Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Wayfinding around Oakland

If you've ever looked at a map of Oakland or traveled near the borders, you've probably realized it can be difficult to know exactly when you're in Oakland or in one of the neighboring cities. For example, while going south on San Pablo, you'll go from Berkeley, to Oakland, to Emeryville, back to Oakland. Here are some simple tips on figuring out where you are, as well as some basic information about the neighborhood.

Street Signs

One of the easiest ways to figure out where you are is to look at the nearest street sign. Each city has its own design for street signs, so you can quickly figure out which city you're in:




Sometimes the differences are more subtle. Piedmont's signs are green and white like Oakland's. But most Oakland street signs have the oak tree logo on them (a few older ones don't), and are in mixed case, whereas the Piedmont signs are all uppercase. San Leandro signs are green and white, too, but have a cherry logo representing San Leandro's agricultural history:



San Leandro:

There are exceptions like the aforementioned older Oakland signs without the oak tree logo, or the special sign for "Bill Louie's Corner" in Chinatown that's blue and white, but in general it's a good way to figure out which city you're in.

Sidewalk Stamps

Once you know what city you're in, how do you figure out how old the area is? This technique I learned from Oakland geologist Andrew Alden, who led the Oakland Urban Paths: Rock and Walk in February. Look down at most sidewalks, and you'll see stamps in the concrete from the contractor who built them. This is far from an exact measure of a neighborhood's age, as sometimes sidewalks came first, sometimes they came later, and of course, sidewalks get torn up and replaced. But looking at a number of older stamps in an area can give you some idea of how old the neighborhood is. You can also check any public stairs in the neighborhood. Andrew has a whole blog devoted to Oakland sidewalk stamps.

Purple Glass

I heard about this technique recently from Oakland historian Ruby Long. Prior to World War I, manganese was widely used in glass-making as a clarifying agent. Exposed to ultraviolet light for a long time, it turns purplish. Most of the manganese came from Germany, but with the outbreak of WWI, that supply was cut off. So while you can't set an exact date, purpled glass is generally 1915 or earlier, and 1920 at the latest. I saw this most recently on the OHA Piedmont Avenue walk that Ruby led, where she pointed out the basement skylight glass that has turned purple over the years:

Ruby also pointed out the sidewalk stamps as a way to gauge the age of a neighborhood. Though in the case of the stamps near Piedmont Avenue School, the (original) school was much older (100+ years) than the "WPA 1941" stamps in the sidewalk in front.

Palm Trees

This technique you may have heard about from Oakland historian Dennis Evanosky on an Oakland Heritage Alliance walk, talking about "the palm tree method." It's probably the least precise but most interesting technique. Basically, if you see one or more old palm trees, particularly a row of them, you can guess that something of historical note was there.

For example, this row of palm trees along 9th Avenue marks the edge of the "Borax" Smith estate:

Not every palm tree indicates something interesting, but it's a clue that there may be more to investigate.

So next time you're walking around Oakland, look up, look down, and look around to see what you can learn about the area you're in.

More photos:

Note: Andrew has good additional ideas he left in the comments: noting where street addresses suddenly change, parking restrictions change, and where recycling bins change. All are clues that you may have crossed a border into another city.


Oakland Daily Photo said...

Great post, Gene. Fascinating information. The purple glass really caught my eye. You can see old glass doorknobs at Mills College that have purpled in the sun. But I never associated the chemical reaction with sidewalk glass. Now I know better.

Unknown said...

I'd heard about glass discoloring over time, but I'd never heard the 'why' about the chemicals nor the WWI connection. And certainly seen lots of purple sidewalk glass.

Andrew Alden, Oakland Geology blog said...

In my sidewalk surveying, I use a few more tactics to spot the city borders. First, the house numbers usually change. Second, the parking restrictions change. Third, the recycling bins change. In difficult cases, I can check the USGS topo maps (Rose Street, on the Oaklnd/Piedmont border, is a good example).

Unknown said...

Thanks for the added ideas! I've noticed the address numbers change sometimes, but I hadn't thought about the parking restrictions or the recycling bins.