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Oakland’s Jack London Square and Downtown: A City Renews Itself, Starting With a New Cuban Restaurant

By Lee Foster

As I update this chapter on Oakland in my book Northern California History Weekends, I see how this great city preserves the legacy of its favorite literary native son and enlivens the downtown with new energy, such as a new Cuban restaurant

See Lee's four Northern California books on his Amazon Author Page.

See Lee’s four Northern California books/ebooks on his Amazon Author Page.

In Brief: Oakland boasts a number of historic treasures, starting with its fondness for Bay Area native literary luminary, Jack London. The Jack London Square at the foot of Broadway contains London’s cabin from the Yukon and Heinold’s Saloon, where London supposedly polished his literary skills.

The Historic Story: The city of Oakland grew up along the waterfront, now Jack London Square, a multi-block area of shops and restaurants struggling for identity, even as the author did. Jack London is the town’s favorite son and the one figure around whom a themed waterfront area could be built.

Casa Cubano food and art in Oakland, CA

Casa Cubano food and art in Oakland, CA

Popular attractions here include shopping at places like Cost Plus World Market, book browsing at Barnes & Noble, and dining at the fish restaurant, Scott’s Seafood.

At the Square you can view Jack London’s cabin, said to be his Yukon abode from the winter of 1897-98. Next to the cabin, quench your thirst at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon. Built in 1880, it is said that London acquired his self-made literary education at Heinold’s. Inside you’ll find Jack London photos and memorabilia.

Jack London Square has night-life vitality. The lively venue is the jazz club known as Yoshi’s, 510 Embarcadero West. Yoshi’s also features Japanese dining.

A Sunday Farmer’s Market draws large crowds looking for everything from specialty apples to goat cheese.

Franklin Roosevelt’s Presidential Yacht, the Potomac, a National Historic Landmark, is now permanently berthed at Jack London Square. The public can sometimes tour the boat or participate in yacht excursions out on the bay.

An Amtrak Train Station is the departure point for trips to Sacramento, Seattle, and Los Angeles. The Jack London Cinema features nine state-of-the-art theaters.

From the Square, walk up Broadway into downtown Oakland. A group of civic volunteers sponsors free architectural walks around downtown Oakland. At 9th Street, between Washington and Broadway, you’ll see renovation and restoration at work.

This Old Oakland restoration consists of shops and restaurants, supplementing the excellent Ratto’s international deli market and restaurant, 821 Washington Street, a kind of culinary mirror of this diverse city. Around Old Oakland are new office buildings that have changed the face of the downtown.

At 59 Grand, corner of Webster, is the Casa Cubana restaurant. (See details in Dining, below.)

Much of the money coming in for new development in Oakland is from Asia.

Further up Broadway, at 2025, is the Paramount Theatre, a lavishly gilded art deco movie palace from 1931.

West toward the freeways is another dramatic Oakland creation, Preservation Park, 13th and Martin Luther King, where 16 early Oakland Victorians have been gathered and restored.

To complete the discussion of historic Oakland, be sure to see the Oakland Museum and Lake Merritt.

The Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak Street, was one of the first museums to present environments, such as the American kitchen in the 1940s, rather than static collections, such as seashells of the world. Separate floors cover California art, California history, and nature in California. The second-floor Hall of California History presents a provocative look at the dreams and challenges of the Golden State. The museum architecture is noteworthy, with the building sunk into the ground and roof gardens on top of each tiered floor. One of the popular annual shows is the mycological society’s Fungus Fair, in November, which displays the season’s offerings in wild mushrooms.

Lake Merritt, a 155-acre saltwater lake in the heart of Oakland, is a popular recreation area. On the north shore of the lake lies Lakeside Park and one of the country’s oldest waterfowl refuges, founded in 1870. You can rent sailboats, rowboats, and canoes at the boat house on the west shore. Walking and jogging around the lake is popular, as are the free summer band concerts on Sunday at 2 p.m. Children enjoy the Fairyland amusement park with its fantasy rides and puppet shows.

Each spring, 400 or so major artists, studio groups, and galleries throughout Oakland open their spaces for a weekend of celebration and public contact. The event, called Open Studios, is arranged by a spirited arts group called Pro Arts.

Along the edge of Lake Merritt, at 666 Bellevue Avenue, you’ll find one of the outstanding public gardens in California, the Lakeside Park Garden Center, covering 122 acres that are intensely cultivated throughout the year. Permanent displays include a Japanese Garden, Herb and Fragrance Garden, Cactus and Succulent Garden, Polynesian Garden, and a tropical conservatory. The chrysanthemum displays each autumn are famous, but specialized appreciators might single out a preference for the bonsai show each autumn or the dahlia root sale each spring. Aside from this Lakeside Garden area, both Oakland and Berkeley boast impressive public rose gardens.

Another historic lakefront attraction is the Camron-Stanford House, 1418 Lakeside Drive. This restored Italianate Victorian was built in 1876 and was owned by the brother of Leland Stanford, railroad tycoon and university founder. The other premier area Victorian, in the Oakland Hills, is Dunsmuir House, 2960 Peralta Oaks Court. Dunsmuir is a notable example of Victorian wealth and taste. Today it serves as a cultural, horticultural, and historical park open to the public.

Getting There: Oakland is east from San Francisco across the Bay Bridge. If driving, take the Broadway exit. BART trains can deposit you at the downtown Oakland 12th Street station.

Be Sure to See: Jack London Square, Old Oakland, the Paramount Theatre, Preservation Park, the Oakland Museum, and details listed for Lake Merritt would be the sites to visit.

Best Time of Year: Any time of the year is good for Oakland.

Lodging: The contemporary Waterfront Hotel is a fun place to stay at Jack London Square. You are located right on the water, with a view of the boats and the ship-lane traffic. The Waterfront Hotel is at 10 Washington Street, Oakland 94607, 888-842-5333, http://www.jdvhotels.com/hotels/california/san-francisco-hotels/waterfront-hotel/.

Dining: Casa Cubana is a lively newcomer to the Oakland food scene. The menu is appealing and the décor of the owner’s significant Cuban art collection is engaging. Consider the Cuban Guacamole, which you might scoop up with plantain chip. The hearts of palm salad, Corazon de Palma, is unusual. Among the entrees the roast pork, Lechon Asada, and the prawns and mussels in a coconut chili sauce, Camaraones y Ayillo, are tasty. Casa Cuba is at 59 Grand, corner of Webster Street, 510-452-CUBA, www.casacubanaoakland.com.

For Further Information: Contact Visit Oakland, 481 Water Street, Oakland, CA 94607, 510-839-9000, http://www.visitoakland.org. The Jack London Square area has its own website at www.jacklondonsquare.com.

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