An Ode to Oakland

The town is the subject of a sparkling new history filled with lessons for our present.

From our current historical vantage, it’s easy to imagine that the cities of the Bay Area have always looked and functioned more or less the same. Buildings, streets, freeways and transit lines can feel like a part of the natural landscape, almost topographical. 

Of course, deep down, we know that’s not the case. Every piece of every city was at some point constructed. What got built, and how, and by whom, is always a reflection of the prevailing power structures, technological capabilities, and perceived needs of the time. 

In Hella Town: Oakland’s History of Development and Disruption, Mitchell Schwarzer, professor of urban and architectural history at California College of the Arts, meticulously catalogs how each and seemingly every piece of Oakland’s built environment came to be. Schwarzer’s history profiles Children’s Fairyland, Kaiser Center, the Paramount Theater, the Coliseum complex, the Oakland Museum and many, many more iconic places in the town. 

More significantly, Hella Town analyzes how Oakland’s physical structures mirror and reproduce its social realities, connecting two strains of urban history that are too often viewed separately. This unabashedly academic book rejects master narratives that would paint the hugely complex processes of urban development as “good” or “bad.” Although Schwarzer does not shy away from speaking truth about deeply shameful moments, nor the centrality of racism in the construction of the city. 

Oakland is a fitting place for this study. Its story is more representative of the story of urbanization in California and the United States, than preening, exceptional San Francisco across the bay.

In the mid-20th century, Oakland faced an “urban crisis” of deindustrialization, suburbanization, white flight and crime nearly as severe as any American city. During that same period, the town was utterly transformed by freeways, which San Francisco largely fended off. Only in the last decade or so has Oakland experienced an uneven urban economic revival, following a path San Francisco had already been on for decades. 

This history offers challenging and important takeaways for the present, encapsulated in the book’s subtitle. But Schwarzer leaves it to readers to tease out those connections, and consider how our views on the past inflect the work of the future.    

Nature vs. Nurture 

After a dedication to the Ohlone people, the original inhabitants of the land now known as Oakland, Schwarzer dives into the city’s industrialization during the 19th century. Channeling William Cronin’s classic Nature’s Metropolis, Schwarzer describes how the natural resources and geographic features of the land shaped what humans created there. The Clorox Chemical company distilled chlorine and hydroxide from the bay’s salt ponds in order to create bleach. Agricultural products from the Central Valley and across the Bay Area found their way to Oakland to be processed, canned, and shipped. Given its central location, and because it was the closest city to San Francisco from points east, Oakland emerged as a major railroad hub in the 19th century. (Its maritime preeminence would come after the town became an important World War II ship-building center.)

After the 1906 Earthquake, Oakland was transformed overnight into a bedroom community as thousands of displaced San Franciscans fled across the Bay. A burgeoning network of streetcars ending in ferry terminals, or moles, swiftly conveyed the commuting hordes to a rebuilt downtown San Francisco. Streetcars and housing subdivisions were typically built simultaneously, by powerful capitalists like Borax Smith. The resulting development pattern created a city of medium density residential neighborhoods with vibrant commercial corridors on main streets, and a high-density downtown packed with department stores, theaters, and offices. 

The Southern Pacific Mole and Pier near 7th Street in West Oakland, pictured in 1919. (Photo: Library of Congress)

This charming urban form, with its bungalows, garden apartments, and tightly packed shopping streets, had its dark side. Oakland’s most desirable neighborhoods were explicitly segregated by racial covenants on deeds. Marketing materials for bungalow neighborhoods emphasized their racial purity alongside proclamations about the aesthetic qualities of the area. A 1912 advertisement for the Havenscourt subdivision in East Oakland emphasized that there would be “no saloons, no Chinese, no Japanese, Negroes or Filipinos, no telephone polls or wires in the street.” “Whites only” appeared in Oakland real estate advertisements as late as the 1960s. A study from the early 1960s found that of the 350,000 homes built in the Bay Area after World War II, fewer than 100 were purchased by minorities. 

Schwarzer connects these Oakland-specific examples to nationwide trends, in a bibliography that doubles as a primer in the field of urban studies. Racial covenants, in addition to redlining policies from the federal government, laid the foundation for the enduring institution of residential segregation in the United States, as Richard Rothstein describes in The Color of Law. Continued discrimination in the banking industry had a huge impact on the racial wealth gap, as described by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in Race For Profit. 

Zoning regulations then reinforced Oakland’s bifurcated geography of the wealthy, white hills, and the poor, Black and minority flatlands. In the latter areas, industrial and residential zoning closely coexisted, exposing residents to dangerous pollution. These poorer areas also had less restrictive zoning, subjecting residents to more uncertainty about the future of their neighborhoods, while the hills would host the vast majority of the town’s park land. “A city of haves and have-nots resulted,” Schwarzer writes, “protected enclaves, on the one hand, and sectors subject to rampant speculation and disruption, on the other.” 

