5. Lake Merrit City

My 15-Minute City: Lake Merritt, Oakland, California

I’d dreamed of living in San Francisco since I was a teenager. In my early 30s, I finally moved there from my native Michigan. Then life happened, and San Francisco no longer felt like a dream. “Move to my neighborhood,” encouraged a friend who lived near Oakland’s Lake Merritt. I worked in Oakland and liked it all right, but I found the scale of the city daunting. One of the prime reasons I was drawn to San Francisco was its walkability. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to get around without a car,” I told my friend. 

“What do you need a car for?” she responded. “You can just sit by the lake all day.” 

So move to Oakland, and sit by the lake, I did. And I walked. And I ran: first, once around its 5-kilometer circumference, then twice, then three times, then as the final leg of a half-marathon, where I was cheered on by Taiko drummers, church ladies in hats and gloves, and a firehouse battalion. 

Eventually, I returned home to Detroit (where, yes, I became a car owner again). But by then, Lake Merritt had become an indelible part of me. Recently, I returned to Oakland and spent an entire day walking the lake and its environs. I reflected, visited the birds whose names I had spent so much time learning, and even participated in an impromptu interview about economic inequality. The interviewer told me she was moving to Detroit in two weeks; we exchanged numbers. The day was a reminder of so many things, including that at this time in our nation’s history where healing feels especially urgent, communal spaces and spaces for solace—often one and the same—are essential parts of our cities.

Children’s Fairyland, a storybook-themed park conceived of by local business owner Arthur Navlet, opened on the shores of Lake Merritt in 1950. Walt Disney visited in the park’s early years and drew inspiration for Disneyland. (Navlet, in turn, I recently learned, was inspired by the zoo within my current refuge, Detroit’s Belle Isle.) Look closely at the Old Woman in the Shoe. Representation matters.

Lakeside Park features several curated gardens, including a Palm Garden, a Mediterranean Garden, a Rhododendron Garden, and a Bonsai Garden. Among the 200 trees in the Bonsai Garden’s collection are one that is estimated to be 1,600 years old and another that was displayed at the 1915 Pan Pacific Exhibition.

Lake Merritt is actually a saltwater tidal lagoon, connected by a channel to the San Francisco Bay. It is the first wildlife refuge in the U.S., established by the State of California in 1870. This designation protects the more than 100 species of birds who live and migrate here, as well as shrimp, fish, clams, crabs, sponges, copepods, tubeworms, tunicates, fox squirrels, opossum, raccoons, and many others. This photograph shows a great egret, several American coots, and an island full of American white pelicans, all common sights. The geodesic dome in the background was inspired, but not built, by Buckminster Fuller (although a plaque at the site long stated otherwise). Currently unused, it is one of the first geodesic domes constructed in the U.S. and previously housed migrating and injured birds.

Local landscape architect Howard Gilkey designed the Cleveland Cascade in 1923. For about a quarter of a century, water flowed down a series of descending concrete bowls, where the plants are now. The Cascade eventually fell into disrepair, but a group of volunteers, working from newspaper photographs, excavated the basin and restored the park, sans water, in the early 2000s. It is now a popular exercise spot. Those making the climb are duly rewarded with stunning views of the lake.

One of the things I love most about Lake Merritt is that, for all its natural beauty, you never forget that you are in the heart of a major city.

A nearly $200 million bond measure passed in 2002 led to numerous improvements in and around the lake, including demolition of a 12-lane stretch of roadway on the south side and installation of better pedestrian throughways. But not all is rosy. The tents dotted all around the lake signal that the Bay Area’s housing crisis is still at a fever pitch. One of the densest encampments is along the narrow walkways on either side of the entrance to the channel, where encampment residents have established a community garden. The Oakland city government began moving some of the residents into tiny homes this fall.

The channel receives far less traffic than the lake and has always felt like my secret spot to commune with the birds. Great egrets and snowy egrets are pictured here.

The Alameda County Courthouse is a pivotal site in American history. Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton stood trial here in 1968, and party members frequently demonstrated outside. The Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland in 1966.

Originally designed by Kevin Roche, the Oakland Museum of California is an underappreciated gem—which, frankly, is one reason I love it. The exhibits are typically stellar, but it’s the terraced courtyard and the peaceful koi pond that keep drawing me back. For more than a decade, San Francisco–based Mark Cavagnero Associates, working with Oakland’s Hood Design Studio and others, has led an overhaul of the exterior, galleries, and grounds, slightly softening the hard Brutalist edges. 

For all my love of Lake Merritt, I have never actually been on it, not even via its famed gondola. Rowers are another familiar sight—a tradition dating back to the late 1800s. I was delighted to see this boat skimming the water in the late afternoon light.

All photos by the author.


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