of much of downtown. It is a  “gap-toothed urbanism”, where buildings of different scales have room to express themselves, where art has emerged in the in-between places,  a place of great diversity and, relative to its sister across the bay, affordability.  Therein lies both the opportunity and the challenge going forward. To that end, the city of Oakland is currently creating a new downtown plan, and trying to address these very issues. You can find more information here: Downtown Plan

Downtown Oakland has its hooks in me, for sure. It started with those walks at lunch. Now this admittedly ponderous post. Perhaps this could form the material for a Architectural Guide for Downtown Oakland, the last one of any substance is over 40 years old. I’ll give that some thought on my next lunch walk.