Oakland is having a moment. The city is safer than it’s been in years, real estate prices are climbing, and even young millennials are choosing to avoid the increasingly gentrified and IT-clogged city across the bay. When one of Oakland’s longtime sporting residents, the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, won the league championship in late June and the team celebrated with a parade through city streets, huge audiences around the world got to see what everyone in the Bay Area already knows: Oakland is a sunny, ethnically diverse and very happening place. Make that hella happening.
This is a big change from the late 1980s and early ’90s, which were locally known as a black hole (not that one) in its historically pleasant history. Back then, gang crime was at an all-time high, neighborhoods were in disrepair and morale was low. But a series of business and environmental initiatives began the turnaround. Mayor Jerry Brown invested in revitalizing the town’s old classic theaters and notable neighborhoods, and brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in new business. A channel that better connects the Lake Merritt estuary to the San Francisco Bay was also recently opened, helping to clean the lake and bring in new wildlife. And though Oakland has always had good food and nightlife, anecdotal evidence from locals suggests it is more vibrant than ever.
OZY has been following Oakland’s rise since our own founding two years ago, covering the city’s highs and its challenges. Check them out below.
Emilia Otero and the Rise of the Food Truck
Otero’s industrial kitchen, La Placita, cooks for the city’s most popular street carts and is led by the petite 67-year-old. She will do everything from clean up after people to starting a new activist movement that is helping the town’s street food vendors.
In Oakland, at least, Otero says vendors can start up their businesses relatively cheaply: $4,000 will buy a decent used pushcart. With that, you can expect to bring home upward of $200 a day, says Otero. A savvy entrepreneur can upgrade his or her cart about every two years until landing a food trailer, a more permanent setup, for $80,000. With the more official digs, you can bring home up to $1,000 a day, says Otero. For Sara Santay, a client of Otero’s who has a trailer of her own, that’s enough to put her two kids through university.
Antwan Wilson: Schoolhouse Rocky
Oakland Unified’s relatively new Superintendent Antwan Wilson is dealing with the most difficult aspects of school reform. He is in charge of 48,000 students, 71 percent of whom are on free and reduced-price lunch programs and a third of whom are English language learners. Oakland still flails on most indexes of school success: U.S. News & World Report, citing Standards of Learning exam results, marks it as below the state average. But Wilson has a plan to succeed, even though the city’s history of activism makes it doubly hard.
Oakland is terrifically unique. Northern California’s East Bay is home to schools with progressive names like Malcolm X Elementary School (in Berkeley) and Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy (in Oakland). Its citizens are famously strong protesters; it’s a social justice town. So it could be one of the best cities in America from which to birth progressive new education policy. It’s already tackled uniquely difficult programs, like switching from K-5 to K-8 schools — “not common,” says Conor Williams, an early education researcher at the New America Foundation — and pushing for bilingual education (more than one school was founded bilingually, thanks to parental agitation). But there’s no celebration here; instead, the leftist infighting continues. As Oakland’s Chief of Schools (and former colleague in Denver) Allen Smith puts it, “Oakland is an activist city, home of the Black Panthers. They can’t help it. Activism is in their blood.
Hoodslam: Oakland’s Craziest, Raunchiest Fight Night
What do you get when you mix the over-the-top acrobatics of World Wrestling Entertainment, supersize it with video games, ninjas, ’80s pop culture and no small amount of weed? You get Oakland’s Hoodslam fight night.
Fighters like “Missy High-as-Shit,” “Pissed-Off Nerdy Gamer” and “Juiced Lee” are Hoodslam regulars. “Drugz Bunny” pantomimes snorting fistfuls of cocaine, spilling powdered sugar all over himself and the fans just a few feet away. “Doc Atrocity” sports a bizarre mix of ’80s hair-rock wig, rainbow tights and a menacing, bloody skeleton mask. Storylines between rivals can take months to resolve. Oh, and you’re not really welcome there, either: A favorite chant is “Fuck the fans.” Then again, at 10 bucks a ticket, maybe you are being invited in for the mayhem.