"Hella Town" analyzes how freeways cut through communities in Oakland, often exacerbating existing divisions. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland doesn’t look the way it does by accident. Around 170 years of deals, decisions, improvements, and neglect produced its unique geography of bus lines, shops, parks, factories, and apartments that in turn dictate where and how residents live. 

In a new book, Hella Town: Oakland’s History of Development and Disruption, Mitchell Schwarzer traces the origins and lasting impacts of the city’s built environment. Schwarzer, a professor of architectural and urban history at the California College of the Arts, applies his experience as a city planner and scholar to the town where he’s lived for two decades.

The deeply detailed Hella Town takes readers on a ride along the early streetcar lines—deliberately built by private companies alongside vacant lots that could be leased to real estate developers—and over the maze of Oakland freeways that were designed to bring more people to the city but instead let them pass over it. The story is one of failed schemes and reckless power grabs, which created, as Schwarzer says, a racially and economically “divided city.” But it’s also one in which communities have come together to fight for a more harmonious city filled with natural beauty.

It’s a story that’s not over, and Hella Town is meant to inform what’s next by arming city leaders and residents with useful and fascinating information about their home. We spoke with Schwarzer this week about some of what he’s uncovered. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How has your own experience in Oakland made you curious about its built environment?

Hella Town. Credit: Courtesy Mitchell Schwarzer

I grew up in New York City when it was this incredible place, with expressways, bridges, and high-rise buildings going up. At the same time, when I got to junior high and high school in the early 1970s, New York was starting to decline in a lot of ways. We would visit relatives in Brooklyn, and we’d go through tough neighborhoods where there was a lot of disinvestment. From an early age I was fascinated with the paradoxes and extremes of American society—the gleaming new and the fading old, the wealthy and the poor.

My wife and I bought a house in Oakland in 2002, and I lived in Oakland in the early 1980s, as well. Oakland, on a small scale, replicates a lot of the strange dichotomies I saw in New York City. The Kaiser Center, the lake development, the hills—this marvelous California rising for the affluent. At the same time, there were really rough parts of Oakland that were disinvested in, where you could see people suffering and buildings falling apart. Oakland, unlike most any city in the West, has a lot of characteristics of the eastern and midwestern cities. It had a lot of industry. It’s had a large Black population since the second World War. It had a lot of disinvestment, and deindustrialization. I started to be increasingly interested in this and noticed there wasn’t a lot of history written about Oakland. 

In recent years, lagging housing construction in the Bay Area has gotten a lot of attention. But your book also highlights how thousands of Oakland homes were destroyed—whether through urban renewal, the conversion of SROs, or the construction of freeways. Did that destruction help create the current housing and homelessness crises?

It definitely did. Look at the number of units and buildings that were demolished or moved by the freeway program and by BART construction. They demolished 18 blocks to create City Center, and worse, in West Oakland, Acorn was complete “slum clearance.” [Acorn was a redevelopment project that demolished hundreds of buildings and displaced thousands of residents in the 1960s.] There was another project called Operation Padlock, which was an attempt to get rid of residential hotels, or SROs, downtown. SROs were a huge source of housing for poor people, especially single men. There was a concerted attempt on the part of the government and private sector to eliminate what they considered to be blight, or substandard housing and people. They didn’t want that in or near downtown, because the vision for downtown in the ‘50s and ‘60s was to become like San Francisco, a center of office development and retail and tourism. It was a wholly unrealistic vision, given the fact that San Francisco is already there and is an incredibly powerful magnet. So on the one hand, you have a lot of supply taken away, and on the other hand, you don’t have enough supply coming online. 

What sort of housing did get built?

Mitchell Schwarzer Credit: Courtesy Schwarzer

In the 1910s and ‘20s, builders were catering to working-class people, middle-class people, and upper-class people. There were subdivisions built for people who were working in the factories, typically in the flats. And there were subdivisions for the affluent in Upper Rockridge, Piedmont, places like that. There was a whole spectrum of housing. There was a lot of temporary war worker housing built in the ‘40s, but by the time you get to the post-war years, you see a drop-off in working-class housing. There was public housing built in the ‘40s and again in the ‘60s, but not a lot. The Republican business people who controlled Oakland—the Knowland family and other power-makers in the city—they were not interested in public housing, because they didn’t see any benefit from it for their sake. They just built for the middle- and upper-class.

