A Glimpse into an Inspired & Historic Past in Oakland
By Christopher Ludgate
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
Touted by some as “the bright side of the Bay,” Oakland, California is also seen as existing in the shadow of San Francisco.
Comparisons of New Jersey to Manhattan come to mind. Recent overhauls of parts of the young city–which was established in the 1850s –have been drawing diverse tourism and transplants from now more gentrified San Fran.
While we certainly got an exhaustive look at San Fransisco’s historical literary spots touring all around and then replenishing with an absolutely delectable meal in Marina District’s Cafe Boho, we crossed over to learn a bit about Oakland.
Its estuary waterfront area known as Jack London Square and an ongoing celebration of some of its historical figures shine a new light on the ‘San Fran alternative.’
First and Last Chance Saloon
The instant my travel buddy, Steve, and I walked into the cozy, historic Old West cabin, the distinctive deep slant of the floor and bar that was caused by the earthquake of 1906 made us feel as though we’d had a few already.
Properly known as Heinold’s, the ‘Last Chance’ nickname sounds like it came right out of a fiction novel. It’s not at all short on character. Our eyes were drawn to every nook and cranny filled with relics accumulated since the place was established in 1883.
The clock on the back wall remains stopped at 5:18, the very minute that that earthquake struck. The cornucopia of historical eye-candy is endless inside. The original potbelly stove, framed newspapers of the day, old movie and music machines, old menus… the kind of things new faux nostalgia and retro pubs can only aspire to. And there’s no $15 martini’s here.
If Walls Could Talk
The structure was converted from a boarding house into a saloon using the remnants of an old whaling ship that remain today. The waterfront tavern served as a watering-hole for a cast of characters including artists, authors, businessmen, politicians, and sailors who revered it as the first and last place to drink – and often heavily, it’s reputed – when leaving or returning from the Oakland seaport.
The ceiling – dark with resin from the smoke, stove, and lanterns – is adorned with worn business cards, signed dollar bills, and those aforementioned sailor’s hats left to be stashed with cash to pay for their first drink upon return. Framed old photos, signage, and newspapers hung throughout, telling us its story like an open book.
One particular photo of local author Jack London as a child sitting at one of those bar-room tables, reading intently, was an endearing piece of history.
His future stories were greatly inspired by his time spent at the old haunt while also working the waterfront as a young oyster pirate. I could easily imagine him there with a notepad and pen, gleaning the atmosphere.
A Look at London’s Early Days
Having endured tumult and tragedy early in life, local author, Jack London also had some notable guardian angels. Born in 1876 to a mother with a Puritan background who had attempted suicide while pregnant and with only mysteries regarding the identity of his real father, London was taken under the wing of a former slave, Virginia Prentiss.
While largely self-taught, a local born librarian and poet named Ina Coolbrith became a mentor of the youth who frequented Oakland Library. Coolbrith went on to become the first Poet Laureate.
She also mentored dancer Isadora Duncan, whose family was widely involved in the local art and literary scene. Heinold himself was also a nurturer of young London, paying his tuition for the University of California, Berkeley.
In his 20s, London experienced a prolific and lucrative career, beginning as a journalist and short-story writer for magazines just at the dawn of the more economical printing press and boon of newspaper serial popularity.
London’s first autobiography mentions a likeness of the saloon multiple times, and ‘Jack London’s Rendezvous,’ was adopted as another nickname for the literary landmark. London became known worldwide with works like The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea Wolf.
Heinold’s in the now bustling Jack London Square we peeked into a replica of the Oakland author’s home while living in the Yukon. He also lived nearby at Oakland’s vibrant Lake Merritt.
Lively and Dynamic Waterfront
Diverse Oakland’s neighborhoods seem to be having a renaissance as San Francisco’s rents skyrocket. The option to explore that side of the bay seemed like a relaxing respite from the city, so I chose the best of both worlds.
With increased ease of accessibility to San Francisco’s docks across the bay offering majestic views from ferry in just 20 minutes right at Jack London Square, the area became even more inviting. Sure, the BART is accessible there as well, but I like options.
Considerable investments in the area around the burgeoning square have welcomed restaurants, shops, and other businesses. Don’t let the more quiet week-days fool you.
