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A History of Development and Disruption: Hella Town

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Detail of a historic map of Oakland.

Detail of a historic map of Oakland. (Photo thanks to UC Press)

This week on Making Contact, we bring you a story of urban planning and how race has shaped American cities.  In his book, Hella Town: Oakland’s History of Development and Disruption, Mitchell Schwarzer explores the origins and the lasting impacts of transportation improvements, systemic racism, and regional competition on Oakland’s built environment. Schwarzer, an architectural and urban historian, pulls from his experience as a city planner, and educator to tell the story of a city divided.

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  • Mitchell Schwarzer is Professor in the Department of the History of Art and Visual Culture at California College of the Arts. He has written books on architectural theory, visual perception, and the buildings of the San Francisco Bay Area.


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Making Contact:

  • Host:  Anita Johnson
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Anita: I’m Anita Johnson and this is Making Contact. On this week’s program, we bring you a story of urban planning and how race has shaped American cities in a new book, hella Town. Oakland’s history of development and disruption. Author Mitchell Schwarzer explores the origins and the lasting impacts of transportation improvements, systemic racism, and regional competition on Oakland’s built environment.

Schwarzer, an architectural and urban historian, pulls from his experience as a city planner, an educator to tell the story of a city divided hella town, provided me with a detailed understanding of the city. I’ve called home for a couple decades. I’ve known the city to be divided amongst racial groups, each living in their own enclaves, but I never quite knew what got us here.

Keep in mind, growing up, I had friends of all different ethnic backgrounds. We didn’t all live in the same neighborhood, but we all went to the same high school. The book . Hella town shows how racism has been intricately part of the city’s planning and design. I spoke with Schwarzer about the early history of Oakland’s black population in the city.


Oakland from 1940 to 1980, went from 2.6% black to 48% black. At almost half. The city now is black. It’s the, they’re the single largest group in Oakland by 1980, and yet they’re excluded. From most residential neighborhoods, they’re excluded from most types of jobs. If you look in the 1920s, it was city that since it was white, most people had the hope of profiting from business, you know, from their jobs and, and buying a home, and they, they could succeed in Oakland.

They had that, that possibility was there for them. For the blacks who came to Oakland during the Second World War, they hoped for the same thing. They got it for a little while. Certainly during the war years, a little bit less in the 15 years after the war, but starting in the early 1960s with de-industrialization, they see their hopes and dreams, you know, collapse.


Oakland, California is known as one of the most diverse and progressive cities in the nation, yet the city still grapples with uneven access to resources based on class and race, and it’s not unique to Oakland. There’s a popular assumption that fair housing laws have led to more integrated cities and neighborhoods.

Diversity is on the rise in many US cities, but more than 80% of metropolitan areas in the US have become more segregated. Since 1990, Oakland’s history of division and inequitable land distribution has shaped the experiences and opportunities of generations of oak land. Mitchell Schwarzer takes us back to the automobile boom and how this era helped shape Oakland’s development.


The most dramatic is the freeway, right? Uh, Oakland built, uh, the Caltrans, the state built four freeways, and this is with federal dollars and state dollars. Uh, and they were built between the late 1940s and the. It’s 1970s. So the first one was the East Shore Freeway, which is now called Interstate eight 80.

And that was built along the flatlands, along the industrial corridor and right through downtown. Right. So, and that it was built, finished in 1958. And it went, you know, it went from the San Lean, it went all the way down to San Jose. So it went from the San Leandro line all through East Oakland, through right through downtown.

They took out 13 entire blocks of downtown. And then it went right through the middle of West Oakland.


West Oakland has long been home to a huge black population. When the construction of the freeway leading to the Bay Bridge, cut through West Oakland, countless black families were displaced.


The first freeway kind of gives you a sense of what’s gonna happen, you know, the destructive aspects of freeway construction. One, it, you know, it tore apart downtown. It tore the, the kind of older wa waterfront part of downtown toward the estu, apart from the other part of downtown. So from now on, you have to go under a freeway to move. Uh, around downtown. Secondly, it went through three, the three largest minority communities in Oakland at the time. One, it went right through Chinatown. Then it went through what was the Mexican community, the large Mexican community along seventh and sixth Street, which relocated to East Oakland after that point. And Chinatown relocated a little bit north and then went right through the largest predominant black community in Oakland, west Oakland.