Toward the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, it’s only for the upper-class, except for the mandated affordable housing. When developers build market-rate housing, it’s really for the top 10%. This is not an Oakland problem, this is national, but it’s worse in really expensive metro areas like the Bay Area, where there’s high construction costs and high land costs and a lot of regulation. There’s also the phenomenon of NIMBYism in the Bay Area. These are affluent so-called progressives, who don’t want change in their neighborhoods. And it’s understandable to a degree, because there was a tremendous amount of disruption after the second World War, through the freeways and urban renewal and BART construction. Rockridge kind of pioneered the lowering of density, because they wanted to keep their neighborhood as it was, and it’s continued to this day. And there’s this incredible demand, because the Bay Area’s been doing fantastically economically, largely because of the tech boom of the last 25 years. So people are moving here, and being paid high salaries, and a lot of them find out after a little while that they should move to the East Bay because it’s more affordable—and then the East Bay becomes less affordable. The problem is on all sides.

You write about an elusive “sweet spot” between neglect and gentrification. Do we see any examples in Oakland’s history of investment in a community of color that didn’t result in either displacement or neglect? You write about Eastmont Mall, which is sort of a discouraging case study, where there was investment in a community of color, then, because of a confluence of systemic racist forces, it was disinvested in and failed.

Yeah, it lasted barely 20 years as a viable shopping mall. Employment wise, I think of the period during the second World War. Women went into the workforce, because men were overseas fighting the war. And people of color are coming to Oakland and they’re finding good jobs—not the best jobs, but much better jobs. And it continues through the ‘50s until the industry starts leaving. The shipyards don’t do well in times of peace, because there isn’t the same demand for their products. They’re all gone by the late ‘50s. And then in the early ‘60s, the automakers started closing. GM moves its plant from Oakland to Fremont. 

The Black percentage in Oakland goes from a little under 3% in 1940 to almost 50% in 1980. That’s huge. Now half the city or more is denied [opportunity]. They’re living in districts that are being starved off from investment because of the redlining history, and the legacy of racial covenants, so you have this very divided city. 

And you have the tragedy of displacement in Oakland. The whites who left—say in the great suburban migration, from the ‘40s through the ‘80s—did so voluntarily. There’s a lot of Black people who have moved into the suburbs, just like the whites before them, and they want to have the same exact things: better schools, safer neighborhoods, a new house, in places like Pittsburgh, Antioch, Tracy, and Stockton, and they’ve also been moving out of California. But there’s also those people who are being pushed out, not because they want to go, but because they can’t afford Oakland.

What are some instances when community groups and activists changed Oakland’s built environment for the better?

The Bay Conservation Development Commission was founded by a few individuals, mostly in Berkeley in the early ‘60s, who saw the Bay being turned into land. There were some historians and scholars, and eventually politicians from Oakland, who put together legislation to create this new commission that would regulate any landfill, and has basically stopped it. The Port of Oakland had a plan for this thing called North Harbor, which would have left just a small channel between the port and Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island. So we averted some disasters like that. 

I think most of the cases are averting disasters. In West Oakland after Acorn, there was a second urban renewal plan called Oak Center. The people who lived there saw what happened in Acorn, and were flipped out. They said, “Whoa, we can’t have total slum clearance in our neighborhood. We see the fact that a lot of the displaced people don’t get replacement housing.” So they pressured and fought, and they modified the plan. Perhaps it wasn’t enough, but they now had a mixed model of some clearance and a lot of rehab. I think West Oakland continued along that path into the early ‘70s. The great example of neighborhood activism was right after the Cypress freeway collapse in 1989. Caltrans wanted to rebuild right there. The neighborhood got together and said, “No, we know you’re not going to build a freeway through the middle of our community once again. You’re going to build it elsewhere.” And they did.

