Thanks to Dr. Falu Bakrania of the race and resistance studies department at SFSU, and Kenneth Munson, Dante Clark, and Michael Hunt of Youth Uprising.
Twenty-four-year-old Lake Merritt resident, Lisa Marmolejo, talks about life by Oakland’s best kept secret.
Lake Merritt is in fact, not a lake! It’s a large tidal lagoon. The lake, originally part of the San Francisco Bay, formed where several creeks emptied into the bay. It was part of a large area of wetlands where the Ohlone Indians fished and hunted.
It actually functioned primarily as a sewer in the 17th century, adding a historical explanation for the nickname “Lake of a Thousand Smells.”
The lake didn’t get its sparkly charm until this guy stepped in.
Dr. Samuel Merritt was a medical doctor in the gold rush era, who would later become mayor of Oakland. As the owner of property at the edge of the lake, cleaning it up and making it a “source of civic pride” would be one of Merritt’s crowning achievements.
It’s Saturday and for most folks around these parts that means one thing–the farmers market.
The market, 2010 winner of the coveted East Bay Express ‘Best of the East Bay’ award, is its typical packed self. The sun is blaring down on the throngs of people milling in and out of the white pop-up tents. The distinct smell of butter and sugar fills the air (undoubtedly the Belgian Waffle Truck, taunting me as usual).
I take a seat on a short concrete wall. A man is playing a steel drum to the tune of ‘Jammin’ by Bob Marley and a woman helps her baby dance and splash along in water fountains. As the drummer wraps up his ode to Bob, the woman picks up her baby and walks over to tip him.
“That was great,” she says bouncing her laughing baby up and down. “He really loves your stuff!”
Walking around, I get the sense that this farmers market has a little something for everyone. There are gyros, dim sum, Indian, crepes, authentic Himalayan food from Café Zambala, Uhuru Food and Pies (with a sign that read “Promoting an independent black economy”), and Donna’s Tamales with by far the longest line of them all.
The Grand Lake Farmers Market, put on by the Agricultural Institute of Marin, happens year round, every Saturday from 9 am to 2 pm.
The third place of the Lake Merritt neighborhood is not difficult to identify. It’s probably the third place for most of Oakland.
Yep. The lake.
Ray Oldenburg, an American urban sociologist who wrote extensively about third places, lists a few indicators of a third place:
- Free or inexpensive — check.
- Food and drink — the lake is pretty steadfastly byof/b, and oh do they. Check.
- Highly accessible — AC Transit, a dedicated BART stop, bicyclers and pedis galore. Check check.
- Involve regulars who regularly congregate there — anyone who has seen the muscle men at the workout bars every weekend can attest to this and then necessarily become a testament themselves. Soo, check.
- Welcoming and comfortable — soft grass, big beach blankets, Oakland’s notoriously perfect t-shirt weather–please. Check.
- Both new and old friends should be found there — one of the best attributes of the lake. It appeals broadly and attracts almost everyone in a 5-mile radius, so the chances that you will run into a friend or make a new one are pretty high. Check.
Lake Merritt = bonafide third place!
On this Sunday the lake is a convergence of people celebrating Love our Lake Day, an event put on by Oakland organization Oaklavia for the sole purpose of highlighting the fabulousness (and walk/bike-ability) of the lake, and people coming to see the Ethiopian Festival, Home [Away From] Home.
Home [Away From] Home festival-goer Kimberlee Webber said she loves when the lake has big community events like the Ethiopian Festival.
“The lake is so beautiful,” said Webber. “This is such a great space to come together to celebrate our community.”
Walking further down to the lake, the crowds begin to thin out. A few people are still laying out in the sun and riding their bikes over the grass, but most have migrated to the Home [Away From] Home concert.
I catch Oakland resident Wah Kong as she looks through a pile of Oakland-themed merchandise.
“I work right over on Lakeshore and everyday on my lunch I walk down here,” says Kong. The 23-year-old says that seeing all different kinds of people at the lake makes it feel special.
“It’s such a beautiful place,” says Kong. “People in other places might have beautiful pools or backyards, but here at the lake we share it and even if you’re by yourself, you feel a connection to everyone from sharing and appreciating such a great place.”
Walking around the Lake Merritt neighborhood in Oakland, I am constantly reminded of its historic grandeur. If the towering Art Deco-style Bellevue-Staten Building doesn’t get you, the soft three part sparkle of the “Grand” “Lake” “Theater” will undoubtedly trigger some borrowed nostalgia and have you singing old show tunes for days.
It’s a beautiful place. Charming, in all of its preserved glory and fun, with hip new restaurants and bars opening up left and right. It’s no wonder ex-San Franciscans are flocking to it faster than Lake Merritt street geese (street because of their rough-and-tough sensibilities and general orneriness).
To the north of the lake is a quiet but dense residential area named Adam’s Point. As I make my way down a tree-lined street not far from Whole Foods, a Lake Merritt resident walking her dog stops at the corner I’m standing at. It doesn’t take much to hear about the things Emily Dransfield loves most about her neighborhood.
“Oh my god, where do I start,” says Dransfield with faux exasperation. “The bars, the restaurants, the shopping, the farmer’s market, THE LAKE, the weather, the walk-ability of the literally everything.”
This sentiment is shared throughout the community. After going through a $198.25 million revitalization project, Lake Merritt is hotter than it has ever been.
“I mean when it’s the weekend and it’s nice outside, the lake is crawling with people,” says Dransfield.
Off of Lakeshore Avenue, on the opposite of the lake, apartment buildings and houses line the edges of the street, most with huge front-facing windows for the lake’s signature sunsets. The trees that gave a cozy quiet feeling to Adam’s Point are nowhere to be found in the Merritt neighborhood. Instead the area has a notably more urban feel to it, with much frequented liquor store and seemingly endless hills (seriously–So. Many. Hills.).
Newly settled Merritt resident Lizbeth Gutierrez says Lake Merritt is by her the favorite place she has lived so far.
“I’ve lived in Berkeley, San Leandro, and Richmond,” said Gutierrez. “None of them were as nice as Oakland.”
I wrap up my neighborhood tour with a walk down to the around the edge of Lake Merritt. The sun is going down when two runners whiz by me. As I look out across the nearly still lake to see the last few paddleboats pulling into the dock by Lake Chalet, I think back to a recent conversation with my friend Dan Arevalo.
“Lake Merritt is the hidden gem of the Bay Area,” he said.
I see what he means.