The view from the stylish and nautical-themed Waterfront Hotel at the foot of the bay overlooked the heated pool area, and stretched beyond the peaceful docks of the marina as we relaxed on our balcony with vino after decompressing in their fitness area’s sauna. The cool, spacious rooms and large beds made for a very comfortable stay, too.
The hotel’s chic northern Italian food and wine spot, Lungomare, proved a delicious popular spot, justifiably, so don’t let the delightful daily wine & cheese happy hour in the Spinnaker reception area spoil your appetite. Just outside the restaurant, a long shadow stretched out in front of the statue of Jack London.
Play-time by the Promenade
The sun glowed onto the outdoor bar and restaurant areas in the square as it came to life; dog-walkers and joggers, strollers and bikers abound. Lively crowds gathered to imbibe and play games in between oysters and bar-bites at Plank as the business day ended with sounds of levity, and some nostalgia with bowling, arcade games, and corn hole.
While peeking into the area’s many restaurant windows, it became evident that Oakland is going strong as part of the foodie scene, like San Francisco.
Today’s demand for a variety of dietary needs and preferences, calls for sustainability practices, and draw to multi-ethnic cuisines and fusions of all kinds, many of the dining menus reflected the collective tastes.
The city is chock-full of aspiring and established chefs, as the many food events throughout Oakland can attest to.
Local Champions of Change
We strolled around, admiring the colorful street art throughout downtown Oakland and discovered it was just easy to hop on the free Broadway Trolley to catch the BART. Exploring some of Oakland’s parks and plazas, we sensed a distinct celebration of the city’s culture and historic notables.
Many of the humanitarian figures who made strides in diversity are saluted in Kaiser Memorial Park with a tribute called ‘Remember Them: Champions for Humanity.’
Standing at 30 feet tall and nearly twice as wide, the montage of figures loomed dramatically indeed, larger than life. Some of Oakland’s highly significant and inspirational citizens of the past 150 years are among the depictions of otherwise internationally historic and culturally diverse people, including some literary greats.
“It is the people who chose the more difficult road and changed our world forever that I want to honor with my art, and in turn, inspire others to follow in their footsteps,” Oakland native and sculptor of the monument, Mario Chiodo said of his inspiration for the piece.
Tranquil Mountain View
During a misty early morning in Oakland, we hopped in a Lyft and headed up to Piedmont Avenue to catch the vista of the Bay area from historic and atmospheric Mountain View Cemetery.
The visit offered a unique glimpse of history as many of Oakland’s significant public figures are interred there. In-depth free docent-led tours within the grounds of the eclectic gardens, chapels, crypts, and graves. Self-tours are permitted, too.
The parks adjacent to 1863 founded, 226 acre Mountain View, which was designed by New York’s Central Park designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, is a big draw for locals out on morning visits, and joggers were ample, too. With photo ops abound, I’m sure it’s a must for photographers should the weather cooperate.
The sweeping panorama from this serene and pastoral atmosphere includes views from Sausalito and the Golden Gate to beyond Alameda on one side, to Berkeley and beyond on another.
California’s first female Poet Laureate, Ina Coolbrith, rests here. Joseph Knowland of Oakland Tribune fame lies at the Chapel of Chimes, while Oakland’s first city planner, Edson Adams is further on. We never did find the Black Dahlia’s grave. But the family vault of famous chocolatier, Ghirardelli, is hard to miss with its woeful angel looming.
Meandering elaborate grounds around the Gothic mausoleums, towering grave-markers, past Millionaire’s Row on a self-tour, was like a scavenger hunt for the final resting places of many of Oakland’s most eminent pioneers and beyond.
Find out more about Oakland at Visit Oakland
Senior Travel Writer Christopher Ludgate is a travel & culture journalist based out of his native New York City. Chris combines his multi-faceted professions and is ever drawn to adventure and creative outlets. His travel writing pursuits have lead to working with publications such as Passport Magazine, LAX in-flight, AIR Chicago, FLY Washington, and, of course, GoNOMAD.com. Chris is an award-winning filmmaker with films in distribution and screenings around the globe.