Riding Roughshod 

The streetcar network that fueled Oakland’s early growth was never built to last. Developers like Borax Smith were more interested in selling houses than maintaining a functioning mass transit system. The consolidated East Bay streetcar company known as the Key System, which ran trains across the lower deck of the Bay Bridge into San Francisco’s transbay terminal until 1958, had been on the decline for decades before it finally shut down two years later. In its place, a new city based on the circulation of automobiles was grafted onto the old, in a process that lasted roughly from the 1920s to the 1970s. 

In the early automotive years, major streets like 40th, 27th, and East 14th, later renamed International, were widened, either by demolishing or moving existing buildings. Downtown and on commercial corridors, old buildings were razed to make way for parking lots, so as to keep these areas economically competitive. 

Many of these shopping streets died anyway. The evolution of Safeway, from a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood store, to a car-oriented supermarket chain, illustrates this transformation. In 1943, there were 83 Safeways in Oakland, typically in small storefronts facing streetcar lines. By the 2000s, the town had just six Safeways, all large-format supermarkets in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. 

In describing this vehicular world, Schwarzer enters the architectural criticism register. The automobile “transformed the experience of urbanity” Schwarzer writes, “from sidewalks fronted by stores and movie theaters to a cityscape of vehicular attractions where human-scaled doors yielded to garage-style ramps and the motorized dynamics of the street passed directly into those of the building.”

To Schwarzer, this is a seminal moment in urban and architectural history. No longer were streets “outdoor living rooms, linear plazas, accommodating circulation, commerce, entertainment and sociability,” he writes. “This attention to vehicular proclivities resulted in the greatest reinvention of the street since the founding of cities millennia ago.” 

Cars would also create the impetus for two remarkable spurts of infrastructure construction. The first lasted from the late 1920s to the late ’30s, when the Bay Bridge, the Posey Tube linking Oakland and Alameda, and the Caldecott Tunnel to Orinda and Contra Costa County were all completed. Then, roughly from the ’50s through the ’70s, Oakland became the center of the Bay Area’s burgeoning freeway network, just as it had been the center of the railroad network of the 19th century. BART trains were routed alongside or in the medians of several of these freeways. 

The Grove-Shafter interchange in Oakland, with BART tracks running along the median of Highway 24. (Photo: Snap a Skyline/ Shutterstock)

These modern transportation systems were a boon to the region and the state, but their construction took a huge toll on Oakland and its residents. “Freeway and BART right-of-ways rode roughshod over cityscape that stood in their path leading to thousands of buildings moved or demolished, scores of streets dead-ended or diverted, businesses disrupted, residents displaced,” Schwarzer writes, noting that freeways ultimately had a far greater impact. 

Predictably, the worst of the damage came to low-income, minority neighborhoods. The heart of Black West Oakland, the 7th Street commercial district, was completely demolished to make way for BART tracks, and several other government-initiated developments. The historic Mexican neighborhood to the south of downtown was uprooted by the 880 and BART, as was much of the original Chinatown. Even white neighborhoods along MacArthur Boulevard in the hills fell victim to state planners’ desire to build the most efficient route possible between San Francisco and the Central Valley, known today as the 580. 

By contrast, San Francisco and Berkeley launched successful “freeway revolts” in the ’50s and ’60s, avoiding the same levels of displacement and demolition.  

Decline & ‘Renewal’

Displacement by freeway was compounded by “urban renewal” plans that demolished dozens of blocks in West Oakland, downtown, and Chinatown. While some of these plans were intended to improve the quality of housing, the net result was less housing to go around. Schwarzer crunches the numbers, showing how many public housing projects ended up producing fewer units than they destroyed. A policy known as Operation Padlock in the early ’60s vigorously pursued code enforcement against downtown residential hotels, resulting in 18 of these buildings being razed. Nearly three dozen more SROs were demolished in the subsequent years, severely limiting the town’s housing of last resort, and contributing to modern-day homelessness. 

Other urban renewal schemes were designed to mimic the Yerba Buena and Embarcadero redevelopments in San Francisco, adding housing downtown for middle class professionals who would work in new corporate office buildings. In Oakland, that vision never caught on — at least not during the 20th century. The office jobs city leaders had hoped would replace its dwindling manufacturing base were slow to materialize, and downtown living proved unpopular among the professional class. 

The transportation networks that directly served downtown Oakland were, ironically, a contributor to its hardship. Commuters and leisure-seekers were able to easily bypass downtown Oakland for jobs and entertainment in San Francisco. Schwarzer suggests that the ease of access to the city, and the suburbs, also took a psychological toll: “[M]any of the town’s residents would look to the sparkling, fast corridors as a means of escape to the frontier beyond Oakland’s borders.”

Thus, many of the 18 square blocks the city had demolished to make way for Oak City Center — a plan to build a modern downtown on par with San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center — languished for decades as parking lots, or else became squat government office buildings. 

