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Oakland: a nostalgic look at a rapidly changing American city, and also this author’s home town

OAKLAND – My sister and I are sitting outside a trendy lunch spot in the Temescal Alley area of town with my Dad and his lady friend, Lucy.

We’ve just picked up our fried chicken sandwiches with jalapeno cole slaw at Bakesale Betty, a small shop on Telegraph Ave. at 51st St. and Telegraph Ave. in north Oakland. Instead of inside tables, we find the only seating is out on the street on dark stools. And instead of actual tables, folks rest their sandwiches, soft drinks and Betty’s homemade cookies on rickety old ironing boards in shades of blue and green.

My Dad, his friend Lucy and my sister Christine gobbling down fried chicken sandwiches at Bakesale Betty in Oakland. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

It’s all rather goofy and fun, and a definite change from the Oakland visitors might have seen 10 or 20 years ago.

For my dad it’s not so much a study in urban changes as a personal revelation. He lived for most of the first 20 years of his life in a house a few yards from Bakesale Betty, at 52nd and Shattuck. It was torn down when the state built a freeway extension in the late 1960’s and moved some of the streets around, sending my grandparents to a new home in Reno, Nevada.

“It was all Italian when I grew up here,” he said. “I was the only kid whose name didn’t end in an I or an O or an A. But it was fantastic. We didn’t need Neighborhood Watch; everyone looked out for each other.”

The fried chicken sandwiches at Bakesale Betty come with a light slaw and diced, not too spicy jalapeno peppers. – PHOTO COURTESY VISIT OAKLAND

My Dad talks about how the area went into a drastic decline a few decades back, with boarded up shops and vacant storefronts. But other areas started to improve. His old stomping grounds on College Ave. were gentrified many years ago. Then it was Telegraph Avenue’s turn.

Now my Dad goes back and grins at the changes around him. He and I take a short walk down Telegraph and he shows me the small but handsome library where he studied as a kid and worked late into the night when he was in law school.

After lunch the four of us wander around the corner into a pedestrian walkway/plaza called Temescal Alley. We stop to try Doughnut Dolly, where they inject raspberry jam or other gooey bits into the doughnuts with a high-tech machine that looks like something an evil dentist might use on James Bond. We also check out cool clothing shops and glance into a trendy barber shop where everyone seems to have perfect millennial beards and tattoos in places their mothers probably don’t want to know about.

Oakland’s Temescal Alley features trendy shops and great food. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

My Mom and Dad and my sister and I moved from Oakland to suburban Castro Valley when I was maybe five years old. I don’t remember the house we shared in Oakland. But my Grandmother and Grandfather and my uncle lived in the house on Shattuck until I was maybe 11 or 12, and I remember it fairly well; a hulking wooden place with a porch and wide steps and a big basement with a pool table and these goofy suction cup toys my grandfather had hoped would become the next Slinky or Silly Putty. I can still remember the smell of the tomato plants in the yard.

I remember, or at least I’ve heard the stories enough that I SEEM to remember, going to a variety store around the corner to buy comic books. My sister tells me my grandfather would give us a roll of dimes he’d slide into one of his glass cigar cases and let us run wild. We also used to go to the original Kasper’s Hot Dogs on Shattuck. It’s now closed but there are both Kasper’s and Casper’s hot dogs all over the East Bay (there was a family dispute many years ago and there are two versions, both selling the same hot dog with gentle spices and a perfect, snappy casing).

I didn’t grow up in Oakland. And I’ve lived in Toronto now for 36 years. But I feel a sense of pride in Oakland. It’s where my Mom and Dad grew up and fell in love and got married. It’s where I was born, where we went for years on end to watch Oakland Raiders’ games or for family visits to see the animals dash among the fragrant eucalyptus trees at Knowland Park Zoo. It bothers me greatly that there’s so much poverty in the city and that it’s a town that traditionally has received little love from visitors. That’s changing, though, with folks tossing around phrases about how Oakland is now “the Brooklyn of the west,” and other such things.

Shakewell Restaurant is a fabulous spot in the Lakeshore District of Oakland. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

That’s not a bad thing to be. But it has caused some problems.