Your book shows how profit motives drove the course of development in Oakland. City leaders initially rejected the idea of parks, because they’d take land off the real estate market and tax rolls. But then parks ironically turned out to increase nearby property value.

Oakland has several small parks, like San Antonio Park, pictured here, but city leaders squashed plans for a central park accessible to the whole city, Schwarzer writes. Credit: Amir Aziz

That’s probably one of the saddest legacies of Oakland’s history, because it’s really hard to change. Where are you going to find that land now? You can’t. We never built a large park in an accessible part of Oakland, like Golden Gate Park or Central Park. That’s why Lake Merritt is so crowded, because people are dying to go somewhere they can see other people, and promenade, and all of that. There was going to be a much larger park in the vicinity of the lake, but the laissez-faire Mayor John Davie opposed it, because it would have created new bonds that the city was responsible for, and maybe raised some taxes. There was a short-sightedness. We had a progressive mayor early in the 20th century, Frank Mott, who’s responsible for Lakeside Park, and some of the small parks like DeFremery and Mosswood and Bushrod, along with Memorial Auditorium and City Hall. After that, there were just a couple moments when we got a rare kind of civic engagement, like the alliance between the city government and private, wealthy people that created the Oakland Museum out of three smaller museums in the ‘60s.

You include some great tidbits in Hella Town, like the fact that there was a national Highway Beauty Awards competition, and that canned olives were invented in Oakland. What’s your favorite fun fact that you dug up?

I was fascinated with the guy who invented the fruit cocktail. It was a Berkeley professor and it was developed through the Del Monte canneries, which had several locations in Oakland. I grew up eating that, it was horrible, but I think a lot of Americans had that. The book has led me to talk to people and investigate stories that I didn’t know about, so now I’m writing an article about the bodybuilders of Oakland in the 1930s and ‘40s. We’ve had several Mr. Americas, and Jack LaLanne, who set up the second fitness studio in the country in Oakland. Bruce Lee came to Oakland in the early ‘60s, because there was a flourishing martial arts scene connected to the bodybuilders. 

Your book ends on a somewhat bright note, saying that we’re finally recognizing the damaging legacies of policies like urban renewal, redlining, freeway construction, and general short-sightedness. What gives you that optimistic impression?

I think in the last 20, 30 years, the city hasn’t been doing the kind of awful things that were done in the past. I think Jerry Brown’s 10K Plan [to bring 10,000 new residents to downtown] was cognizant of the mistakes. What he wanted to do was reverse downtown, and make it into a mixed-use area again, both residential and commercial, to bring people in, so restaurants and retail will come—which has happened—and that will create safety because there are more people on the streets. A lot of these big projects downtown are being built on what I would call underutilized land. I think downtown should be much, much denser, and have many more residents. But in doing that you don’t want to demolish historic buildings and displace communities. I think there has been a lot of learning in that regard. 

Did you write Hella Town for regular people to have a window into their neighborhoods? Or did you write this so city decision-makers could avoid the mistakes of the past?

Both. I definitely wrote it for city planners, government officials, and urban historians, on the one hand, to learn about what happened in Oakland, the good and the bad. But on the other hand, and maybe more importantly, I wrote it for individual Oaklanders and East Bay residents. Let’s say you’re driving on 51st Street, between Telegraph and Broadway, and you wonder, God, it looks sort of strange. What if you know that it was widened in order to provide a feeder road to Highway 24? Then you start to wonder how this affected the neighborhood, and how it cut Temescal off from Rockridge. Those people will start asking questions, investigating, and starting conversations. They’ll not only care for the place more, but on an individual day-to-day basis, I think they’ll have a better time here.

Do you have a favorite Oakland bookstore where people should buy Hella Town?

I live near Walden Pond. But Spectator, East Bay Booksellers, and Pegasus are all good. We have really nice bookstores, thank goodness. They’ve persisted.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.