A podcast about history

That's not stuck in the past


Thanks to its natural deepwater port, San Francisco quickly emerged as the West Coast’s leading metropolis during California’s Gold Rush era. In the decades since, many of Oakland’s development patterns have been influenced by its competitive relationship with the sparkling and sophisticated city across the Bay. As a result, the elitist ambitions of Oakland’s political and business leaders often overlooked, or actively harmed, many of The Town’s existing residents. For wealthy developers dreaming of car-friendly, upscale shopping malls and homogenous office towers, Black neighborhoods, immigrant enclaves, and working class districts were treated as obstacles to be bulldozed. This paradigm pre-dates common usage of the term “gentrification” by generations. 

Cycles of displacement are one of the main themes explored in “Hella Town: Oakland’s History of Development and Disruption” (UC Press) by Mitchell Schwarzer. As opposed to focusing primarily on individual power brokers, Schwarzer, a professor of architectural and urban history at California College of the Arts, zooms out to identify the broad economic and technological trends that have shaped the place where he’s lived for most of the past four decades. The book weaves together topics ranging from the rise of car culture to the consolidation of commerce in order to explain decades of policies and priorities that shaped our current landscape.

In this episode of East Bay Yesterday, we discuss Oakland’s tumultuous evolution, and also some of the best and worst development proposals that failed to become reality. Listen to the conversation via Apple, SoundCloud, Spotify, or wherever you get podcasts.

In the 1860 census, Oakland’s population was about 2000, while the post-Gold Rush San Francisco population had swelled to 100,000. The Town’s downtown didn’t begin booming until the arrival of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, which instantly made Oakland a thriving nexus of commerce and industry. [All of the postcards displayed on this page generously donated to East Bay Yesterday by Bill Schwimmer.]
“As the city began to function differently, its appearance changed. Churches had dominated Oakland’s skyline since the 1860s… From afar, the city’s commercial buildings barely registered, as they were but one to three stories.” -from “Hella Town,” chapter 1: Streetcar Stratification.
This image shows downtown Oakland circa 1900, when electric streetcar lines began overtaking horse-drawn modes of transportation. In “Hella Town,” Mitchell Schwarzer connects the history of various transportation networks with residential and commercial development patterns. Eventually the various privately-owned streetcar lines were consolidated by developers seeking to maximize the value of the real estate holdings scattered throughout Oakland’s flatlands and foothills.
The completion of the Kaiser Center in 1960 sparked a mini-boom of office tower construction, but failed to usher in a wider downtown renaissance that boosters had hoped for. Check out the podcast to hear why so many predictions of mid-century urban planners failed to come to fruition.

Listen to the episode via Apple, SoundCloud, Spotify, or wherever you get podcasts.

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