In the Race to the Top, Oakland's Got the Neighborhood Beat


     Everyone knows that San Jose has a song written about it, and that San Francisco has a pretty good baseball team, but when it comes to firsts, no Bay Area city can beat O-Town. Besides,
     San Jose’s song is about forgetting how to get there, and the Giants play across the street from a donut shop. Consider: Since Oakland was founded in 1852, it’s been a hotbed of culinary and bacchanalian innovation, with the first scoop of Rocky Road — that sublimely sweet goulash of marshmallow, chocolate and almond — slinged by hometown ice cream king William Dryer (who may have stolen it originally from Fentons). And don’t forget another Oakland original, Trader Vic’s Mai Tai, that fruity tiki mainstay famous for its powers to invoke a largely mythical sun-and-rum soaked island paradise brimming with palm frond–clad natives and 100 percent devoid of paunchy Westerners in cargo shorts and Tommy Bahama.
     But we aren’t just gastronomes. Our 78 square miles have been a model for new-fangled forms of transportation, as the site for the terminus of the transcontinental railroad and the first electric streetcar in the country, which slashed travel times to the distant land of Berkeley. We are also the site of Northern California’s oldest wildlife refuge, Lake Merritt’s Rotary Nature Center, and America’s oldest fairy-tale theme park — the colorful and only mildly disconcerting Children’s Fairyland. We have the best climate in the country, with the same number of sunny days as Orange County (a division of Fox Broadcasting Company, Inc.), but with even more diversity (as long as the U.S. Census continues to ignore “Tan” as an ethnicity). In fact, Oakland is the second-most diverse city in the country, after Long Beach, with more than 125 different languages and dialects spoken. Long Beach might have Snoop Dogg, but we’ve got M.C. Hammer.
     In recent years, we’ve continued our breakneck sprint to the top, scoring an undisputed first in a number of select, carefully curated categories that have been specially chosen for their appropriateness to Oakland boosterism. Consider: We’re number 1 sports fans. Oakland is the only city in California with three professional teams in the übersports, with the Oakland Raiders, the Oakland A’s (for now) and the Golden State Warriors rounding out the superfan trifecta. If you want to go to four, Oakland is host to the Oakland Outlaws, an all-girl flat-track roller derby team, whose members are, frankly, scary as hell.
     We’re the first to elect an Asian-American female mayor. A lifetime Oaklander, Jean Quan has spent decades in service to the school district (she was first elected to the school board in 1990) and city government as a city council member since 2002 and was elected mayor last November.
     Wait, what were we just talking about? Since 2005, when Oakland passed Measure Z, which made marijuana-related offenses the lowest law enforcement priority, Oakland has racked up a number of pot-related firsts. In 2009 we were the first to tax and regulate medical cannabis; our city council had the first vote in the state to back 2010’s Prop 19, which would have legalized many pot-related activities; and Oakland was the first to approve large-scale marijuana farms — though the U.S. Department of Justice has been sending strongly worded letters to the city council reminding it that cultivation is still illegal in the United States, a country Oakland is still technically a part of. They were like, Dude, and we were all, Dude!
    If we expand our circle from strictly first-place finishes to those placing within the top 10, Oakland’s fierce deathgrip on awesomeness becomes even clearer. Of the 70 largest cities in the country, Oakland now has the fifth-largest percentage bicycling to work, a factor in both overall sustainability and quadricep size. Getting people out of the car and onto a bike is one thing, but the city has consistently scored high on environmental rankings, including a fourth-place finish in both the Natural Resources Defense Council’s 2009 Smarter Cities ranking and the Mother Nature Network’s 2009 Green Cities rankings. The city has also had a consistent showing as a Top 10 Green City in both SustainLane’s and The Green Guide’s annual rankings, all of which measure all-around greenness.
     You may have suspected the Port of Oakland’s key position as a shipping hub from all the AT-ATs George Lucas has been storing along the waterfront since their debut in The Empire Strikes Back, but Rebel forces have been busy making the port the fourth-biggest in the country, handling an untold amount of cargo (okay, 2.3 million containers) every year.
     All of this near-perfection does have its price, though. As you drive around admiring all that Oakland has to offer,
be sure to carpool. We’ve got the third-highest gas prices in the country. So stop. Hammer time!

We’re Number 1, Too!

Alameda Gets Into the Act

     One of the advantages of living on an island, especially the Island of Alameda, is that it’s easier to keep a secret. Let word get out about all the treasures here and we might get mobbed by the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. The good news is there’s enough to go around. Alameda has been around a long time by West Coast standards and has racked up an impressive number of firsts, bests and only-heres. You might already know that Forbidden Island has been voted one of the best tiki bars in the country, and that the Island hosts a possibly unmatched density of Victorians. But Alameda has a few more claims to fame:
     We’ve got spirit. When St. George Spirits began making absinthe in December 2007, it was the first legally produced batch in the country since the “green fairy” was banned in 1912.
     On the estuary. In the 1950s Alameda’s estuary was the home of the world’s first land-based crane for shipping containers. And we’ve been importing ever since.
     Pacific Flier. In 1935 the China Clipper made the first-ever transpacific air flight, taking off from the Naval Air Station and landing in Manila six days later after stops on three South Pacific islands and Pearl Harbor. A marker near the main gate commemorates the flight.
It’s what’s for lunch. Peanut butter wasn’t invented in Alameda, but the first mass-produced non-separating creamy PB in the country was made here at the Rosefield Packing Company on Webster Street. J.L. Rosefield introduced the sandwich staple under the name Skippy, and a bajillion white-bread lunches were born.
     We can drive 25. The year after the great quake of 1906, Alameda was the proud recipient of the first self-propelled fire engine west of the Rocky Mountains. The Waterous was built 1907, but didn’t serve the Island for long. The vehicle was wrecked in 1908 when it overturned. And the speed limit hasn’t been raised since. 

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