So it was, the freeway took the path of least resistance in, in terms of. The minority communities having, you know, being less affluent and having no political power at that point, the freeway. Right, right. Through their communities. And it, the freeway in West Oakland was a double decker. It, it’s where Manana Parkway is now.

Uh, and it, you know, it divides, you know, you’re talking about like a 40 foot wall in the middle of West Oakland. It collapsed, right? 19 89, 46 people were killed.


It was actually 42 people that died that day when the Loma Preta earthquake hit the Bay Area, and a portion of the Double Decker Cypress Freeway collapsed in West Oakland.

But along with the tragedy came an opportunity. The freeway had been attributed to polluting the community for years and being an overall eyesore. I could still recall how the freeway towered above the neighborhood, mainly populated by people of color. In the wake of the collapse, the city responded to community pressure and decided to rebuild in a more industrialized area.

The freeway is now to the west, along the Southern Pacific Railroad Corridor, and the freeway’s former path was converted to a green space with flowers, grass, and a walking path. But there are places all over the city where freeways cut right through the middle of things.


A lot of streets you can think about, like, uh, Martin Luther King Grove and Chaddock, you know, are a lot of streets between the two are cut off.

Uh, so they’re, you have this phenomenon of lots of dead end streets all, all along, wherever there are freeways, you know, cuz there are only so many bridges or tunnels under the freeway to get across. When the I five 80 located east of the eight 80 freeway was built in 1963, Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration banned all trucks weighing more than 4.5 tons, so that means cleaner air and a better quality of life.

But those trucks were pushed over to the other freeway, the eight 80, creating congestion and increased pollution in neighborhoods where the majority of the residents were people of color. So it divides, it not only, you know, cuts right into the middle of communities. It also divides communities. And lastly, I think the freeways also created an environment alongside them that was rather toxic, both to pedestrians, to businesses, and to li and, and to living. Cause you know, you’re gas stations, auto repair businesses start to locate near the freeway, e e entrances and exits.

Uh, and you know, you see this like. For instance, you know, by the 24 where it hits, uh, 51st Street, you know, the, you start to get these kind of big automotive zones around the freeway, you know, intersection with, with the city streets, and it, it ma it kind of adds to the divisions of Oakland, you know, and the kind of making it into a less pleasant place to, to, you know, to actually walk around and to live in.

So y that’s probably the most dramatic, you know, and, and because Oakland, because of its location, because of our location, right at the eastern side of the, you know, right across from San Francisco. Oakland becomes the center of the freeway network, right? The major freeway, most of the major freeways, the ones that head nor, you know, a 80, which heads towards Sacramento and the East coast.

You know, the five 80 which heads toward the Central Valley and then Los Angeles. Uh, They’re located in Oakland, you know, the eight 80 heads all the way down to San Jose, you know, so Oakland has a lot of land taken up by freeways, and later Bart will, the same phenomenon happens with Bart. Bart, which is constructed during the sixties into the early seventies.

Also is sort of centered in Oakland. And of course there were also another couple of horrible developments in West Oakland at the exact same time. Everything is happening from the late fifties. To the, uh, very early 1970s, uh, the, the huge regional post office is built, uh, right next to where the BART lines are, and it takes out 18 blocks, 18 entire blocks, mostly housing, and then the largest, uh, Slum clearance in, in Oakland occurs also in West Oakland, the Acorn Project, which takes out over a hundred blocks of industry and, and housing and replaces them with what was supposed to be a, uh, mixed race, moderate income development that didn’t pan out at all.

So the automobile, and then later urban renewal and other projects like Bart. You know, really devastated large parts of Oakland and disproportionately West Oakland got the bulk of it.


Why West Oakland? Is it because, as you mentioned, the communities of least resistance, were they predominantly black minority communities? Is that particularly why West Oakland was the targeted area?


Mitchell: Completely. I, I think West Oakland was targeted cause the community in West Oakland in the 1950s and sixties had virtually no political power and was quite poor. So it was a case of, of basically taking the, uh, essential infrastructural developments and putting them in areas that would not affect the affluent community.


And the political, you know, the leaders of the community, they, it didn’t, you know, Piedmont has none of these things. You know, there’s not a freeway, there’s not a BART line. You know, there’s very little commerce in Piedmont. Piedmont, you know, is a exclusive, pleasant residential community. Uh, by contrast, west Oakland, uh, Got a lot of infrastructure, uh, that would serve the people from Piedmont.


