Sunday 27 June 2010
CITY IN THE SKY
Where could you find such a calm park lane, surveyed by a police officer relaxing on his Harley Davidson cruiser? Would you believe me if I told you that we are in Oakland, the town known for its high crime rate, racial tensions and dismal city planning? Well, we are not actually in Oakland, but in a small enclave to this unfortunate city, located in the hills and completely surrounded by the Oak City.
Piedmont, as is its name, was, in the Roaring Twenties, known as the City of the Millionaires, since it held the largest fraction of millionaires among the US towns. It is still a miracle of wealth and income, with median income per family at USD 150 000 USD (compared to 110 000 in Beverly Hills) and a per capita income of 80 000 (about at par with Beverly Hills, but three times that of Oakland)
The day after my visit to Haas Business School, to meet my old professor (“Fiat Lux?”), I was invited by two new-won friends, Akiko and Edward, to visit their home in Piedmont. I gladly accepted the invitation; the Oakland Hills and Piedmont have already been discussed in comments to one of the earlier blog postings (“Earth Day à la Berkeley”); the visit would provide me with an opportunity to put additional flesh on my arguments put down there.
My hosts, wishing me to experience the best that Oakland and Piedmont had to show for themselves, started the tour with a visit to JACK LONDON SQUARE, a nice tourist area located around the original Oakland harbour. The ferry terminals, one of them still being operated for traffic to San Francisco (“Of Cables and Ferries”), are located there. This is also the site of the Transcontinental Railroad Terminal. In olden times, railroad passengers coming from the East had to complete their journey to San Francisco by ferry boat.
The whole area has recently, that is, under mayor Brown’s augur, been refurbished as an, albeit modest, counterpart to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Everything looks spit clean and new and the whole area is a pleasure to amble through. However, I could not but notice that the many shops and restaurants were essentially empty, with few people around. Quite a striking contrast to SF’s Fisherman’s Wharf, I would say! I keep my fingers crossed for the success of this touristic venture, it would be a pity to see it going into slow decay due to limited interest from the town people and the tourists.
For an intrigued foreigner, there are several attractions on the square. The first, a rather funky statue of an Indian wind spirit, points seaward as if indicating that Oakland’s fate and fortune are to be gained at sea. The second feature is more down to earth. It consists of the cabin, transported to Oakland log by log and rebuilt here, that Jack London inhabited whilst digging for gold in Klondike, more than hundred years ago. In front of this edifice a wily wolf is greeting the admiring visitors, reminding us of Jack’s most popular book, “The Call of the Wild”. Notably, when writing his books, Jack preferred a more comfortable environment, sitting in a house in – who could have guessed – Piedmont of all places!
The final attraction of interest is, of course, the yacht of former President Roosevelt, the USS Potomac. When inspecting this beauty of a boat, I could not help myself appreciating this formidable president who, whilst holding the world’s future in his hands, could still be quite content with using such a small and cosy vessel to cruise the seas with. At present, the boat is used for pleasure cruises along Oakland’s harbour.
After a refreshing lunch at Oakland’s most exclusive food retail store, located just at the fringe of Piedmont to cater to its distinguished population, it was time to mount the hills (by car, of course) and have a look around in the sophisticated interior of this exalted township. First stop was at Piedmont Park, a jewel of greenery in the midst of town. In addition to encompassing wide greens, surrounded by exotic trees, it also harbours a rather wild ravine, along which we descended, amidst ancient redwoods, oaks and sycamores, to finally arrive at one of Piedmont’s hallmarks, its olden mineral springs.
At the springs, nothing much can be discerned of its ancient splendour. The well itself has been plugged and the place looks like just any odd bend in a path alongside a brook in the Bay. But, hundred years, or so, ago, here was a delightful pavilion residing way down in the cleft, awaiting visitors from all over the Bay, not to speak of the Piedmont population itself. Jack London was surely there, improving his ailing health with life-promoting drinks from the well; and so was, frequently, Mark Twain, as told by a sign just opposite the original site of the pavilion.
Appreciating the cool shades of the canyon, we remounted along the winding path, soon arriving at a lonely Eucalyptus giant that must have been planted at the time the pavilion was built. But eventually we were back at the upper greens of Piedmont Park and could continue our journey towards Akiko and Edward’s residence on Richardson Avenue.
Well there, I had the pleasure of admiring the impressive exhibits of Edward’s main hobby. It appears that he is an aficionado of collecting rocks. When we think of rock collecting back home, on the old continent, we usually imagine small marbles, collected on the beach, or sophisticated minerals, preferably crystallised, such as, mountain crystals found in Alpine caves. But this is not the American way! True to America’s love affair with all things large, stone collecting amounts to picking huge boulders from creeks that have conveniently dried out in summertime, and polishing them lovingly with soft cloth to bring out their true structure. Edward is one of the leading figures in the Association of stone collectors and has won several prices in national, as well as international, exhibitions arranged by the Association. Apparently, this type of collecting is very popular in California, as well as, to my surprise, in Japan.
Having glanced admiringly, for some time, at these giants among collected stones, we found it convenient to continue our admiration of grandeur on a larger scale, embarking on a sightseeing tour along the streets of upper Piedmont, to admire the residences of the more affluent part of its inhabitants. There is no dearth of views in those upper reaches. From you house’s veranda, you have a clear view of Lake Merritt, Downtown Oakland and the Bay, with the island of Alameda (an old navy base) clearly discernible just beyond Lake Merritt to the left. West Oakland, the destitute area of the poor, inclining downward towards the Bay to the right, is conveniently hidden from view by the skyscrapers of Downtown.
Whilst ambling among the fashionable houses on the hills, it occurred to me that even the smallest of them would have to be called “mansions”, with their generous lay-out and lovingly maintained surroundings. But this was not all; the higher up the hills you came, the larger and more self-sustained the residences; we were not seeing mansions anymore, but increasingly huge expansive estates meriting naught else but the notation “manor”. But there is only that much pleasure to be gained by gaping at expansive residences! Whilst you are admiring glimpses of this residential splendour, my hosts and myself found it more convenient to reassemble at their home for a well deserved after dinner coffee!