There are several Oaklandisms that hit me when I visit home: sunny glints on loose hair, swinging gaits, razzing trunk beats and wafts of aromatic smoke. Twice a year I return from my western outpost to re-sample Oakland’s many tastes. This summer, a new guidebook promises to help me find my next haunt: This is Oakland, the cover reads in bold, hopeful letters, A Guide to the City’s Most Interesting Places.

This guidebook began as a Kickstarter campaign last year and is the brainchild of Melissa Davis, owner of Ruby Press, a “style-driven” public relations agency. Like so many Oaklanders, Davis moved here from somewhere else. She grew up in northern Virginia, worked as a fashion editor in New York, and then arrived in Oakland by way of San Francisco.

“I didn’t just move here because of the cheaper rent,” Davis says. “What I want readers to know about Oakland is how exciting it is. This city for so many years has had a bad rap, but everyone has had their ups and downs. More so than other surrounding cities, Oaklanders have a pride that really goes deep. And when The New York Times writes about the city several times a month, I think: something’s going on here.”

This vintage home decor boutique, which opened in 2013, features goods made by local artists. You can find these domestic treasures in the Rockridge district.

This vintage home decor boutique, which opened in 2013, features goods made by local artists. You can find these domestic treasures in the Rockridge district.

Davis worked with Berkeley-grown photographer Kristen Loken to capture Oaktown in seven neighborhoods: Temescal, Piedmont Avenue, Downtown/Old Oakland, Uptown, Rockridge, Jack London Square and Grand Lake. They spent some ninety hours on ninety photo shoots to capture what Loken calls “the independent spirit” of the Bay Area’s Second City. Davis maintains that it was difficult leaving locations on the cutting room floor. What remains is a beautifully-curated collection of hot spots she would personally recommend. “If my best friend was visiting from out of town, I would take her there.”

Everybody has his or her own Oakland story. From the Ohlones to the Dot-coms, each tribe has had their reasons for dwelling here. I have yet to read a definitive tale that includes them all. This is Oakland covers much of what Oakland is not, or perhaps has yet to become. Most of the businesses opened in the late 2000s. Many of the images picture white faces, which do not reflect the 2010 Census data I helped to collect. Whites, blacks and Latinos are still evenly accounted for in the city’s populace, and the book features few Chinese, Japanese or Indian food joints. Asians account for Oakland’s fourth-largest ethnic group and home of the nation’s first female Asian mayor. Where, the question remains, do everyday Oaklanders go?

An old friend and son of an East Oakland minister who saw the guidebook lamented the absence of Oakland’s bookstores. Since the closing of Cody’s Books in Berkeley and the public struggle of North Oakland’s Marcus Books, indie bookshops east of City Lights have dwindled. In the East Bay, most of them cluster along the Piedmont Avenue corridor. While This is Oakland does feature a newer reader’s nook from this neighborhood in Issues, it neglects to mention Spectator, Owl & Company, Book Zoo and Black Swan.

Next to De Lauer's News Stand, Issues is a great place to pick up periodicals. This mag and zine shop not only has local publications but an intriguing variety of the intellectual, artistic and obscure.

As an alternative to De Lauer’s News Stand on Broadway, Issues, off Piedmont Avenue, is a great place to pick up periodicals. This mag and zine shop has not only local publications, but an intriguing variety of the intellectual, artistic and obscure.

“The book entirely missed Oakland’s literary alley,” he said. “I just don’t get a feeling about where this is. Is it a place where white people can go to feel safe? To put it in Stein’s words, ‘There’s no there there.’”

I have modified his response out of respect for this book project, which aims to shine light on the good Oakland offers. Still, the light seems blinding with the shallow-depth-of-field photography style. These combined effects may lead readers to wonder whether Oakland’s everyday or underbelly — the places I’d take a friend from out of town — are glaring omissions. If This is Oakland presents the icing, where is the cake?

Tina “Tamale” Ramos, a second-generation Oaklander (on her mom’s side) whose Old Oakland restaurant La Borinqueña didn’t make the book, said that she is equal parts old school and new school. “I actually frequent some of the places featured in the book,” she told me after returning from the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, which staged their 2014 conference in Oakland. She caught a glance of the guide at Laurel Book Store recently. “But only seven of the ninety or so establishments are ‘Old School’ businesses. I find it disheartening that, generally speaking, only ‘New School’ businesses and locations are included in the glossy pages of high-end periodicals and books.”

Ramos sees her job not only as running her family’s 70-year-old business, but also connecting nano- and micro-businesses across town. She was also one of the founding board members of Oakland Grown, a business alliance that promotes local businesses and artists.

“As a third-generation owner and operator, I find the diversity of these Old School shops that have weathered the storms, made tremendous sacrifices in order to remain true and steadfast. I also know many folks — people of color, women, gay and lesbian — who have sustained careers in the food business world who decided for one reason or another to become independent owners. Most have a minimum of 10 to 20 years in the hospitality or retail industry and have taken the plunge to be their own bosses. I specifically chose these types of owners to provide food for the BALLE conference.”

Tina said she and her troupe of Oakland-made food purveyors fed more than 600 attendees, many of whom expressed surprise at the variety of tastes from The Town. Any local will tell you they’re more complex and profound than the Hayward Fault. “This was our time to shine and show what it means to be a localist in Oakland. We aimed to say, ‘This is what Oakland tastes like.’”

Kwik Way has existed through many incarnations of burger joint since it opened in Oakland's WWII boom era and narrowly missed becoming a McDonald's in the early 2000s.

Kwik Way has existed through many incarnations of burger joint since it opened in Oakland’s WWII boom era and narrowly missed becoming a McDonald’s in the early 2000s.

