Oakland Local

Lake Merritt, Oakland’s brackish, U-shaped landmark near downtown and uptown (depending on where you’re standing), has been part of my life since I lived in New York City years ago. I visited San Francisco often for business, and always made time to visit my best friend in Oakland. A walk in Lakeside Park often figured in our plans, along with a stop for fried chicken at the late, lamented Merritt Bakery. We didn’t have chicken like that in NYC.

Years later, after stints in other California towns, north and south, I moved to Oakland. My first place was near Harrison and Grand, and Lake Merritt reentered my life.

On this day off, I decided to visit my old neighborhood, including Lakeside Park. My son wasn’t with me. Children’s Fairyland was not an option unless I borrowed a kid. I decided to think it over, over coffee. I parked, easily, along Grand Avenue and wandered over to Coffee with a Beat, one of Oakland’s first coffee houses. I used to spend quality time with their coconut cake back in the day.

Nate, Jr., and Justin Smith of Coffee with a BeatToday, Justin and Nate Smith, Jr., were at the helm. They are two of four children of Nate and Joyce Smith, who bought Coffee with a Beat eleven years ago. The whole family works here. Back in the day, Coffee with a Beat served not only as a coffee house, but as an unofficial community center for Oakland’s black community.

When the Smiths bought “The Beat,” they decided to keep things that way. There are photographs of famous African-Americans, some local, hanging on the walls. Different local artists’ works are featured as well. All artwork is for sale, as is everything in their store: a glass case filled with books by and about Barack Obama (“My dad’s a huge Obama fan,” Justin tells me). All kinds of Obama memorabilia are for sale, as is a small selection of works by local jewelers and craftspeople. The singing and dancing James Brown doll, however, is not for sale.

I was most interested in the coconut cake. Did they still have it? Unfortunately, no longer.

What they do have is delicious coffee and pastries, and a relaxing, chill atmosphere where anyone would feel at home. In fact, CWB has seen their clientele evolve substantially over the past several years. Ever since a large senior home was built next door, about 40% of the people who hang out at CWB are elderly white folks. CWB is everyone’s hangout.

It would have been easy to stay there all afternoon, but I wanted to walk around the park.

It was my good luck that the Golden State Bonsai Federation Bonsai Garden was open that day. How many Oaklanders know we have a prize-winning, world-famous bonsai garden right here in Lakeside Park?

Some of these little trees are hundreds of years old. In fact, the first tree the collection received was presented to the City of Oakland by James Burlingame — yes, that Burlingame. The Curator of the collection, Kathy Shaner, is the only Japanese-certified Bonsai master in the U.S. It’s a spectacular garden, with Redwoods, pines, cypress, flowering trees like cherries and azaleas — all in meticulous miniature. It’s a magical place, and Kathy or one of the docents will be happy to tell visitors great stories about the trees. Admission is free, but a donation is recommended.

Just a few steps from the bonsai are the public gardens. Planting had started on this visit, and I could see schools’ gardens, local organizations’ gardens, planted with vegetables, fruits, and flowers. The gardens are a great place to mark the seasons here in our “seasonless” state, and a wonderful walk anytime.

If you go:

Coffee with a Beat
458 Perkins St, Oakland, CA 94610
Phone: (510) 835-5282 (JAVA)
Prices: $ ($10 or less)
Transit: AC Transit 12 Line and NL Line

The Gardens at Lake Merritt: http://gardensatlakemerritt.org/

Merritt Bakery: http://www.merritt-bakery.com/

Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt: www.gsbf-bonsai.org/lake-merritt

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