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The Spirit of Oakland, by Abby WassermanThe Spirit of Oakland
Below is a transcription of the introduction.



Oakland will celebrate its sesquicentennial in 2002. The city has traveled a long way in 150 years, yet two forces affecting the economy and demographics today are remarkably similar to those at work during the city's creation: a rush for riches and an influx of immigrants. The gold fever of the mid-19th century, which brought the world to California, created the city of Oakland just as it created her sister across the bay, San Francisco.

Oakland's history is one of power struggles and "firsts," of creativity and accomplishment, of high achievements and ignominious failures, of survival and triumph through earthquake, fire and flood. The good times have been many, and there have been dog years, too. The city has working-class roots and was for much of its history a prominent industrial center; it is equally rich in the culture of its people. Its politics tend to be progressive [and surprising], its social innovations enlightened or at the very least well-intentioned. . . .

Throughout its growth from village to metropolis, Oakland has been dubbed many things, often in the attempt to arrive at a definitive identity for outsiders. An early sobriquet, "Athens of the Pacific," expressed satisfaction with the city's cultural institutions and excellent private schools. "Hub of the West" described Oakland as an essential crossroads of air, rail and water transport. "Progressive City" made sense in the 1910s, during the progressive reign of Mayor Frank Mott, and would work today. "Eden of the Pacific: The Flower Garden of California" showed the city's pride in its horticulture. Oakland in the 1990s was honored as an All America City for the cultural and racial diversity and social programs. I like "My Oakland," from the 1930s, for its settled, affectionate tone. The only phrase that captures all of Oakland for me, however, is "Oakland is California, only more so." This acknowledges both the city's complexity and its inextricable ties to California's own fortunes.

Oakland residents are puzzled when outsiders dismiss or belittle their city. They shake their heads as if to say, "They just don't understand, poor fellows." Oakland is not a tourist city, despite its many tourist attractions; it is a place to live. Throughout its history, Oakland has been thought a good place to live for many reasons: the climate, soil, air, space, architecture, parks, people, libraries, colleges, culture and small-city (currently 400,000) atmosphere. I've heard people say that if Oakland was anywhere else in the world rather than across the bay from San Francisco, it would be acknowledged as a city of the first rank. But then, Oakland anywhere else in the world wouldn't be Oakland.

What does the city look like? High, graceful hills crisscrossed with creeks and verdant with redwoods, bay and oak, descending into hilly lowlands, deep canyons and sloping meadows, and on to a great spreading plain with sparse greenery that reaches to the bay. Like all of the region, the topography is dramatic. The Hayward Fault runs through the hills from north to south, and there are smaller faults everywhere. The city is composed of neighborhoods or districts, most with their own small commercial centers. Oakland grew by annexation, so each district retains its own flavor and has a colorful history. Parks abound, some of them extensive and beautifully kept, others sparse and neglected. The city has a full spectrum of wealth and poverty, but most residents are situated between the two extremes. In a crisis, people come together. They come together in good times, too, at festivals or street fairs, where the feeling is overwhelmingly friendly and inclusive. Highways surround parts of the city, but commercial transport concentrates near the water. Planes take off next to the bay at Oakland International Airport, great container ships dock at the Port of Oakland, trains rumble into the station at Jack London Square and ferries, a couple of blocks away, start or finish their runs.

Ten books could not do justice to this city's intricate and multilayered past. Our book seeks rather to illuminate in distinct voices some aspects of Oakland's history from too seldom-heard perspectives. The organization is thematic rather than chronological, and the narrative moves back and forth in time. Each chapter is briefly introduced and the writer identified, but otherwise the whole can be read as a single narrative.

We begin at the city's beginnings with the "claims, characters and commerce" of the Oakland waterfront, then segue to Latino history, starting with the Peralta family, whose land grant comprised all of Oakland and much of the East Bay. A chapter on the inventive art of politics follows, then one of the inventive arts, which traces Oakland's history as a focus for artists and art schools. The story of Oakland Chinese and Japanese Americans comes next, then a chapter pairing Oakland's little-known automobile industry with the city's aviation "firsts" and airport. Highlights and struggles of African Americans in Oakland are the subject of the next chapter, followed by some remarkable athletes, teams and coaches. Then comes a chapter with a section on libraries, and another on gardens and parks. Next we go back in history to find the original inhabitants of this area, the Ohlone, and look at how, during the last 60 years, Native Americans from around the country established an intertribal community here. Music and dance, from blues to classical, ballet to ethnic, comprise the next chapter. Finally, there are chapters on the growth of downtown in relation to two great earthquakes and on a spectrum of Oakland writers. And throughout the book there are neighborhood profiles rich in history. Historian Charles M. Wollenberg concludes with reflections on Oakland's "regional reality."

The Spirit of Oakland is dedicated to all of the men and women--sung and unsung heroes and heroines--whose labor, talent and vision created the city we know and love.

Abby Wasserman
Oakland, California
May 25, 2000

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Cover painting by Joachim Ferdinand Richardt, "Oaks at Madison and 8th Streets," n.d., oil on canvas. Courtesy Oakland Museum of California, gift of Lester M. Hale.

All text and images © 2005-2016 Abby Wasserman unless otherwise stated