A love letter to Lake Merritt
By Wanda Hennig (words and pictures)
It was a stroke of luck, getting to live by the lake. Widely known as the jewel of Oakland, its a magnet for fitness fiends, has a thriving boating center and gets dolled up after dark in its necklace of lights. The story went something like this.
Girl (me) meets boy (a musician) who is living way off in foggy Pacifica. Its a little more than a dozen years ago. Im working on the copydesk at the Oakland Tribune. The newsroom at the time is still located in the iconic Tribune Tower. The city has its drawcard neighborhoods like Rockridge and Piedmont Ave, but this is way before it became fashionable and a magnet for chefs, restaurants, food festivals and all things delicious and edible. There was Yoshis at Jack London Square, which then like now offered some of the best jazz and sushi in the United States; the stunning art deco Paramount Theatre in currently trending Uptown; but little else of note in the broad downtown part of town.
When the musician says hell relocate from Pacifica to Oakland if Ill move in with him, we start looking for a place. Neither of us had lived in Oakland so it was a trial-and-error kind of search that by chance had us walk past a For Rent sign on Merritt Avenue, a block up from the lake.
Within no more than 10 seconds of walking into what turns out to be the top floor apartment in an old building at the top of a rise, I hear myself say can I write the deposit check now?
Wed driven by the lake a couple of times before, but I cant say Id paid much attention to it. I had no idea, for instance, of its historical significance as the USs first official wildlife refuge, designated in 1870; or that it had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1966.
I had no idea I would come to identify the seasons by the bird population; that at a certain time of year Id watch in wonderment watching flocks of pelicans dive-bombing the lake like homing missiles closing in on their target; that every morning the buffoonish honks of Canada geese would tell me day was dawning.
I had no idea Id variously walk and jog and hobble and skip the lake many hundreds of times, alone and with friends, getting to intimately know the longer (lake-hugging) and quicker (Grand Avenue shortcut) ways around; that Id be enthusiastically welcomed by a group of Chinese ladies using the lake as their dojo and tutored in tai chi; that Id make some best friends among the eclectic Oaklanders Id meet when I joined Rockridge Toastmasters club in the gorgeous old Veterans Memorial Building.
I could go on and on because there are countless reasons Ive felt compelled to write Thank you! on my rent check when I pay each month. Oh, and the story of the boy and the girl? At some point we switched from being a couple to roommates. It works. It had to. Because how could either of us face leaving the lake?
Love the lake tips:
1) Watch plummeting pelicans from the jetty at Lake Chalet, a century-old boathouse reinvented as a seafood bar and grill with outdoor seating and sweeping lake views.
2) Picnic anywhere along the shores of Lake Merritt that takes your fancy. Most people like to do it on one of the grassy patches on the Lakeshore Avenue side of the lake or at Lakeside Park, which is on the Grand Avenue side of the lake.
3) Grab lunch for your picnic from the Lakeshore Arizmendi. When you go there, take time to explore the buzzy Lakeshore Avenue neighborhood to see what else takes your fancy.
4) If you hit the lake on a Saturday morning, fill your picnic basket or stock up for the week at the Oakland-Grand Lake Farmers Market on Lake Park Avenue, which many enthusiasts reckon is unarguably the best farmers market in the East Bay.
6) Go boating on the lake. Hire a rowboat, a kayak, a canoe, a pedal boat or a small sailboat and explore. * Best BART stops for Lake Merritt are Lake Merritt BART (if you are heading for the south side of the lake) and 19th Street BART (for access to the north side). Expect a walk of about 15 minutes from each.