The city of Oakland has long been the blue-collar counterpoint to San Francisco across the bay. Perpetually cast in the role of "second city," Oakland is still the largest port on the West Coast and the terminus of the cross-country railroad. During the 1950s, labor problems and sluggish investment in new, containerized shipping methods at San Francisco resulted in many freighters diverting their trade to other ports in the bay. Oakland benefited most and today huge cranes, very similar to, and possibly the inspiration for George Lucas's AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back, stand along the docks near Alameda Island, unloading automobiles and other products from Japan and Taiwan. Oakland is generally sunnier and from five to ten degrees warmer the San Francisco; its climate is rated among the very best in the world. Regardless, Oakland still suffers from an image as San Francisco's homely sister across the bay. Gertrude Stein, a native of the city, once complained: "There is no there there."
Oakland runs the gamut from the poorest ghettos of the western flatlands filled with crackhouses and gangs to the expensive, exclusive suburbs located on the hills overlooking the bay. Influenced by bordering Berkeley, Oakland has long been a breeding ground for radical political movements, including the Black Panthers of the 1960s and the Symbionese Liberation Army, who kidnapped Patty Hearst in the 1970s. The hills of Oakland suffered heavily in the 1991firestorm and, some years later, many areas are still barren and yet to be rebuilt.
Although Oakland is mostly a suburban community of bungalows set in small yards, a sizable downtown area exists around the 12th Street and Broadway area. Here are found shops and theaters, and few high-rises. To the south of this area is Jack London Square, named after one of the city's most famous natives and situated on the Inner Harbor, a narrow inlet off the bay. Formerly the old fisherman's waterfront once haunted by the delinquent waif London, it is now remodeled and populated by an assortment of boutiques and specialty shops. Heinhold's First and Last Chance Saloon is one of the few enterprises from London's youth still found here. Ferries running to San Francisco and other destinations dock at the square.
To the east is Lake Merritt, site of Oakland's Festival at the Lake and other community celebrations. It is surrounded by high-rise bank buildings, condominiums, and apartment complexes, forming the center of Oakland's most desirable downtown neighborhood. It was the tidal lagoon, bridged and dammed in 1860, and now the the nation's oldest wildlife refuge, populated by migrating flocks of ducks, geese, and herons.
Alameda Island was severed form the mainland in 1902 as part of the harbor development program, the channel forming a passage for freighters unloading at the Port of Oakland. The southern part of the island is residential, a bedroom community of lower-through-upper classes. The northernmost end of the island is occupied by Alameda Naval Air Station. Gigantic, nuclear powered aircraft carriers are often anchored along its shore.
East Oakland lies south of the Caldecott Tunnel and includes the small independent community of Piedmont. These are hillside neighborhoods inhabited mostly by professionals and other upscale types. Joaquin Miller Park is a favorite patch of green, named after the local poet who once dwelt in the area. Standing at the foot of the park, fully-lighted at night and visible for many miles around, is the impressive Mormon temple overlooking the bay.
Further south, Oakland follows much the same pattern. Some of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods are found in the flatlands south of downtown, while expensive residences continue to line the hills. Oakland Coliseum, home of the Oakland Athletics and Golden State Warriors, lies between the BART line and the shore. A little further south is Oakland International Airport: smaller and less imposing than SFO across the bay, but rapidly expanding. Another twenty miles of endless tract suburban housing, looking somewhat dusty and faded in the bright sun, brings one to San José and the southern end of the bay.