It takes a long time to set down roots in Oakland, to marinate here and get a sense for the place. I would recommend that tourists, recent transplants, and even Oaklander-grown folks begin by seeking stories. Drop into Lakeshore’s Maribel retail vintage shop and ask the owner about where the lady in the old painted portrait lived when Oakland was mostly wild space. Taste the history in Everett & Jones’ barbecue sauce and then drop in on Conga Lounge (or turn to page 111 in This is Oakland and visit Cafe Van Kleef) to order a Mai Tai, Oakland’s Official City Cocktail.

When visiting Oakland, do not use the word “retro” (because Children’s Fairyland is iconic and not ironic) and cite Oaktown when adapting its charm in your town (because Walt Disney never gave props to the kiddie park that catalyzed his entertainment empire). Do not mimic the flavorless hips who stir Oakland stale. Rather, recognize the fusions in Oakland’s spice sachet. Tina, for example, is a self-described “chipster” who dips into all parts of town.

Oaklandish is how you wear  local love on your sleeve. Founded in 2000, it has expanded its location to the Dimond district. If you're curious about Oakland's stories, a good place to start is the Oakland Public Library's History Room, located at 125 14th Street.

Oaklandish is how you wear local love on your sleeve. Founded in 2000, it has expanded its location to the Dimond district. If you’re curious about Oakland’s stories, a good place to start is the Oakland Public Library’s History Room, located at 125 14th Street.

When visiting Oakland, don’t compare Oakland to Brooklyn, but do use Oakland-centric words like “hella.” Track the trails of wild turkeys in Redwood Regional Park and frequent entertainment venues like The New Parish. (Dave Chapelle did.) Have a friend flying in this August? Point her to The National Poetry Slam competitions, which will fill Easy Bay stages with underbelly art for five nights. Soon, you’ll get a sense for the whole of Oakland — the sugar, flour and nuts — that rise to the occasion and make this city the best pie you’ve ever sunk your teeth into.

If you’re curious about This is Oakland, drop by one of these vendors to peruse a copy, or attend this Saturday’s official launch in Old Oakland. Perhaps you’ll find the inspiration you need to publish your own take on The O.

Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland.
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6 Responses

  1. melissa davis

    Thanks so much for this piece on the book, Patsy!! I love Oakland Local and it’s exciting to be a part of it.

    I wanted to address a few things from the article. In the 5th paragraph, you state that the book doesn’t include any Chinese, Japanese or Indian restaurants, which is not true. We include Juhu Beach Club (Indian), Ramen Shop (Japanese), Burma Supertstar (Burmese), Hawker Fare (described by Chef Syhabout as the “Southeat Asian street food” he grew up eating as a child), and shop Umami Mart, which sells bar, kitchenware, and food and drink from Japan.

    I should also explain the reason some of the “old school” places aren’t in the book- I approached several of them and they either wanted full control of photography (which we couldn’t grant them) or never returned my calls. There were many of places I wanted to include. I love the ‘Old School’ places in this city.

    I also chose not to include bookstores because visually, they don’t make a beautiful layout. Shelves of books- while very personally appealing- do not make for an interesting spread. There are just so many things to consider when creating a book such as this – more than just, “is it great and is it Oakland.”

    I have lived in Oakland with my family for 11 years, and I’m so proud to call it home. Thanks again!

  2. Dana Fearn

    Should’ve been called “This Is Gentrified Oakland.” As a Fruitvale resident, I bought the book and was pretty disappointed not to see my very diverse neighborhood included. But we don’t sell $12 macaroni and cheese or “craft brew.”

  3. Maureen Forys

    People let’s make this into an actual book. I’m a book designer. I’ve lived here since 96. These are Oakland would be a fantastic answer and beautiful tribute to the whole city that we all know and love. Anyone in?

  4. meg

    I think melissa davis is kind of missing the point in her response. That said, I would love if someone did a version of this project that included older businesses, chinatown, west/ east oakland, working class establishments, and by extension, more brown faces. Something that would be of interest to visitors and locals alike, and bring customers/ visitors to theae places.

  5. melissa davis

    In response to Meg- the article was actually corrected by Oakland Local’s editors after I made my comment. The article stated that there were no Asian restaurants in the book, which was not true.

    I also made an effort to include many older, “old school” establishments, and the ones that did not make it into the book are not there because they never responded to my numerous emails and phone calls or they asked for creative control, which we simply couldn’t grant them.

    If you look through the book yourself, you will see faces of many different ethnicities. It is not a book filled with photos of white people. That wouldn’t be Oakland. In fact, see the cover.

    Places in the book were chosen according to how interesting, innovative and exciting they were. I did not choose places according to the color of the skin of the people working in them.

    I hope you’ll pick up the book and check it out for yourself! Thanks for your comment and thoughts 😉

  6. Jimmy

    I definitely checked out this book, and it is beautiful and stunning with the design, Melissa definitely has a penchant for that. But I’m not surprised about the visceral reaction its causing with a book titled “This is Oakland”.

    This book is definitely Melissa’s personal view of Oakland mixed with the need to meet her artistic standards as well. I recommend everyone watch the kickstarter video to really see Melissa’ vision : ; she wants to focus on the new innovative businesses here in Oakland — let me clarify — the new innovative, aesthetically pleasing businesses here in Oakland that she specifically is exposed to.

    A fair amount of the businesses she chose are trendy right now because of gentrification, and these businesses are innovating to meet this new type audience. And because they’re new entrepreneurs, most of them will fail. Already one of the featured places in Lake Merritt is gone, and I wouldn’t doubt that 2 more of them will fail within the next year.

    I’m sure this book took time to make and Melissa spent her heart and soul to it, and it was definitely worth taking a glance at. It’s captured new & hip businesses in Oakland in the key gentrifying neighborhoods and the only change I’d make is that I wish the title would reflect that more.


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