III. Study Area Background

III. Study Area Background

West Oakland’s history has always been tied to the transportation networks that shaped the Bay Area over the past 150 years, the flows of goods and people essential to the region’s economic growth. It is therefore not surprising that the neighborhood’s surrounding highways identify its geographic boundaries: CA Highway 24 to the north, Interstate 580 along its eastern edge, Interstate 880 to the west and south (see Figure 3.) West Oakland’s importance to the regional economy was established once it became the terminus for the transcontinental railroad in 1869 at the intersection of Seventh Street and Adeline Street. Composed of a diverse group of residents of primarily Italian, Chinese, African, Portuguese, Mexican, Swedish and German descent, the neighborhood was home to many rail, dock, and ship workers. Flows of people and goods by railroad, ship, ferry, and light rail systems were essential to the growth of the city, and made the neighborhood a vital and dynamic area. However, shifts in the regional economy, particularly over the second half of the twentieth century, brought new transportation networks through West Oakland that facilitated regional economic development at the expense of the residents and businesses in the neighborhood.
West Oakland’s African-American population grew in response to employment opportunities largely with the Pullman railroad porters, and during the shipbuilding and port-industry boom of the Second World War they became the majority group in the neighborhood and have remained so to the present (Bagwell 1982.) Between 1890 and 1940, Oakland’s total Black population rose from 1.3 percent to 2.8 percent of the total population, from 699 to 8,642. As migration ramped up during World War Two, Black population jumped to 37,327 (9.3% of the total population) in 1945, and 41,00 (10.1% of the total population) by 1948. Migration continued after the war years, so that by 1960 the total Black population was 83,620, constituting 22.8 percent of the total citywide population (see Table 1.) Although more precise figures at the neighborhood level are unavailable to describe population by ethnicity, the majority of Black households settled in West Oakland during this time (Brown 1970.)
For the first half of the twentieth century, Oakland, along with other East Bay towns, formed the industrial heart of the metropolitan region. Between 1900 and 1930, Oakland grew from about 67,000 inhabitants to more than 264,000; this population increase was supported by a number of key industries from canneries to auto production, and creating a powerful capitalist class as well as a vast working class population (Walker 1998.) Among the industries most critical to West Oakland’s early ascent were its extensive shipbuilding facilities, sustaining thousands of workers from the Civil War through World War Two. West Oakland urbanized rapidly during this period, extending streetcar lines from the waterfront for miles and enabling a vast amount of property development.
However, urban decline and suburban expansion accompanied the U.S. postwar economic boom. As economic activities became spatially decentralized, central business districts were still of sufficient importance to a section of corporate and real estate interests in most cities. Through remaking the central
Table 1. Oakland Population By Ethnicity.

Oakland Population By Ethnicity

city and its core neighborhoods, these owners and investors hoped to restore land values in Oakland. Downtown Oakland’s merchants and property owners were financially weakened in the suburban exodus and the demise of the streetcar. Those centrifugal economic forces encouraged local elites to redevelop the urban core, in an attempt to bring middle class consumers and businesses back to the city (Walker 1998, Rhomberg 2004.) The consensus on urban renewal shifted from a policy for housing the poor (that received little elite support), to one of replacing them with more affluent residents.
After World War Two, West Oakland, characterized as “blighted” since the 1930s by city officials, was targeted for vast renovation efforts. From the 1940s through the 1970s, housing projects were built over leveled neighborhoods that had been designated as residential areas of poor quality (see Figure 3 and Figure 4.) Eminent domain was used by federal agencies as well as local government to relocate thousands of people from West Oakland, dispersing many to other parts of the city. By 1957 the Cypress Freeway cut through the neighborhood, followed by the Grove-Shafter Freeway. Later in 1969 the construction of a new Post Office distribution facility at Seventh and Wood Streets forced the relocation of hundreds of families. The Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART), built during the 1960s and completed in 1972, removed more blocks of housing to build the West Oakland station along the Seventh Street commercial corridor, effectively wiping out the main business district in the area. (Hausler 1990, Cornell 1999, Rodriguez 1999.)
Throughout these decades of spatial restructuring, West Oakland became a predominantly African-American neighborhood, and this has remained the majority population since. Between 1940 and 1950, the black population in West Oakland rose from twelve to fifty percent as black migration from the south continued and white flight began. Between 1955 and 1966, more than 163,000 Whites moved out of the city to newly emerging suburbs, effectively reducing the resistance to black mobility within Oakland. In particular, much of the “flats” of Oakland (and Berkeley) became available to blacks as their population grew from 47,000 in 1950 (eighty-five percent of these lived in West Oakland at the time) to 125,000, one-third of Oakland’s total, by 1970. West Oakland maintained a much higher proportion of African-American residents, so that by 1980 they represented eighty-seven percent of the neighborhood’s population (Bay Area Census 2009.) Despite their numbers, lower-income residents were excluded from participating in many local policy decisions until the late 1960s. Agencies like the Target Area Advisory Committee, a city-created citizen’s group meant to manage participation in urban renewal efforts, heavily represented homeowners instead of tenants. Poverty programs at the time similarly placed residents with higher incomes in leadership positions, despite the organized opposition to these policies by poor residents (Rodriguez 1999).
Figure 4. Residential Security Map of Oakland, 1956.