On the day of our visit to Bakesell Betty, my sister, Christine, and I have our dinner at a beautiful restaurant in the booming Lakeshore district of Oakland called Shakewell. It’s partly run by GM and partner Tim Nugent, who tells us he was born at a truck stop in Vermont (I think he was serious) and worked at some of the top spots in San Francisco, including Zuni Café and the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

“Sometimes I think Oakland is already becoming a bit much,” Nugent tells us. “But I do love it here. Some folks call me the Mayor of Lakeshore.”

Diners can expect wonderful Mediterranean cuisine at Shakewell in Oakland. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

I loved Nugent’s energy, as well as his restaurant’s cool lighting and the paella from their wood-fired oven. My sister and I both were blown away by their All in Thyme Cocktail, a killer combination of rye, lemon, thyme/honey syrup, combier (like triple sec) and absinthe, with a sprig of fresh thyme. We loved it so much we spent a half-hour combing a nearby liquor outlet at 9 p.m., desperately searching for a bottle of combier we never found.

In addition to taking in the scene at Temescal Alley and dinner at Shakewell, we sampled three wineries on the Oakland Urban Wine Trail, a collection of nearly a dozen California wineries with tasting rooms and production facilities in the downtown/Jack London Square area.

We started at Dashe, which grows its grapes up north but does all the crushing, ageing and bottling at their location on Fourth Ave., just a few steps from the busy 880 Freeway. We try a lovely, dry Riesling and a wonderful Carignane red wine from 130-year-old vineyards. They also do a great Petite Sirah. Clara, the tasting room manager, tells us they only use French Oak as they’re trying for more of a light, European style of wine versus some of the heavy California varieties winemakers often favour.

Dashe Cellars grows grapes in the Napa/Sonoma area but does all the processing and bottling in downtown Oakland. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

“We get a lot of folks from Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda,” Clara tells us. “They don’t want to drive to to go wine-tasting, so they like to come here and hang out with friends.”
We didn’t a chance to try it, but they also do a charcuterie plate with local meats and cheeses and fig jam.

A few blocks away on 2nd Street, and a little closer to the main part of Jack London Square, is Urban Legend Wine Cellars. It’s a bright, small tasting room on a corner, with lots of natural light and fun folks at the bar.
Co-owner Marilee Shaffer tells us she and her husband make nearly 20 varieties, sourcing grapes from all over California and bringing them to a nearby plant for crushing and bottling.

Urban Legend Cellars brings in grapes from all over California to make a large variety of tasty wines. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

“We’re a traditional winery in every way; we just don’t have the grapes growing out back,” she explains. “But that means we’re not tied to what grows best right around us. We take what grows the best from all over.

“Oakland is one of the most diverse places on earth, and the wine reflects that. We can make something for virtually every palette and be faithful to the terroir at the same time.”
I loved the Pinot Noir tasting, as they bottle grapes from three distinct growing areas of the state; the Russian River in Sonoma, Carneros in south Napa and the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Jose. The latter is astonishingly deep and fruity; like the beautiful child of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir to my taste buds. They also make a nice rose called Rosato di Barbera, an Italian varietal that grows exceptionally well in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

Sipping wine on a Friday afternoon in winter at Rosenblum Cellars in Oakland. Those California folks have it rough. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

From there it’s on to Rosenblum Cellars, which has a fine outdoor patio facing the channel that separates Jack London Square and downtown Oakland from the island community of Alameda. I wasn’t so sure about the blue sparkling wine, made with blueberries, but the regular sparklers were quite nice. And they make some exceptional Zinfandels; rich and spicy and not as reminiscent of a jar of Smuckers jam as some California zins.

Our tasting complete, we walk back to our car and make our way to the park that surrounds Lake Merritt, on the edge of downtown. It’s a lovely spot in the centre of the city with gleaming parks and lovely, old buildings framing the view. Off to one side I can see the shining white Superior Court building, where my Dad served as a judge for many years. To the east are the rumpled, green East Bay hills, shining like the Irish coastline in this year of heavy rains.

Lake Merritt is a fantastic spot to relax and enjoy nature in downtown Oakland. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

My sister and I stop on the shore and listen to a man playing a soulful serenade on his trumpet in the late afternoon California sun.

Oakland. I kinda like this place.

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