The picture publicly drawn about Oakland for many years has been anything but positive. High unemployment rates and poverty, drugs, crime and youth gangs have for a long time time soiled the reputation of the city located a few miles from San Francisco. Meanwhile, mayn things have improved thanks to high investments and committed politicians, but it will probably take a while longer until Oakland can get rid of the images of the past.
Oakland is one of the most ethnically diverse cities of the US. According to Census estimates, a little more than 25% of the population are Hispanics. Close to 16% of residents identify themselves are of Asian descent. At the same time, the percentage of Blacks has graudally decreased over the years. African-Americans have always had a cultural and social focal point in Oakland - the famous Black Panthers were founded here in 1966 - but in many neighborhoods formerly Black there are now other ethnicities at home. There are still some 19% of residents listed as having an income below the poverty line and unemployment is still high but already considerably lower than the 20% reported for Oakland in the 80s and 90s. With regards to crime rates, there has not yet been an actual trend shift, although total numbers are slowly declining for violent crimes. While these mostly happen only in certain areas of the town, the city itself is in some publications listed as being among the most dangerous places in America.
The East Bay had been claimed for the Spanish crown in 1772 regardless of the fact that Native Americans of the Ohlone people had been living here for thousands of years. In 1848, following the Mexican-American War, the area came to the United States and in the 1860s, it was connected to the nationwide railway system, causing a significant rise in population numbers. The cornerstone for the Port of Oakland, today one of the five busiest container ports of the country, was laid in 1868. This measure paid at the beginning of the 20th century when the first industrial companies in need of waterway access settled in Oakland. Following the severe San Francisco earthquake of 1906, Oakland’s population doubled due to many new residents coming over from the neighbor town where they had become homeless. The 1920s brought a significant economic upturn when a lot of large plants were set up in the East Bay area, a General Motors assembly plant being among those. From 1921 to 1924, more than 13,000 homes were constructed. Oakland also had an important position in World war II, mainly due to it being a location for a number of food processing plants and canneries, but soon thereafter, the city went into a recession. Plants were closed or relocated elsewhere and they took with them a percentage of the more affluent population, while the poorer residents, who had come to the city for the jobs, stayed behind. At about the same time, tensions between the races began to escalate in Oakland, a phenomenon, the city had not know before. In the 60s, there were the first accusations of exaggerated use of force by the mostly White police force against Black suspects.
At the same time drugs like heroin and cocain increasingly spread in Oakland, which led to a rise in crime rates. This problem intensified dramatically when the new drug Crack appeared in the 1980s. On October 17, 1989 the Loma Prieta quake with a magnitude of 7.2 hit the area and claimed 63 lives, 42 of which occurred in Oakland when a bridge on a freeway collapsed. In October 1991 a fire storm, driven by strong wind gusts, spread through the city, destroyed close to 3800 buildings and claimed 25 lives. In 2009, Oakland made international headlines when on January 1 a white police officer shot a black suspect in the back although he lay facedown on the ground. In the following days, there were violent riots in the city.
From the mid-1990s on, city administration had taken several measures to strengthen Oakland and to stop the trend towards more poverty and crime. In Downtown for example pedestrian zones were created and new homes built which were supposed to bring some life back into the area. Among the sights here is the Tribune Tower, 93 metres tall, a building erected in 1924 formerly hosting the local paper’s editorial department which has become something like the unofficial landmark of the city. Also in the same area is Chinatown, a neighborhood with a history going back to the 1850s which is home to residents from many Asian countries, not only from China. The lively quarter has many traditional stores and restaurants and it puts emphasis on maintaining Asian culture with a library, Chinese opera companies and traditional events such as the Chinese New Year or dragon boat races. Both Bruce Lee and Amy Tan made their home in Chinatown for a while. The central point of the neighborhood is Jack London Square , a popular square with shops, restaurants and hotels near the port. Altogether, the neighborhood has benefited greatly from the revitalization measures the city has initiated. The square is a good starting point for the exploration of Old Oakland, another thoroughly renovated neighborhood which has once been the main shopping area of Oakland. There is a row of renovated Victorian homes on 9th street which is worth seeing. Old Oakland also hosts a Farmer’s Market every Friday. Another historic building is the Fox Oakland Theatre built in 1928 and re-opened after intensive remodeling in 2009, located on Telegraph Avenue. The former cinema today hosts an art school. Near Jack London Square visitors can also find the USS Potomac anchored, a ship previously dubbed the “swimming White House” because it was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s yacht from 1936 to 1945.
A popular destination for day trips among residents and visitors is Lake Merritt east of Downtown. Actually, it is not a lake but a bay where several small rivers flow into San Francisco Bay. As early as 1870, the waters were declared a protected habitat for wild ducks and several species of water birds use Lake Merritt as their home at least for a part of the year. There are a number of public parks surrounding the lake, decaying structures were repaired and a net of hiking paths with a total lenght of five kilometres has been set up at the lakeshore. The lakeshore is illuminated by some 3400 streetlamp lights forming a “chain of lights” in the evening hours.
Thanks to the population density of the San Francisco Bay area and the corresponding large size of the market, Oakland is home to three professional sports franchises in the major US sports leagues, although there are also teams in nearby San Francisco. The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, opened in 1966, is the home arena for the Oakland Athletics of Major League Baseball and for the Oakland Raiders football franchise. The stadium has seats for up to 63,000 fans. Adjacent to the Coliseum is the Oracle Arena with a capacity for almost 20,000 fans, home of the Golden State Warriors of the National Basketball Association.