Source: OCPC 1956.

The draw of investment to San Francisco and to the new suburbs left West Oakland as a marginal space between the places of postwar economic dynamism. However, the marginal spaces were reengineered like the outlying agricultural lands and the prosperous urban cores. Huge federal expenditures financed the redevelopment that took place in urban cores throughout the U.S., restructuring transportation networks and social life in places like West Oakland and entrenching social inequalities further in the urban landscape (O’Connor 1973, Hausler 1990.)
Beginning in the 1950s, federal urban renewal programs destroyed housing stock throughout West Oakland in order to rebuild higher income residential areas near downtown. Property values in areas surrounding downtown to the west had been declining for decades, many businesses began to relocate or went bankrupt, and city and business officials hoped that the “massive physical destruction of large parts of West Oakland” for redevelopment and transportation projects would solve their financial woes (Rodriguez 1999, Self 2004: 81.) By 1958 a redevelopment agency had been created for Oakland, planning the future of the central city in line with the wishes of its real estate and downtown retail members. Building freeways across West Oakland followed from these plans as well, and planners believed that traffic flow between the new suburbs and San Francisco would also benefit the retail core of central Oakland (Zettel 1963, Oakland City Planning Department 1964.)
Concerns about the potential for large-scale displacement in West Oakland were rooted in an awareness of urban renewal efforts in American cities over the second-half of the twentieth century, and particularly in the devastating effects that freeway construction, slum clearance, and other activities carried out by local government over the last fifty years (Harvey et al. 1999, Shoemaker 2002.) Large sections of West Oakland were razed to make room for freeway and mass transit in the postwar years, and sections of the neighborhood were physically isolated from each other by freeways. Thousands of families were forced out of their homes to accommodate the changing regional economic geography. The physical landscape created through urban renewal programs increased the obstacles to West Oakland’s prosperity, as the neighborhood was rebuilt over decades not according to the needs of its residents, but to the demands of a changing regional economy. Toward those ends, West Oakland served primarily as an economic dead zone situated between the new spheres of production and consumption of downtown San Francisco and the suburbs, and in the postwar era its residents fell deeper into poverty (Zettel 1963, Rodriguez 1999, Self 2003, Praetzellis and Praetzellis 2004.)
West Oakland had been vital to the Bay Area’s economy throughout the first half of the twentieth century, but its significance declined tremendously by the 1970s. As urban renewal projects proceeded, the economic base supporting many West Oakland residents eroded. The 1962 containerization of shipping cargo at the Oakland docks left many people without work, and manufacturing jobs moved out of Oakland towards suburban areas. Adding further to these blows to West Oakland’s economic vitality was the systematic abandonment of private and public capital going towards loans for homebuyers and upkeep of properties (Getz 2008.) By the 1990s, West Oakland ranked among the poorest neighborhoods in the Bay Area, with corresponding low rates of home ownership. The economic boom beginning in the later half of this decade changed the neighborhood in important ways, although West Oakland arguably remained a place of last resort for most of the investment capital circulating throughout the region.
The San Francisco Bay Area was the epicenter of the “dot-com” boom, a period of intense speculative investment in the high technology sector that lasted roughly from 1995 to March 2000. Fueled by enormous amounts of speculative investment capital, high technology research and business enterprises flooded the region with high paying jobs, bringing an influx of more affluent newcomers seeking residence in a region already experiencing a critical shortage of housing units (NPHANC and GA 2002, Getz 2008.) During this economic boom, housing prices in the San Francisco Bay Area began to ascend to record levels; although income levels rose dramatically as well throughout the Bay Area, the wage divide widened and poverty increased (Greenwich and Niedt 2001.) On the heels of the high tech bubble came an avalanche of real estate speculation in the Bay Area and throughout the U.S., beginning in 2003, that further magnified land values and exacerbated housing difficulties for many Bay Area residents. Gentrification in West Oakland took place in the context of this regional housing shortage that was made worse by the expansion of internet-related jobs in the Bay Area. This chronic shortage added pressure on local housing markets like West Oakland, fueling rent and home price increases that greatly diminished the affordability of the neighborhood (Yee and Quiroz-Martinez 1999, NPHANC and GA 2002, Getz 2008.)

