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Nearly a year into the pandemic, it’s safe to say most Oaklanders haven’t been getting out of the house the way they used to. They’re also probably spending a lot more time online. It should come as no surprise then, that one Instagram account to gain popularity in recent months is “Secret Oakland,” a collection of original photographs taken from around town and sprinkled with fascinating Oakland history factoids.
Everything from landmarks like the Howden Building on 17th and Webster Street, to mysterious structures like the windmill on Telegraph Avenue and 60th Street, to former homes of local celebrities, and oddities like the magical forest gnomes of Joaquin MIller Park have appeared on the account, with their backstories explained.
The project was started last August by two friends who met while studying at San Francisco State University—a pair of women who, appropriately, prefer to keep their identities a mystery. One of the creators is a San Francisco native who got priced out of her hometown 10 years ago and now lives in Oakland’s Eastlake neighborhood. The other, who lives in North Oakland, is originally from Maryland but has lived in the Bay Area for 15 years, and has called Oakland home for the past eight.
“Our mutual friend from San Francisco State has a similar account, and she suggested that we should start something for Oakland,” explained the Secret Oakland creator who lives in Eastlake.
The pair are far from being the only ones documenting Oakland’s history: For years, local history buffs have flocked to The Oakland History Center at the Main Library on 14th Street to research photographs, newspaper clippings, and other artifacts from the library’s catalog. On Facebook, a group called “Oakland History” has over 40,000 members, many of whom use the page to recount their personal Oakland stories. And local journalist Liam O’Donoghue’s podcast “East Bay Yesterday“—“a podcast about history that’s not stuck in the past”—has a community of faithful listeners. One recent episode about Chicano history in the Bay Area featured local historian Jose Rivera, himself a contributor to Oakland Wiki, yet another local historical archive, maintained by community members who want to preserve the town’s history. Local historian and author Gene Anderson is a founding member of the ever-growing encyclopedia, along with others.
Secret Oakland, said O’Donoghue, is just the latest reminder of Oaklander’s boundless interest in local history. “The success of this page shows that there’s a huge appetite for Oakland history,” he said. “I hope that fans of Secret Oakland might even be intrigued enough about some of these topics to do their own research and contribute to the ever-expanding Oakland Wiki.”
The creators of Secret Oakland aren’t professional historians; the social media project started as a hobby due to the pandemic. One of the creators is currently out of work, and both found themselves with extra time on their hands. “We’ve been living in Oakland for a long time. We really love it,” said the account owner who lives in North Oakland. “We have time to go out, explore Oakland and take lots of pictures. It just sort of turned into something we didn’t expect to get this popular.”
To date, the account has over 4,000 followers and is quickly growing. With each new post, followers comment by leaving their own tidbits of information or thanking the creators for placing local spaces and objects—some of which are obscure and others that are well-known but poorly understood—in greater historical context.
The pair splits the responsibility of curating the account equally and tackles subject matter based on its location. “It’s been a very organic process for us, and it is representative of how this whole thing got started,” the creator who lives in Eastlake said. “We’ll take pictures of something, then we learn about the history we are interested in. It’s not planned too much.”
Both enjoy learning about Oakland’s art-deco architecture, and many of their over 200 posts published since the summer involve historic buildings.. Everyday buildings that people walk by and see often carry important stories, they said. “The buildings are a way to experience your city,” said the Eastlake resident.
Because most large indoor gatherings are still restricted, the posts highlight places that can be enjoyed outdoors or admired from the outside. Like a true San Franciscan, the account handler who lives in Eastlake doesn’t drive. Instead, she enlists her husband to drive her around town to take photographs. The creator who lives in North Oakland focuses mainly on photographing areas in her vicinity. Those photos, she said, are taken early in the morning before people are out and about.
Once they find a place they want to highlight, they rely on sites like Oakland Wiki for their research. Sometimes, they said, they also find inspiration for potential places to showcase on posts they come across on the Oakland History group’s Facebook page. “I’ll usually be reading about one thing [on Oakland Wiki], and I’ll see another link to something else that is just as interesting,” said the North Oakland resident. The pair also reference back to stories they read from local news outlets.
Neither has done extensive research on the demographics of their followers, but said they appear to be age-diverse based on the comments they leave on posts. “I’m definitely kind of impressed with the range that we have. It’s a joy to be able to connect with people, especially now during the pandemic,” the handler who lives in Eastlake said. “I feel like we connect with fans who are older and have been in Oakland for 40, 50, or 60 years. I noticed that we also have younger fans in their 20s and 30s.”
A post in January about The Apollos, a group of student activists from Oakland Technical High School who led the effort to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an official holiday in California, drew attention from current and former Oakland Tech students.
Neither of the Instagram account creators has any significant plans for the account other than to continue growing it organically, as they have been since last summer.
“This was such a hobby that we haven’t thought strategically about anything,” said the handler who lives in Eastlake. “We’re impressed that we have this many people who enjoy it.”