You know, they’d be able to drive on the freeways. They’d be able to take the BART lines, but it wasn’t in their community. And it was, yeah, it was, it was completely, I think, racially based and, uh, class-based. Both of those, yeah.



Mitchell, explain to the listeners, uh, how. And if at all, were these communities individuals compensated?


And, and how do you think it also impacted these, uh, community’s ability to secure wealth generationally?



I think they were not compensated. There were supposed to be, I’ll give you an example. Like acorn, the Big Acorn housing. You know, the goal of Acorn was to create a, I would call it a aire, a zone between poor and black West Oakland and what was the city leaders wanted for downtown?


In the 1960s, which was to make downtown more like downtown San Francisco. It uh, more of a white collar office district and also including residential for middle class and upper middle class whites. And so the acorn development was supposed to be a 50 50 white black. It was supposed to have, you know, working class, but also more moderate income and middle income people as a kind of buffer.


So, you know, there was this direct attempt to transform part of West Oakland into a buffer zone that would allow downtown Oakland to become more affluent. And, uh, you know, white collar. That’s, you know, that’s just a great example of trying to change the nature of the city. Right at the period when there, you know, you have de-industrialization, there’s a lot of industrial jobs start moving out in the sixties and, and into the seventies and beyond.


So, you know, you have, it’s, it’s a real tragedy for the community in West Oakland because the community in West Oakland, I mean, It did, it, people did not have the ability to move anywhere they wanted to. Right. And that brings in that second question about, you know, generational wealth. Uh, it, it wasn’t Oakland that did this.


It was a federal government plan. Uh, in the 1930s, you know, under the, uh, r uh, under Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, he established a, uh, federal Housing Administration, a new agency that changed the way. Mortgages were processed and used. So up until, up until the 1930s mortgages, you have to pay most of your money.


If you bought a house, you have to pay 50% down or more. Yeah. During the, you know, the new deal changes that you can now put down 10%, much lower. Much lower down payment, uh, makes it easier to buy a house. And during the Great Depression, that was the goal. The goal was to stimulate housing, develop, uh, construction and purchases.


He also changes the terms of the mortgage, you know, uh, from a longer period you can pay it over a much longer period. Earlier it was five years, often, sometimes 10. Now it goes out to 30 years. So this is all intended to boost housing production. And lastly, They instituted under the terms of the Homeowner’s Loan Corporation, which was part of the Federal Housing Administration, a system of evaluating the risk for banks.


In granting mortgages for residential or commercial development or any improvement projects. And this, the system is now called, we call it redlining now, and what the system was, was a, a rating of the geography of a city into four, and turning that geography into four zones, which were colored green, blue, yellow, and red.


And the reds were the hazardous zones. Basically it, the federal government said to banks, if the zones are red, we’re not guaranteeing anything. And those are, you basically stay, don’t invest into those zones cuz they’re, it’s hazardous. And the green and blue zones, by contrast, were, yes, those are perfect, you know, uh, safe zones.


And that’s where we’re encouraging most, uh, investment. And the way they came up with the, the four zones was, A system of criteria. The first was if, if a geographic area had a mix of building ages. So if you had buildings from the 1870s and 1890s and 1920s, that was bad. That, that, that started to put you in a yellow or red zone.


It was not good to have mixed, uh, ages of buildings. It was better if everything was built, let’s say in the twenties or early thirties. And this, these maps were, uh, codified in the late 1930s. So that was one, one criteria. The second criteria was uses. Uh, it was much better if, if a zone was completely residential.


If, if all, if all you had were housing, that was the, you got a, you could get a green if you had some commerce just here and there. It could be blue. If you had a mix of commerce and then a little bit of industry, it would usually turn to yellow. And if you had a lot of industry and commerce and residents, it would turn to red.


So mixed uses was negative. And lastly, mixed race. So if you had people, what they considered different, different racial groups. And they, you know, they specified if there were black residents living alongside white residents, that was a negative. If there were Asian residents and, and, and Latino residents and whites, it was negative.


