I stumbled upon an article last week claiming that my beloved Oakland was named the second most unfriendly city in America, being bested in dickishness only by Newark, New Jersey. I had a few reactions. At first I thought, “Who the hell cares? We don’t need them!” Then my thinking turned to the fact that we are undoubtedly the most integrated and diverse cities on the list, while the list of friendliest cities from this reader's choice survey is topped by southern cities not known for having moved past their classically segregated neighborhoods (*cough* Charleston *cough*). However, rather than say “Fuck ‘em!” or lay out a larger, racially charged claim (both of which seem like totally reasonable responses to me still, by the way), I figured I could just point out how awesomely friendly my town can be.
Oakland has been carrying the pall of its 1980’s crime rates and economy for too long now, and while we’re still among the cities considered most dangerous, we've blossomed into a very different place from the Oakland of years past. The downtown area has cleaned itself up quite a bit the last few years, including the once dreaded corner of 13th and Broadway outside of De Lauer’s Super Newsstand. It's a nice walk from there all the way to the waterfront of Jack London Square. Jack London, once a total waste of an incredible port area, now bustles with activity and people coming for the restaurants, bars, $5 movie nights, and one of the best East Bay farmers' markets that happens every Sunday.
I suppose all of this still begs the question, “Yeah, but are the people of Oakland actually friendly?” Yes. We are our own brand of friendly. The Bay Area has always been a little famous for mocking its tourists. The visitors wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts, shivering half to death at the piers in SF? San Franciscans laugh at them and rightfully so, but that doesn’t mean they won't buy them a Fernet later on that night to warm them up. The same stands for Oakland, now that we are attracting more tourists and transplants of our own.
Part of the reason Oakland can be seen as harsh to outsiders is that it’s had such a huge influx of them in the past five years. Ask almost anyone wearing an “I Hella <3 Oakland” shirts where they’re from and they’ll say Oakland, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find out they moved here from San Francisco or the South Bay about three years ago. I for one don’t think this boom is such a terrible thing, but it's true, some native Oaklandians can be less welcoming. But if the concern is feeling out of place in Oakland, fret not, because half the population is new, too.
Despite all of the drastic changes happening to Oakland, there is still a sense of community here in a major way. Everywhere you go people seem to know (and say hello to) their neighbors, there are more block parties around town than you’ll see anywhere else in the bay, and there is a definite sense that we are all looking out for each other. You see cultures meld here in a way that you don’t in other places, and all you need to do to see that I’m right is walk around Lake Merritt on any sunny weekend afternoon. Along that 5k stretch of constantly improving water quality, you will see the true colors and friendliness of Oakland. People of all racial and economic stripes gathering together to grill delicious food, throw footballs and frisbees, slack-line (speaking of which, will someone explain to me when and why this got so popular?), and enjoy the day in a city they love. It’s a beautiful site to behold, not to mention you’d be shocked at how attractive our city is. Seriously, our citizens are gorgeous.
So while it may be true we’re not the classic hat doffing, baby-kissing Southern brand of friendly, I take issue with us being called unfriendly. On the outside we may not seem to care for outsiders, but we’re also building a massive community out of mostly outsiders. Ask nicely in almost any bar around town, and people – new and old – will tell you how much they love Oakland, and why you ought to too.
Photo by Erin Conger for The Bold Italic