Rye Reflections

December 2005 Travel

Oakland's attractions, old and new, beginning to outweigh the distractions

Changes, proximity to San Francisco, ethnicity and 155-acre lake/sanctuary make Bay city more inviting

Story, photos by Jack Driscoll

Lake Merritt has been Oakland's centerpiece in good times and bad

OAKLAND, Calif.--"Improving" is the word you most often hear about Oakland these days.

Compared with my first visit 30 years ago it is definitely that. Credit airport improvements, including better roadways and a BART station...credit a renovated Coliseum in the last decade...credit a more vital downtown, with a fairly new Amtrak station and with a street market at the edge of Chinatown on Fridays that also was held on a Saturday when I was there in November...credit an increasing number of San Francisco commuters looking for lower-cost housing...credit the building of Jack London Square on the waterfront...credit the former California governor Jerry Brown, who became mayor in 1998...

Crime and education problems persist, but Oakland has a more optimistic feel these days.  It's a place where a reasonably-priced hotel room is attainable, where you can find a lot to choose from on the cultural front and where you have a wide choice of restaurants, from Eritrean to Cuban to Mexican to Italian to good old American-Californian.

The feature that makes Oakland special, whether it was in the bad old days or in the present improving days is Lake Merritt.

This is no ordinary middle-of-town pond.  It's more than 3 miles in diameter, contains four islands, the oldest wildlife sanctuary in North America and mostly is an inviting place for visitors who walk, run, ride bikes or ride in a carriage, being surrounded by a wide path, parkland and play areas.  (I was in the Bay area to meet a prospective adopted grandchild).

Originally this mid-town property was a tidal estuary from San Francisco Bay, but when it dried up into mudflats at certain times of the year, it became a magnet for duck hunters.  Stray bullets became a menace, so then mayor Dr. Samuel Merritt donated the money in 1969 to build a dam across the neck, creating--you guessed it--Lake Merritt, which is a mix of salt and fresh water.

The lake is located along a migratory path, so in 1925 an island was built for nesting and roosting.  Four more were added in 1956.

Among the most common birds seen there are egrets, herons, pelicans, ducks and Canadian geese that are completely tame unlike those we encounter in the Northeast who often can be nippy.

An added attraction, the Rotary Natural Science center was built in 1953.

So Lake Merritt is not only bird-friendly but also family-friendly, adding to the more optimistic feel.

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December 1, 2005



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