Editorial: Two Fine Days on the Oakland Scene

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday August 08, 2006

We get a lot of Chicken Little letters around here. For those of you who are folklore-challenged, Chicken Little was the character who thought being hit on the head by an acorn meant that the sky was falling. He put a lot of effort into running around convincing all the animals in the forest to panic, with mixed results. It’s traditionally the job of the press to play the Chicken Little role, so we really can’t complain when our readers tell us to write more about climate change, or the on-going struggles in the Middle East, or the attempt by Bush II to dismantle the Constitution of the United States of America. Yes, we’re worried, worried, worried about all of these, and more. This time the sky might really be falling, and what are we going to do about it? But every so often, it’s a good idea to check into what’s going right—all worry and no fun makes Jill a dull girl. 

Over the weekend we had the pleasure of seeing two things that were going very right, and in much-maligned Oakland, of all places. Number one: Children’s Fairyland is still alive and well and doing its job. If you don’t have a 4-year-old to hang with, you might not have heard of Children’s Fairyland, might never have been there, might have missed all the fun. It’s a dorky 10-acre corner of the beautiful park surrounding Lake Merritt (which is now mightily threatened by the condo-builders, but we won’t go there today). In many ways, it’s a little bit of the innocent 1950s, when it was founded. There’s a bunch of now slightly tatty original buildings representing themes like the houses of the Three Little Pigs and Old MacDonald’s Farm, derived from European stories and songs, which kids can climb on and play inside. More recently, exhibits with African and Asian roots have been added to expand the fifties’ too-narrow window on the world. There are animals to pet and shows featuring children and puppets to watch.  

Nothing’s noisy, nothing flashes. Nothing is violent or even scary, unless you count a few dark tunnels like the one representing Alice’s rabbit hole. No national brands in evidence. In other words, it’s the anti-Metreon, as unlike San Francisco’s ugly indoor entertainment destination as it could possibly be. 

And the best thing about it is the kids, all kinds and shapes and sizes and colors of kids. Some stars: the girl with that wonderful 10-year-old combination of childish playfulness and adult gravitas, beaded braids sparkling, who was shepherding her three rowdy younger brothers to wait their turn in lines without poking each other or anyone else, as panting grandma hurried to catch up. (I recognize the technique from watching my 10-year-old granddaughter trying to civilize her 5-year-old sister, but using it on three brothers is impressive.) The little boys working earnestly to blow the Three Little Pigs’ houses down. The 5-year-old girl who took our 4-year-old by the hand so she wouldn’t be afraid to ride the small enclosed ferris wheel. Afterwards the two climbed all the daredevil structures together until closing time, despite the fact that the five-year-old spoke mostly Spanish with very few English words, and our 4-year-old has only a few words of Spanish. All were enjoying themselves, all behaving. (“I am be-ing-have,” one of my kids once told me indignantly when reprimanded.) Everyone, in fact, was Getting Along. If they built a Children’s Fairyland in the Middle East, would the adults be able to learn anything from it? 

Number Two: The Sunday afternoon jazz session at Golden Gate Library on San Pablo. Here the crowd was predominantly old-timers like me, long-time fans and musicians, crowded standing-room-only into a small basement room. It was part of a summer series that’s been going on for 15 years, every Sunday at 3 p.m., audience free (with a donation jar if you’re feeling generous).  

The main act was a group headed by clarinetist Leon Williams, with George Alexander sitting in on the trumpet, and they were sensational, much appreciated by the head-bobbing toe-tapping audience of aficionados. A mini-lecture on jazz history and a short demo-talk by a visual artist followed, and the afternoon ended with an open jam. First up was the young people’s jam. Bass player Michael Jones was joined by his daughters Donnalea (almost 10) and Randella (8) on cello and piano, laying down a bit of the blues. The adult jam boasted five killer saxophones, enough to blow off the top of your head in that low-ceiling room, and they didn’t even have amplifiers.  

It was another example of what Oakland has always done best, bringing lively people together for a peaceful good time. It’s hard to believe that the sky is falling in Oakland, as Jerry Brown would like you to believe, when you see how well so many things are still going there, even though there are also difficulties. Ron Dellums was elected to be Oakland’s mayor because his campaign projected optimism and enthusiasm about Oakland’s present and even more about its future. What we saw there this weekend was enough to convince anyone that he must be right.