Although most of the 150,800 newly created jobs were located to the south in Silicon Valley and across the bay in downtown San Francisco, a “domino effect” of economic activity and housing pressures spilled over into nearby cities (Yee and Quiroz-Martinez 1999.) Local Bay Area governments competed for private capital investment in commercial and residential real estate. Neighborhoods changed visibly as residents and business owners were evicted or priced out; the initial effects of the dot-com boom were felt first in San Francisco’s South of Market and Mission neighborhoods. However, by 2000 Oakland had become a destination of choice for developers, renters, and homebuyers looking for investment potential or more affordable alternatives to San Francisco’s high pressure housing market (ABAG 2001a, Edrington, 2008, Durandet 2004, Getz 2008.)
Some neighborhoods throughout the Bay Area rapidly transformed into expensive, or more expensive, enclaves of the new employees working in high technology and related-services industries. Others, despite their location in the path of this economic storm, changed very little. West Oakland, among the oldest and poorest neighborhoods in the East Bay, was less of a site for investment as real estate capital settled in other parts of Oakland and neighboring Bay Area cities. Residents, scholars, and community organizations, however, were concerned about the imminent gentrification of West Oakland, pointing to the rapidly increasing rental prices beginning in the late 1990s that fueled residential displacement (Harvey et al. 1999, Yee and Quiroz-Martinez 1999, Kennedy and Leonard 2001b, Kennedy 2008.) Ultimately, West Oakland did gentrify, although this occurred later in the economic boom cycle and without the far-reaching changes feared by some.
Already highly vulnerable to economic pressures in the housing market, West Oakland was disproportionately affected by the three hundred percent spike in the city’s eviction rate between 1998 and 2000 (Salazar 2006.) More affluent residents came in to replace those who left. These evictions and other signs of gentrification began in the late 1990s in West Oakland, but it proceeded largely without the assistance of local government policies and large developer capital. In these and other important ways gentrification was stalled in West Oakland despite the inflation of home values and rents. Relative to other Bay Area neighborhoods, West Oakland remained a place of last resort for large-scale public improvements that encourage private capital, and investments of this sort did not make any significant inroads into the neighborhood until several years after the economic boom subsided.
A slow and continuing groundwork for gentrification in West Oakland was set in motion by the economic dynamism of the dot-com boom, however, and this process has occurred alongside revitalization efforts that seek to counter displacement and other negative effects of gentrification. As development policies have shifted in West Oakland to more actively reshape the area, and as community-based organizing for greater tenant protections has grown, gentrification has to some degree been minimized. The involvement of community organizations and other actors have provided a small countervailing influence to gentrification in West Oakland, although their power is limited.
In 2008, the decline of the national housing market signals the end of a decade long cycle of gentrification in West Oakland, and potentially a return to previous decades of relative neglect. To place West Oakland’s experience into a broader context within the body of gentrification literature, the next section will explore the main approaches and debates on the subject. Those theoretical frameworks in the literature that are relevant to understanding the particularities of gentrification West Oakland will be discussed.


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