It’s difficult to quantify the impacts of all of this demolition, but Schwarzer offers a few statistics: 11,800 homes were destroyed in Oakland from 1960 to 1966 alone. Over the course of the ’60s, West Oakland lost between 5,100 and 9,700 homes. 

The giant cranes that inspired the AT-AT Walkers in ‘Star Wars’ unloading containers at the Port of Oakland. (Photo: Sheila Fitzgerald/ Shutterstock)

Oakland’s feeble downtown revival over the second half of the 20th century came in the context of deindustrialization. The once mighty manufacturing city saw major automotive, electronics, and food processing plants close in the ’60s and ’70s. The Port of Oakland was the exception that proved the rule. An early adopter of containerization, the port became the town’s main industrial engine, each container offloaded representing products that were no longer manufactured stateside. 

From 1954 to ’85, Oakland lost over 20,000 industrial jobs. Black people, who had historically been the “last hired,” were now the “first fired.” With high unemployment, Oakland’s homicide rate soared, from 20 homicides per year in 1960, to an average of over 100 homicides annually from the mid 1970s through the early 2000s. The town’s high crime rates then proved to be a major obstacle for reinventing the downtown economy, and creating enough tax revenue to adequately fund city services.

This period of economic decline and government austerity came as liberal Black, Latino, and Asian politicians finally reclaimed power from the longstanding white Republican elite. Once minorities gained control of this diverse city, the civic ambitions of the past were financially impossible. Even into the 2000s, the town was desperate for any new investment that would provide jobs, fatten tax roles, and improve safety — often resulting in short-sighted decisions. As he rolled out a new plan to refocus downtown’s development strategy on residential construction in 1999, Mayor Jerry Brown said, “I already have affordable housing in Oakland. I want unaffordable housing.”

Development & Disruption 

Over the past decade or so, Oakland’s narrative has dramatically changed. Today, for many people in Oakland and across the Bay Area, the problem is too much development, too many jobs, too many newcomers. Between 2017 and 2019, Oakland’s homeless population grew by nearly 50 percent, an apparent symptom of the city’s development boom. Some activists likewise ascribe the continued displacement of the town’s Black community to the increases in housing construction in some neighborhoods. 

But these narratives overlook the fact that Oakland added 50,000 residents and just 9,000 homes over the course of the 2010s, forcing the least fortunate into overcrowded apartments or on to the streets. And the displacement of Black people from the town has been going on for decades — the Black population fell from 163,000 in 1990, to 91,000 in 2020 — due to gentrification as well as the appeal of safer neighborhoods and better schools in the suburbs. In a recent analysis of census data from the last decade, housing activist Darrell Owens found that Black people were more likely to be displaced from neighborhoods that saw no new development, than adjacent neighborhoods that did see development.

A protest against luxury housing development at MacArthur Commons in 2019. (Photo: Benjamin Schneider)

Nonetheless, Schwarzer observes how “[s]ome poorer Oaklanders became NIMBYs” in recent years, joining their wealthy compatriots in areas like Rockridge and the hills who had been NIMBYs from time immemorial. “Reactive to anything resembling the midcentury era of massive disruption and dislocation, other Oaklanders adopted stances on development pioneered earlier in Berkeley and San Francisco — low-impact visions rooted more in the village than the metropolis.” 

Oaklanders, like San Franciscans, are scarred by previous regimes of development. Schwarzer makes that much clear. But Hella Town remains rooted in an older history, overlooking how prevailing views on development contrast with the vision laid out by present-day leaders.

Oakland’s recent development boom — including thousands of homes built in the Broadway Valdez neighborhood, and hundreds more at MacArthur BART and Brooklyn Basin — is but a blip compared to longer-term plans. The parking lots surrounding West Oakland and Lake Merritt BART stations are slated to host multiple new high rises; a developer has proposed building a 600 foot office tower, standing head and shoulders above the rest of downtown; the A’s proposed development at Howard Terminal, and their old ballpark at the Coliseum could both become mini cities. There are major transportation developments on the horizon as well: The Link21 program would create a new train tunnel between Oakland and San Francisco, perhaps demolishing the 980 in downtown Oakland along the way, à la the late Embarcadero Freeway. 

These plans and more are occurring in the context of state laws forcing cities to permit previously unthinkable numbers of new housing units to make up for decades of under-production. Oakland’s target for the next decade is 26,300 homes. Compare that to the 9,000 produced during last decade’s “boom.” 

All of that development won’t happen painlessly, without conflict or sacrifice. “Development, the act of adding to (and/or subtracting from) the physical makeup of a city, invariably brings forth disruption,” Schwarzer writes in Hella Town’s introduction. “How development proceeds, gradually or rapidly, thoughtfully or recklessly, openly or behind closed doors, determines the severity of the disruption, as well as who comes out ahead and who gets left behind.” 

This law of urban studies must be applied to the contemporary situation. After four or five decades of relative dormancy, development has returned to Oakland, and with it disruption. Parallel scenarios are playing out in San Francisco and the rest of the bay. Will we choose to fight it, or shape it?

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