Paul Hayward tipped back his weathered black cowboy hat and leaned up against the bar, surveying the joint with a bemused eye. Rather than the black hat of a desperado, Hayward's was the hat of a fledgling entrepreneur, pulling-off a feat that hadn’t been attempted in Oakland in quite a while — opening a country-western bar.
“On any given night you can be in here people will be dancing,” Hayward said beneath a wagon wheel light fixture. “There will be live music and lots of singing along.”
Hayward named the bar Overland, after the 1874 saloon his restaurant now occupies. The Overland saloon was once frequented by the likes of Jack London, the area’s most famous former-resident for whom Jack London Square is named.
After taking a beating during the recession, the area is rebounding in force - with new restaurants and businesses opening up, including swanky wineries and even a business selling high end yachts.
“The renaissance in Oakland is a real thing,” Hayward said, a San Franciscan who opened the bar after falling in love with the area. “Much more diverse population here, lots more artists — we weren’t the only people priced out of San Francisco.”
Jack London Square, the age-old waterfront destination next to the bustling Port of Oakland, is now at 97 percent business occupancy. New restaurants such as the massive entertainment center Plank have moved in, catering to an increasingly younger demographic. Plank occupies the cavernous former Barnes and Noble Bookstore, filling it with a restaurant, 18 lanes of bowling, bocce ball courts and a video arcade.
“They needed entertainment,” said Plank general manager Pat Schroll, “so that’s what we’re bringing to Jack London Square is the entertainment segment.”
Just across the water from where giant white cranes of the blue-collar port, is the winery Rosenblum Cellars where visitors exiting the ferry can settle in for a zinfandel and some stunning views of the Oakland Estuary.
“There’s a renaissance in Oakland and Jack London right now,” said Rosenblum’s Kristen Peck. “We’re really excited to be a part of it.”
Oakland businessman and resident Keith Miller said the area was bustling back in 1993 when he opened California Canoe and Kayak on the square, renting kayaks and paddle boards to visitors. He said the area’s businesses emptied out during the recent recession, but are now roaring back. Miller said he typically rents hundreds of watercraft on any given weekend, filling the estuary with colorful paddle boards and kayaks.
“We got world class restaurants now, we’ve got better entertainment,” Miller said. “It’s just a nicer place to hang out.”
As a longtime Oakland resident, Miller recited an oft-repeated mantra heard around the square these days; “I think over the years Oakland has gotten a bad rap.”
Oakland City Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney agreed with Miller’s assessment but acknowledged the city’s struggles with crime and poverty are still a reality.
“America has problems in big cities and Oakland is no exception,” Gibson McElhaney said, “in terms of how we really wrestle with economic inequality.”
The councilwoman said Oakland is indeed experiencing a renaissance, partly because of the influx of artists priced-out of San Francisco, and partly because Oakland’s image is evolving.
“I think the biggest change is a boon in our tourism where people are beginning to see Oakland not as a waypoint to be someplace else,” she said. “Such a wonderful awesome time of growth, change and rebirth in so many ways.”
Some of the biggest evidence of change is a new business opening on the square -- geared toward sales of high end boats, as well as motor and sailboat rentals. Longtime Oakland resident Mik Maguire opened Passage Nautical in Jack London six months ago, tailoring it to the area's maritime leanings.
“I’ve been an Oakland resident for 40 years and this is really something,” Maguire said. “We just felt like this is the place to be — this is where all the action is on the bay.”
A statue of Jack London sits on the waterfront, an iconic reminder of the famous writer who labored on the waterfront and drank in its local bars. These days, London might not recognize the square that bears his name, but he’d still probably have a pretty good time.