So what they were calling for were exclude homogeneous racial zones, and those received the better. Rankings, those became blue and green. So if you look at the Oakland Maps from 1938, the blue and green zones are all in the, in the lower hills than upper hills because those were the newer areas. Those were the areas that were exclusively white because they had been operating under racial covenants for like 20 years by now, which are, which are deeds built into the, uh, into a house or a subdivision that say, Only people of the Caucasian race can live here, or black.


They didn’t use the word blacks. They used other terms that were more D we consider now derogatory. They would say, you know, those people cannot live here, or Mexicans cannot live here, or people of Asian or Chinese, Oriental, they often said, cannot live here. So you already had the system, which was done by basically promulgated by realtors.


And, and developers to exclude minorities from. And create all white communities. And now the federal government goes into the same, you know, basically extends that and strengthens it through the whole, you know, uh, ranking and redlining system. And so if you look at the combined, uh, impact from racial covenants, which start in the, the teens roughly, and then redlining, which starts in the thirties, and both of them go well into the sixties and probably in, you know, Under law until the early 1970s when the final laws are established that ban all of those kind of practices.


You had a system of systemic housing discrimination in Oakland for, you know, we’re talking like 70 years almost. And so if you’re a minority in Oakland, you know, you were basically excluded from new housing. You excluded also from the suburbs like San Leandro, Hayward, Castro Valley, the Walnut Creek.


These were also almost exclusively white. When they were developing in the fifties and sixties, you know, minorities could not move to those areas. They were covenants against their moving there and, and then the whole, the way the federal government guaranteed loans for vets, they couldn’t get those either.


So I would say a system of housing discrimination that extended over much of the 20th century allowed whites to build up equity in property. And so, Minorities were really screwed by that whole process and to this day, the difference in wealth. Between, let’s say just blacks and whites is, I think it’s 13 times.


It’s something huge. And that stems, a lot of, that stems from housing wealth, and a lot of the housing gap stems from these kind of discriminatory practices that were, I would call them, they were systemic. By systemic, I mean they were the practice, the everyday practice of business, and they were codified in government.


Um, there’s so much that I, I wanna ask, right. But I, our time is limited, so I’m gonna focus it down to one question. Um, looking at Oakland’s history of de development and disruption, Oakland’s migration, boom, of blacks coming from the south began what, in the 1940s? And it slowed in the 1980s. What in particular was happening in Oakland at the time, and how did the city’s development and urban planning attempt to address.


This boom or this migration of black folks coming to Oakland.


Um, so it, the, the migration is brought about by the mobilization for the second World War. So in, in 1940, I think the black percentage in Oakland was 2.6, relatively low. By 1980, it was above 48%. That’s a huge increase, right? The city really changes dramatically in those 40 years, and then after 1980, you see a huge migration starting in the seventies, but you see a huge migration of people from Latin America, primarily Mexico, central America, and East Asia to Oakland to the point where the LA Latino community in 2020 is the largest single.


Community in the city, and I think whites are, second, blacks are a third at about 20%, and Asians are about 18%. But you get a real, you know, you know, all Oakland in 1940 was 94% white. So, and now it’s about 27% white. So it’s really changed, uh, and, and first black community. First big black migration. And then secondly, later, a Latino and Asian migration into Oakland.


Um, the Black migration was stimulated by the war and the promise of good jobs. In, in, in war wartime industry, ship building, and all sorts of industrial production. You know, the American G D P doubled during the second World War. I mean, it’s incredible, and this is a tremendous opportunity now to go to Los Angeles or to go o Oakland.


There were migrations, there had been migrations already since the twenties toward New York and Philadelphia, and Chicago, and Detroit. So you have an enormous migration of blacks from the south. To the north and west for the promise of better jobs and less racial discrimination. And it’s wonderful at first, I think, I think during the forties, you know, the black migrants don’t get the best jobs.


There are unions that prevent them, you know, white, white dominated unions that prevent them from getting the best jobs. Y you know, let’s say in, uh, steamfitter Union and other types of, uh, you know, Higher trained work, but they get a lot of good, they get jobs, and they get jobs that are so much better than what they’ve had, and they move into Oakland and, and to Berkeley and to Richmond and San Francisco, and things are going really well.


It’s called the Great Compression, where for the first time in American history, black employment and black salaries start to get closer to whites. It compresses and it’s a great period. What happens is the war ends and a lot of war time industries, you know, they decelerate, they start to lay off workers, and it tends to be the black workers are laid off first, and so in the late forties there’s a bit of dislocation, but then in the fifties, a lot of industries are doing well in the late forties and fifties, and so it’s not a bad period.


