by Lola Akinmade Åkerström
From food trucks and street art to farmers markets and sports, the spirit of community is alive in Oakland.
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There’s a specific feeling that sets in when you arrive in Oakland, California. It begins when you see the vibrant murals etched across ageing buildings and a spectrum of diverse faces giving you warm smiles as you pass on the street.
It deepens when immersed in the blended waft of spices that come from revitalised neighbourhoods (Temescal Alley, Piedmont and Rockridge) and the once decaying district now revamped into the vibrant waterfront that is Jack London Square. Strolling down Oakland’s anchor street, Broadway, you begin to see the way this port city’s skyline is as diverse as its inhabitants.
A city that has fought hard to shake off long-held stereotypes and emerged from San Francisco’s shadow, Oakland today emerges as a place of community, activism and strength of spirit.
Who is Oakland?
Oakland is Sam Gilbert, the local brewer behind Temescal Brewing, who knows your favourite beer by heart and what his neighbours like to drink. It’s artisan Tracey ‘The Paris Lady’ Friley, who shares her passion with fellow Oaklanders through her boutique, Oo La La. It’s cheese monger Andrew Calabrese at Rockridge Market Hall, who knows your preferences.
“We keep cheese cards, so you can come back one year later and still find what you bought and liked,” Calabrese says.
Together, the message is grassroots, one of linking of arms that seems to whisper, “We’re in this together.” It only takes one visit to Oakland to see that to live here is to exist in the midst of many tight-knit communities.
In the shadow of the Oakland Marriott City Center lies the historic district Old Oakland, a creative office space with Victorian-style architecture and boutiques such as Marion + Rose Fine Goods, featuring local designers and craftspeople. It’s pretty fitting that the boutique’s official motto actually is “We are all in this together”.
On Fridays, Old Oakland hosts a vibrant farmers market that brings out the freshest fruits, vegetables and home-made products interspersed with food trucks. But Oakland’s residents aren’t just selling you goods. They’re doing so with unbridled passion and deep knowledge.
At the market, Cortland Thomas of Far West Fungi explains to customers the intricacies of his mushrooms and fungi — from shiitake and wood ear to portobello and king trumpets. Thomas was an amateur mushroom hunter long before being hired to do what he loves professionally.
The same story echoes true for Aaron Walker, who was a passionate member of the Rosenblum Cellars Wine Club before being hired to discuss wine for a living. His love grew from finding the perfect wine to enhance the dining experience as a cooking aficionado.
Oakland’s food scene is all about plating modern spins on global cuisine, from Mexican-inspired taquerias to European-style market halls.
“With Oakland, it’s about adding your own twist to tried-and-tested classics and making them extra special,” Lauren McCabe Herpich of Local Food Adventures says over plates of chicken tacos.
A culinary connection
Eating in Oakland is a culinary journey through different cultures on a single plate. Another unique spin on tacos can be found at alaMar Kitchen, where Dominican-American Chef Nelsen German blends his Dominican heritage with Mediterranean cuisine and Asian influences into his fish tacos.
Dozens of food trucks, too, criss-cross the city, and on Friday nights at Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), you’ll find a communal block party with live music and street food. There, residents and visitors will find several trucks selling fusion blends, from sushi burritos to chicken and waffle sandwiches.
“You have to step out of your comfort zone,” adds Friley, who also runs @BestFoodInOakland on Instagram. “Because that’s where the magic happens.”
And while a single plate in Oakland can be full of centuries of food culture from around the world mingling for the perfect culinary treat, this connectivity is not limited to the kitchen.
Grassroots movements require unyielding passion to build community, and you see this manifested throughout the city each day. The linking of arms is evident in the street art, murals and memorials that dot Oakland. And as morning light filters through overcast skies, visitors might feel that connection in nods of acknowledgement between strangers, from Lake Merritt to the boisterous walls of the city’s Oracle Arena.
As a small-business owner that supports other small businesses, Herpich sums up the Oakland ethos like this: “Oakland really is about reaching out, holding hands and propping each other up. That’s the grassroots spirit of community you feel here.”
At Marriott Hotels, everything we do is guided by the principle that travel feeds the mind and inspires new perspectives. This year we asked award-winning photographer and travel writer Lola Akinmade Åkerström to capture images and tell the stories of different people, lifestyles and cultures in destinations around the world.
Oakland Marriott City Center