San Francisco & Oakland – opposite sides of the East Bay

Friday, 28 July 2023

I arrived in the East Bay – disembarking the Coast Starlight from Seattle in Emeryville and taking the bus across to San Francisco – as another step on my Melbourne to London trek. Maureen and I lived in the East Bay (in Berkeley, ‘the only city in America with its own foreign policy’) in the mid-80s and we’ve been back regularly ever since. Most recently for the annual Book Passage Travel Writers Conference in Corte Madera in August last year. We won’t be there 10-12 August this year, but Pico Iyer will be, in conversation with Don George, as I was last year.

▲ lobby of the citizenM San Francisco Union Square

Last year we stayed in Oakland – at Marriott’s Moxy Oakland Downtown Hotel, which left us distinctly unimpressed. As did Oakland in general. Maureen, who arrived there a couple of days ahead of me, wrote ‘downtown Oakland looks and feels like the day after the world ended. The hotel has a bar where you check in and not much else. The room does not have a wardrobe or drawers just hooks on the wall. It is like a backpacker’s hostel … oh and you have to put in a request to have your room cleaned. The view is a car park with a Taco Bell in it. I went looking for breakfast this morning, there is no one around apart from some homeless people … it really is like everyone has been beamed up to another planet and only us survivors are left. So weird. Tomorrow we leave this vision of the coming apocalypse and head to the suburbs, never thought they could look so good!’

When I arrived I wasn’t super impressed either, but the next morning I went in search of ‘there.’ Last time I looked it was in the City Center Plaza, the Roselyn Mazzilli statue of ‘there’ was a rebuttal to the famous Gertrude Stein quote that in Oakland (where she came from) there was ‘ no there there.’ Perhaps there is still no there, I simply could not find it. I was a bit pushed for time, perhaps I didn’t look hard enough?

◄ The ‘leave me alone’ side of the door hanger at citizenM – I always like imaginative ‘clean my room/leave me alone’ hotel door hangers.

And I liked citizenM, stylish, very designerish in the lobby, bar, restaurant, reception area and my room is definitely on the small side of compact, but works well. Unlike the Moxy across the bay in Oakland. That evening I come back to the hotel, went to the bar for another glass of red and got into an interesting conversation – the world, economics, rich and poor, homeless, San Francisco, etc etc – with a British guy who turns up wearing a tie and acts as the connection to two Americans, one a local resident, one a friend staying in the hotel. The latter in very San Francisco cowboy attire, but again what do you know? And he (or the friend?), lived in Paris in the Marais (Maureen and I lived in the Marais in 1996), has a daughter who speaks fluent French. And so on.



◄ The wonderfully art deco 1931 Paramount Theatre on Broadway in Oakland – Earlier in the evening I took BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) across to Oakland to meet friends in Parche, a recently opened Colombian restaurant on Broadway. En route I field a phone call from Maureen in Australia reporting that she’s just got COVID-19, again.



Walking along Broadway admiring the street art which has recently taken up residence along the road. So perhaps Oakland was not so bad after all, although in both directions I was contemplating how quiet Oakland had become, not in a worryingly empty fashion, just empty. ▼

Then on the BART back to San Francisco I have a rap artist panhandler who starts up the instant we depart West Oakland, so he has the whole under-the-bay stretch to Embarcadero to try and guilt people into contributing to him. Well he is doing something, isn’t he? Meanwhile there’s a guy writhing around on the seat right behind me. I’m uncomfortable enough that at Embarcadero I debark and get back on in the next carriage, for the last two stations to Powell. On all my BART trips the passenger numbers were surprisingly low, as if public transport had gone out of fashion during the pandemic.

▲ The citizenM San Francisco Union Square Hotel was indeed very close to Union Square so right in the heart of downtown San Francisco. It was even closer to the Powell and Market cable car terminus. Yes those little cable cars still climb halfway to the stars, so perhaps San Francisco isn’t so bad either.