OAKLAND — The center of our city isn't quite the same since the days singer Petula Clark assured us things will be "great when you're downtown."

For a while, Petula baby, the lights weren't "so much brighter there."

Take 14th Street, the center of downtown Oakland, where it meets Broadway, once the axis of the city's business, shopping and entertainment district. Back in the 1930s, the Premier Theatre was the West Coast burlesque hub and stars like Ethel Barrymore and Enrique Caruso performed on the stage of the MacDonough Theater. (One of the less glamorous groups was the Downtown Club, a group of recovering Skid Row alcoholics that used to meet at the nearby New Hope Saloon.)

Today, the Smith Building — 18-stories of steel and glass about as exciting at night as a flat Budweiser — stands in place of the MacDonough, and the after-hour outlets are history. Yes, even in its heyday, downtown might not have been a night owl's Mecca. But downtown didn't fold up like a flower after 5 p.m.

For too long, downtown Oakland has been a no-man's-land after-hours, despite the valiant efforts of groups like the Downtown Oakland Girls, which used their womanly wiles to promote downtown Oakland back in the day.

The lights, however, are beginning to flicker a little brighter these days.

One by one, venues — Cafe Van Kleef, Flora, Cafe Madrid, the Franklin Square Wine Bar, The Uptown — are moving into the area.


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The blossoming is spreading west of City Hall, making even the humble 14th Street corridor between Broadway and Franklin a friendly stretch to walk.

The Joyce Gordon Gallery set up shop across from the Financial Center building nearly five years ago, but only keeps the lights on after sunset once or so monthly. Nearby, Planet Soule is only open weekends. The pioneers are getting company, though, from Awaken Cafe, which will serve things in the a.m. to wake up people (like coffee, for starters) then expand to a nighttime venue (11 p.m. weeknights; as late as2 a.m. weekends) with libations, live music, dancing, performance art, poetry readings, Burning Man Night, etc.

To quote Petula again: "Downtown — you'll find a place for sure." That's the idea, anyway.

Founders Kari Christensen and Cortt Dunlap are betting that some of downtown's

75,000 workers will be their customers and might even want to stick around for a while to hang out at Awaken Cafe with the cadre of young artists who flock to Oakland in search of bigger spaces and smaller rents, as well as the 10,000 residents former Mayor Jerry Brown aimed to bring in.

"Things are definitely looking up on that street. It's a very exciting neighborhood," said Christensen, a 31-year-old whose mission was to bring to downtown Oakland the kind of excellent coffee found in other parts of the East Bay and just about every square inch of her native Seattle.

The mission came to Christensen, she said, while "sitting in a cafe drinking yet another bad latte" trying to figure out how to open her own yoga studio — something the East Bay could do without.

She teemed up with Dunlap, and the rest is, well, being built, although the opening of Awaken Cafe is a bit behind schedule (opening date is when it's finished, the co-founders say — hopefully by spring).

The cafe has already changed the street, said Christensen, starting with a temporary sign that has been hanging for months over the old Golden Bull marquee, the fortunes of which pretty much mirror the changes seeping into downtown.

Bill Peluso's Golden Bull opened on 14th Street in 1958 in the site of the old Central Cafe with a rock garden complete with waterfall off the cocktail lounge (the designer's "pride and joy," according to media accounts from the time). Downtown went downhill and the Golden Bull became a dark horse.

When the bar went hipster dive in 2005 or so — as opposed to the scary seedy bar that it had become — the rocks were painted black and the walls glowed with red lighting. 

Presumably, the owners were piggybacking on the supersuccessful but intentionally funky Radio Bar a block over on 13th.

That's when people began saying the Golden Bull captured the urban feel of the area.

Artists, punks, bums, white and blue collar folks and the young and old could get a cheap brew or strong drink, play a game of pool, watch slasher films or stare up at the stained-glass Pabst Schlitz Malt Liquor chandeliers over the two ends of the bar, which Awaken salvaged (the bar, that is), and patrons didn't have to worry anymore about catching something from the reportedly alarming restrooms.

Even the rock wall went, replaced by sheets of windows. The times, they are a-changin'.

Dunlap and Christensen have been printing bumper stickers (small enough for a bike, though) with the slogan "I love Oakland. Awaken Oakland Pride. Awaken Cafe. Join Us."

"We really got that the success of our business is tied to the success of Oakland," Dunlap said.

They're pinning part of that success on Mayor Ron Dellums' green city initiatives, which the two are firm believers in.

Thus their motto: "Community. Arts. Sustainability. World Class Coffee." That's a pretty ambitious motto.

Oakland could have Starbucks on every corner or something unique to transform the area, Dunlap said.

His main motivation was to create a "brick-and-mortar social-networking tool" in the very core of the city. (Oakland is the geographic center of the Bay Area, he noted.)

The timing was right, the duo said, for downtown Oakland to be a place to bring people together (instead of spending their money in San Francisco and elsewhere), provide an outlet for the city's artists, who otherwise could be stuck in their warehouses, and tie the different part of the town together.

"Oakland is a blank slate, on the verge of a transformation," according to Dunlap. "We want to be a canvas for Oakland to paint."

That's all for now, ladies and gentlemen. But if you have a cool shindig e-mail me at awoodall@bayareanewsgroup.com (telephone 510-208-6413) or visit the Night Owl blog http://www.ibabuzz.com/nightowl for more events and oddities.