I spent the past weekend in a tiny town, Lexington, Va., with journalists talking about how we report about poverty. One of them turned out to be Steven Gray, whose recent attention-getting Salon piece about the shrinking black middle-class was sobering and inspiring at the same time. Before being laid off, Gray covered Detroit for TIME Magazine and we briefly compared our cities.
There are two Detroits, just as there are two Oaklands. One side is marked by entrepreneurs and artists, many new arrivals. They tame neighborhoods and attract families and professionals. They are often heard saying things like, "Oakland's great! I love Oakland!" as if they need to convince me and others of the city's merits.
I have spent five years chronicling this part of Oakland.
I have also spent five years reporting about the "other" Oakland where the violence and foreclosures are more likely to happen. Usually we mean East and West Oakland.
I was thinking about this and it struck me that Broadway between 13th Street and Grand Avenue is a microcosm of both sides of Oakland.
On Broadway and 13th, and you can usually hear bands of teenagers and slightly older adults -- some prostitutes and runaways -- shouting to be heard over each other about fashion, hair, boys, girls, money and politics. It's lively. But fights and screaming matches are not uncommon there, next to the entrances to the downtown BART station.
A man once tried to sell
City Hall is across the street.
On 14th, the cheap pizza joints (three within a block of each other) have been joined by Bittersweet chocolate cafe and Awaken Café. There are still eclectic stores lining every block. But the Cathedral Building is filled downstairs by a high-concept boutique, and a new operator could take over the closed-down Café Madrid at 20th and Broadway. The cafe in the Wizard of Oz emerald green I. Magnin building has been a shadow of what it was when it opened next to the Paramount Theatre as a tapas bar about five years ago.
Further up Broadway is Franklin Square, a pocket of nightlife in a building straddling 22nd and Grand Avenue that is possibly the most successful transformation in downtown Oakland so far.
Just two years ago, Franklin Square Wine Bar was the centerpiece of the square.
The wine bar shut down in 2010 leaving only daytime businesses, except for the Louisiana Fried Chicken restaurant. Around the corner but in the same building were a cheap Chinese diner and a dusty bookstore specializing in war literature. Front Gallery, 21 Grand and Mercury 20 flickered briefly. For a while the empty storefronts seemed to outnumber the businesses on the block.
Some blamed the landlord of holding out for sky-high rents. The landlord said she was just holding out for the right tenants.
Either way, today the old businesses have given way to Farley's East and Era. A boutique just opened and a cavernous restaurant and bar is going in next to Farley's. The Chinese place is now the tony Plum Bar. Plum restaurant stands adjacent with a perpetual waiting list.
The Punchdown, which opened at the end of 2010 in the old Franklin Square Wine Bar, is also a wine bar but serves sustainably and naturally grown wines.
One of the best additions has been Ike's Lair, a chain sandwich shop that stays open until 7 p.m. seven days a week. Usually sandwich places in downtown Oakland shut down evenings and weekends. Because of its hours, Ike's has drawn more people downtown, even on weekends when the streets usually empty out like a ghost town until the bars and restaurants open for dinner.
None of this solves either city's big issues, like unemployment, geographic disparities, or the resentment people in parts of the city feel about being left out of the downtown renewal.
I don't have the answer for them. I'm only trying to raise the issue and remember that the downtown renewal that is supposed to improve the economy may look different to people who aren't in the same bubble dining on an $18 slow-cooked egg.
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