And so the black migration continues, you know, it, it accelerates during the, during the fifties and into the sixties. The problem comes is that if you look at the 1960s, pretty much most, you know, black employment was in industry. You know, it had been earlier in domestic service and in the railroads, right?


Uh, now it’s mostly in industry. And Oakland had an incredibly large industrial sector up until the sixties. You know, we were producing everything from, uh, general electric light bulbs to General Motors, automobiles, to, we were canning things. We were producing ships. We were producing radios, we were producing, you know, uh, uh, calculators.


A lot of food industry. You know, it was a, a big industrial sector and blacks were employed across this industrial sector. One of the problems was in the professional sector, there’s virtually no black employment. So you have a low black employment outside of industry that persists. That starts to change in the seventies, but in the sixties it’s pretty low.


And then what happens in the early 1960s? De industrialization, the beginnings of de-industrialization and from, I’d say from ship building, which really starts to collapse after the war. And then the major automotive assembly plants in Oakland, there were three. They all moved out of the city. In between 60 and 63, most of the canneries closed by the seventies.


General Electric closes, its three plans by the eighties, and you go down the list. And so between the early sixties and the nineties, a great. Portion of Oakland’s industrial jobs are lost. And I, and then finally the three large military bases, and there was one in Alameda. So you could say there were four in this area.

The Alameda Naval Air Station, the Oakland Army base, the Oakland Naval Supply Depot, and the Oakland Naval Hospital. They all close. In the, in the nineties, and that was a source of huge black employment. Like over 30 to 40% of the employees at those bases were black. So there’s a, a, a bloodbath of employment that occurs over the last third of the 20th century more, you know, last quarter, third of the 20th century, really, from the sixties into the nineties, where, where.

The black migrants who had come to Oakland with great hopes, you know, in the, for, from the forties to the sixties and seventies. Uh, by, by the end of the 20th century there’s high un, there’s really high unemployment and the hopes are dashed. And, uh, you know, it was very hard, for instance, for blacks to go to the suburban jaw.

You know, the jobs moved to the suburbs and it’s hard for them to go to the suburbs because Bart never established a system for, you know, moving. Bart was all about getting people into downtown Oakland and really into downtown San Francisco. Right. It’s really an adjunct of the freeway system and an alternative to the Bay Bridge.

So it’s about getting people to the downtown cores. It was not about like, oh, get, let’s get people to now General Motors, which relocated from what is now Eastmont Town Center. That’s where they were. And they had another plant on, uh, international by the Sand Leandro line. They moved those to what is now Tesla in Fremont.

That’s, that was First General Motors that the, the current Tesla plant. There was no system for like, let’s say having shuttle buses by AC transit from, from the Bard in Fremont to TE to the General Motors plant. You know, they didn’t think that way to get the people from the inner city who are largely minority at this point, out to the suburban jobs.

That occurs all through the, the, the second half of the 20th century. And in ter it probably starts to count for, you know, Why the black population starts to decline after 1980, you know? But the, the main reason it starts to decline is that you don’t have new migrants coming. And for every population, the only way a population stays stable or increases is you have to have lots of new migrants coming.

And the black migration basically ceases by the late seventies and then reverses. And black, you know, since the, since 80, the last 40 years or so, a lot of blacks have done what whites have done in Oakland, and they’ve moved out to the suburbs. And so there’s been an outward suburban migration of blacks and there hasn’t been an influx inward.

There’s also been a migration out of California entirely towards the south and other parts of the country.

And then of course we’ve had a large, uh, influx. Of what we call gentrification, which are people who are affluent and educated and largely white and somewhat Asian, and they’ve been moving into Oakland in large numbers because of their housing prices on the west side of the bay. Oakland has been relatively affordable compared to San Francisco, Palo Alto, Marin County.

So you’ve seen a lot of people move from the west side of the Bay to the east side of the bay. And that has changed the demographics as well.

Anita: That was Mitchell Schwarzer, author of Hella Town Oakland’s History of Development and Disruption. For more information about today’s program, Anne Schwartz’s book, visit I’m Anita Johnson. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.


Author: Jessica Partnow

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