Oakland, California. San Francisco’s New Jersey, snarky bridge & tunnel references and all. (As a proud Jersey boy, I think I’m allowed to say that.)
Oakland also has to contend with one of the most frequently repeated quotes about an American city -- yes, I’m talking about Gertrude Stein’s observation about Oakland that “there is no there there.”
Ms. Stein was not, as almost everyone assumes, comparing her native Oakland to her adopted Paris and suggesting that Oakland was a podunk town lacking in substance. Rather, the remark stems from a visit she made to Oakland in the 1930s as part of a book tour. While there, she went to visit her childhood home and couldn’t find the house. It’s not a catty quip, it’s a melancholy reflection of a disconnect from childhood memories.
Still, the misunderstanding of the quote stubbornly lives on, as does the latent snobbery toward Oakland that’s just below the surface of many resident’s of “the City” across the bay. Having made my home in San Francisco for 17 years, I’m afraid I’m part of the problem -- I tend to treat the San Francisco Bay crossing as if it were the Straits of Gibraltar rather than the three-mile wide puddle it is. In my defense, I don’t own a car, and I know just a wee bit too much about what could happen to the BART tubes in the Big One to want to make the crossing on a regular basis.
But if I’m part of Oakland’s problem and have played my own small role in holding back a long overdue urban renaissance in Downtown Oakland, I’m ready to make amends. Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Grand Opening of the Fox Oakland Theater, and I gotta say, I was blown away. If Oakland too frequently comes up short in head-to-head comparisons with San Francisco, its time to recognize a fundamental fact: Somehow, a profound attack of cultural amnesia allowed San Francisco’s magnificent 1929 Fox Theatre to be demolished just months after its closure in 1963. The Fox Oakland could easily have met the same fate, but Oaklanders never completely gave up on their Fox Theater, which opened the year before the San Francisco Fox and closed thee years after the closure of its sibling across the bay.
The next few decades were not kind to the Fox, but somehow it survived. In 1996, the City of Oakland purchased the Fox. Two years later, recognizing that the Fox was still at risk, the Oakland Heritage Alliance put the Fox on its endangered list, and shortly thereafter spun off the Friends of the Oakland Fox. That same year the City made a commitment to begin repairs, and Jerry Brown was elected Mayor. In a series of acts of faith, pride, and a little bravado, Oakland moved at first haltingly, then full force with the restoration of the Fox. Many organizations and people can claim a role in the rebirth of the Fox, but the support and vision of Mayor Brown and the tireless efforts and sheer exuberance of developer Phil Tagami were key.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation played its part too. I had the dubious pleasure of touring the theater after its purchase by the City when the roof was shot and it was a petri dish for every mold, mildew, and fungus known to man. Recognizing Oakland had a diamond in the rough, in 2003, we provided a $5,000 Mitchell Grant for Historic Interiors to hire a conservator for the restoration of the Hindu deity statues that are one of the highlights of the interior. Two years ago, we provided a $75,000 grant for the restoration of the Art Deco ticket booth through the American Express Partners in Preservation program. Finally, the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC), in partnership with the Bank of America, made an $11 million Historic Rehab & New Markets Tax Credit Equity Investment in the rehabilitation project.
So, this then, is the tale of two Foxes, or maybe the tortoise and the hare. On the one hand we have San Francisco (a/k/a the hare) which long ago rid itself of an obsolete liability, and left itself with a sad reminder of what we’ve lost in the cruelly-named eyesore that is the Fox Plaza.
Tortoisey Oakland, on the other hand, made no rash decisions. Sure, it took some patience (the Oakland Fox has been closed longer than it was open) but eventually the stars aligned. The results, as I said, are stupendous. I’ve been around preservation long enough to see some remarkable transformations, but this one left me slack-jawed (and no, that wasn’t a result of the freely-flowing champagne).
So San Francisco, you can’t win ‘em all. But take solace in the fact that the best place to see a concert in the Bay Area is just across the Bay. A short ride on BART will deliver you to just about to the Fox ticket booth. Trust me, it’s worth the trip.
-- Anthony Veerkamp
Anthony Veerkamp a senior program officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Western Office.
Updated 2/11/09 to note the partnership between NTCIC and Bank of America