Tuesday, August 30, 2011

walking tour: West Oakland

World Impact

Saturday morning I joined Luke Prince for a walking tour of West Oakland. This isn't part of the city tours program or the Oakland Heritage Alliance tours program, but it should be. The city tours are focused downtown, and the OHA tours in different neighborhoods of Oakland, but none covers the significant history of Prescott and Lower Bottoms.

Luke and I met at the West Oakland center of World Impact, a ministry working all over the world and here in Oakland. Coincidentally the building is across the street from a liquor store that has a sign I'd been meaning to photograph. The area near the liquor store used to be a magnet for drug trouble in the neighborhood before World Impact came in.

where OPD officer was shot

The first spot we went to was where OPD officer John Frey was shot. Frey had stopped Black Panther Party (BPP) co-founder Huey Newton during one of the BPP defense patrols in the pre-dawn hours. After fellow officer Herbert Heanes arrived for backup, shots were fired, all three were wounded, and Frey died. Newton claimed that Frey shot him first, which made him lose consciousness. He awoke in Kaiser Hospital handcuffed to his bed, and was convicted in 1968 of voluntary manslaughter. He served two years before the California Appellate Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. After two mistrials, the California Supreme Court dropped the case.

We walked along admiring the Victorians and other houses. Luke pointed out an "almost polite house" where he had lived when he first came to Oakland. An "almost polite house" was one that had multiple families living in it, and was subdivided each night by curtains to provide more privacy for sleeping. Some were designed with that in mind, resulting in houses with an odd assortment of half walls.

West Oakland was the home of a happening soul, R&B and jazz scene during the 40s, 50s, and 60s until construction of BART and the main post office brought it to an end. One place that survived longer was the Continental Club, which still opens for occasionally for private events. A lot of the music had Louisiana and New Orleans influences, because many of the workers recruited during WWII came from there. Read more in my post about Esther's Orbit Room.

16th Street Station

No discussion of Oakland history is complete without talking about the influence of the railroads, and that's especially true for West Oakland. The transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, and had its western terminus in Oakland. The first trains ran to Alameda, and the original terminus station was on 7th Street in Old Oakland, but eventually the 16th Street Station became the hub. We talked about the Pullman porters and the rise of the black middle class, and the importance of unions like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in the civil rights movement -- recall that MLK was in Memphis to support the sanitation workers union when he was shot.


While better in many ways, life in West Oakland wasn't a complete bed of roses. Jack London (who lived at 807 Pine) described a cannery as a "hell hole" where he worked 12-18 hour days as a 15-year-old. It was not uncommon to see children around West Oakland who were missing fingers or limbs, lost working in the factories north of 13th Street. Pullman porters, while better paid than some, were not fairly paid compared with whites. The 1949 construction of the Cypress Structure split West Oakland in half for decades. Industry has left contaminated soil.

But despite some modern problems like gentrification, drugs, and cleaning up past pollution, West Oakland is a lively, beautiful part of Oakland full of interesting people (who all seem to know Luke). It has great weather, easy access to Uptown, Downtown, and the Bay Bridge, and a burgeoning art and maker scene. If you're interested in taking the West Oakland history tour, contact Luke via email at lprince14 at gmail.com. He told me a ton more than I've written about here, and it makes for an interesting tour.

More reading:
Putting the "There" There: Historical Archaeologies of West Oakland
Black Panthers history
Pullman porter museum
Oakland Local : Right beneath our feet: Brownfields in West Oakland

More pictures:
West Oakland walking tour


OakSnap said...

I love West Oakland! If I could get my hands on one of those Victorians one day...I'd be elated!

Gene said...

You (and Annalee, too) should definitely take the tour from Luke sometime.