By Gabriel Noble
Oakland, Calif., is a city in renaissance. One of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country, it has recently become a tourist destination and a hub for tech companies seeking an alternative to San Francisco’s high prices and Silicon Valley environment. The reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors’ hot streak has united old and new neighbors in an unflinching Oakland pride. But Oakland was not always a destination of choice: Violence once marked it as the most dangerous city in the country, and its police department has a checkered past due to its use of excessive force.
Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric headed to Oakland for the third stop in the series “Cities Rising: Rebuilding America” and took an in-depth look at the urban renewal of this complex and exciting city.
Riding through the streets of East Oakland in a drop-top Cadillac Seville, D’Wayne Wiggins of the R&B sensation Tony! Toni! Toné! introduced Couric to his hometown. As they passed the former headquarters of the Black Panther Party, he shared what life was like in the 1980s, when the crack epidemic and gang violence tore families apart. He lost both a brother and a sister to the dangerous streets. “My guitar … was my shield,” Wiggins said. “And that is why I am passionate about giving back.” Through Wiggins’ nonprofit Youth Aid — what he called “Tony’s School of Music” — young people are given free rehearsal space, mentoring in the music industry and life skills.
Youth UpRising continues the mission to transform lives and the community, providing young people with programs in health, education, job training and the arts. Located in an area once deemed “the killing fields,” the organization has enrolled 10,000 youth members to date. Couric met Naeem Lester, age 24, as he worked as a landscaper, one of Youth UpRising’s social enterprises. He shared that he has been in and out of trouble his whole life and said his role at Youth UpRising gives him an “opportunity to work with the youth and actually better myself.”
Entrepreneurs and millennials alike are being attracted to the city by a huge tech boom. Today, Oakland has more than 400 technology companies that employ 5,600 people, and the arrival of Uber in 2017 will increase the number of tech workers here by nearly 50 percent. Tim Westergren of Pandora, which has been thriving in the city since 2000, described Oakland as “the secret nobody knew about” compared to San Francisco, its expensive and saturated sister across the Bay. And other companies, such as VSCO, creator of the photography app, have been drawn to the diversity and community that Oakland provides. But Mayor Libby Schaaf is committed to what she explained to Couric as “techquity,” and she implores new tech enterprises to help her fight displacement, reflect the diversity of the city and be “compassionate neighbors, thinking about their environmental footprint and their charitable work.”
The biggest footprints these days are those of Golden State Warriors players Draymond Green and Stephen Curry, who just won their city its first championship in 40 years. Couric went one-on-one with Green, learning to dribble and shoot and hearing about the magical moment when he rode down Broadway in Oakland’s celebration parade, which brought out 1.1 million fans. “It’s kind of amazing to see that the way this team has grown over the last three or four years is the same way the city has grown,” Green reflected. “And I’m sure that’s the best parade in the history of the NBA.”
Amid this renaissance, Oakland is fast becoming an alluring destination, with the New York Times ranking it among the world’s top 52 places to visit in 2016. “People cross the bridge from San Francisco heading east. It’s a new phenomenon,” explained Alison Best, CEO of Visit Oakland, who said 2.6 million visitors traveled to her city in 2014. But for the locals, Oakland will always be a place of diversity, social activism, three beloved sports franchises — the A’s, the Raiders and the Warriors — and a hometown pride like no other.