Oakland—like a swinging party, like an emergency—is happening.
Oakland is always happening. From the moment of its founding, in the 1850s, by a nefarious confederation of squatters, opportunists, filibusterers, graft artists, boosters, visionary thieves, and confidence men, Bump City has been happening. And yet, in all that time, Oakland has never quite happened. Or rather, Oakland never has happened. Oakland has never had its day. It has never gone soft, grown fat, rested on its laurels.* It has never entirely gotten its act together, remembered to set its alarm clock, made it through to payday, waited for its cake to cool completely. There is a there there (Oakland coolly says “Bite me” to Gertrude Stein); but Oakland’s not there yet.
Getting there, though. Oakland is—always, forever—getting there.
Oakland is like America in that way. Oakland is like America in a lot of ways—violent and peace-loving, burdened by a calamitous racial history, factious and muddled, friendly and casual, rich in local genius and in natural beauty, poorly governed, sweet-natured, cold-eyed, out to lunch, out for blood, out for a good time. And, above all, promising. Every day, Oakland makes and breaks the American promise, a promise so central to the idea of America that we carry it around everywhere we go, in our wallets, jingling in our pockets. I mean, of course, E pluribus unum: out of all the scattered sparks, one shining light. It’s a utopian promise, and like all utopian promises, liable to breakage. But even if that promise can never truly be redeemed, it can be—it must be—endlessly renewed. And it’s the work that we put in, day after day, toward renewing the promise, not the promise’s fulfillment, that really matters.
Tanya Holland knows that. Every day, starting at 5:30 AM, she renews Oakland’s promise at Brown Sugar Kitchen, a little hip-pocket utopia on a triangular lot between an auto-salvage yard and the free-range graffiti farms of the city’s wild west end. Of all the many good restaurants, greasy-spoon to top-drawer, that make up a substantial share of the cultural wealth of Oakland, Tanya’s Brown Sugar Kitchen most clearly, most faithfully, and most thrillingly embodies, one plate of chicken and waffles at a time, the ongoing, ever-renewed promise of the city she has come to love and, in a very real sense, to represent.
Drop by Brown Sugar Kitchen for breakfast or lunch, take a seat at one of the tables or at the long counter of its brightly painted, post-industrial-Creole-lunchroom-style interior, and you will find people of all ages and stations, professing various brands of faith or doubt, tracing their ancestries to Africa and Europe, Asia and South America, to the Cherokee, Shawnee, or Creek. You might very well find all those inheritances gathered around a single table, perhaps even in the genetic code…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.