Reaching for the stars in Oakland

Oakland is the kind of city that’s always looking up.

If the drive along Lincoln Avenue over the Highway 13 Bridge–where you can see the ornate Ascension Greek Orthodox Cathedral and the magnificent Mormon Temple, both with stunning views of San Francisco Bay– doesn’t convince you, then keep going.

Wind your way up the hill, along Joaquin Miller Road, among pine trees and enormous redwoods, and you’ll find the Chabot Space & Science Center, which has a first-rate museum and observatory. We discovered it on a bleak January day, enveloped in thick fog, but that made it appear even more ethereal.

It’s always been hard for me to separate contemporary Oakland from my memories of it in 1991, when I was a journalism student at the University of California. A devastating fire ripped through the hillsides on a warm October day, killing 25 people, injuring more than 100 and inflicting over $1.5 million in damages. And although there’s no evidence of the tragedy up in the hillsides today, Oakland still has a reputation as a troubled city. That made our discovery all the more surprising.

The Chabot, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian, is a world apart from the Oakland you might see in the news. It offers everything from 360-degree planetarium shows to exhibits covering space travel and climate change. On a recent Sunday, the exhibit halls were bustling with parents, mostly locals, who wanted to show their kids the stars.

There’s something wonderful about the way kids react to the void of space and the possibility of new worlds. They are curious and receptive, not at all like adults, who can be suspicious and protective when they’re confronted with new ideas. My children came away from the exhibit with a sense that they, too, could look up and perhaps one day visit other planets.

We’re seasoned museum-goers, but rarely have we seen a science museum that’s this interactive. My middle child, Iden, spent a good part of his visit sporting a replica space helmet. And my oldest son, Aren, correctly identified several volcanoes on a giant plastic replica of Mars. (His parents were forced to admit they didn’t even know Mars had volcanoes.)

You don’t have to go this far up into the hills to see that Oakland is the kind of place with aspirations, and whose people are looking up. Down on Jack London Square on the harbor, where we’re staying at the Waterfront Hotel, there’s evidence of this city’s dreams. New condos are being built here, and there’s electricity in the air, even long after the glow of the holidays has faded.

It seemed appropriate to me, in almost a theological sense, that the churches, temples and observatories were high on the mountain, as if reaching to find meaning and purpose.

But spend enough time in Oakland, and you may feel that it’s a metaphor for the whole city.