The first thing you must know about 102-year-old John Brekke is that he reads the newspaper daily. “I read that Oakland wants to build a soccer stadium?” he said about the news that the Oakland Roots will soon be looking for a new home to build a stadium.
I met “grandpa Brekke” in the spring of 2021 during a Mother’s Day celebration at the family’s Kenwood home in Sonoma County. At the gathering were his 8 children, 19 grandkids, and, at the time, 5 great-grandkids—a family spanning four generations in Oakland. I was familiar with the Brekke’s, having covered some of the family members’ work in the community, reporting that led to me eventually meeting the man I’m dating (one of his grandchildren).
At the picnic, I wasted no time getting to know grandpa Brekke, whose mind is still sharp. He was welcoming and comforting, especially when it came time to meet dozens of family members all at once. My relationship with him has since become similar to the one I had with my grandma. I enjoy having dinners with him and helping my boyfriend when he has to take care of him. Above all, I look forward to our conversations about an Oakland I never knew. Grandpa Brekke is an encyclopedia of Oakland history and loving family tales.
Brekke is originally from Joliet, Montana. He left the small valley town to join the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), started by his favorite president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The CCC provided men employment on environmental projects during the Great Depression. It was considered one of President Roosevelt’s most successful programs, and it provided Brekke with a ticket out of his small town and the ability to send much-needed money back to his parents in Montana.
When World War II broke out, Brekke joined the Navy, serving as a ship’s cook-in-charge and galley captain. He was stationed in the Bay Area, then deployed to the Pacific. While he served overseas, he’d send correspondence with the woman he’d eventually marry, Kathleen Winifred McKay. She was a registered nurse at Providence Hospital in Oakland (the building is now part of Alta Bates Summit Medical Center) and later served as a second lieutenant and a registered nurse in the Army during WWII.
Settling and building community in Oakland after WWII
When the war ended in 1945, the pair returned to the Bay Area and married in Santa Rosa in 1946. They moved to Oakland shortly after, settling into a back cottage on 49th Street in North Oakland. Finding housing was difficult, Brekke said. After soldiers returned home from the war and faced challenges finding places to live, Congress declared a “national housing emergency.”
Since moving to Oakland, Brekke has resided in Districts 1, 4, and 6, including 70 years with his family in the Eastmont Hills. After selling the family home, he moved with his wife to District 4. She passed away in 2016.
The home they built in the Eastmont Hills back in the 50s came at a cost of under $7,000, the equivalent of $85,000 today. “It’s disgraceful how much they charge now,” he said of the cost of building materials, permitting fees, and home sales prices.
This past January, Brekke was living in District 4 when the Oakland Redistricting Commission decided on a new redistricting map after months of delays and community meetings held online. Brekke was surprised to learn that his residence had shifted to a new district and expressed disappointment in not being able to weigh in on the process. Like many elders, Brekke doesn’t conduct his affairs online, and the shift to virtual public meetings during COVID has been alienating.
In his decades living in Oakland, Brekke has seen the city undergo numerous changes. He remembers downtown when it was thriving with movie theaters, ballrooms, and department stores, the development of Oakland’s City Center, and “urban renewal” in West Oakland. He was here to witness the construction of the Oakland Arena and the Coliseum, the construction of new homes in the Oakland Hills, and the “white flight” from the East Oakland flatlands, when many white residents moved out of the city and into the suburbs, changing the racial demographics of neighborhoods in the 1960s.
Even as the city changed, Brekke never considered leaving. All of his 8 children were born and raised in Oakland.
In 1960, Brekke and his wife opened The Brekke’s Cafeteria and Bakery on Havenscourt Boulevard, between Foothill and Bancroft. The popular restaurant ran successfully until its closure in April 1982, when the building was sold from under them.
When the cafeteria opened, the Oakland Coliseum was still in its preliminary stages of finding financial backers. So when it eventually opened in 1966, Brekke took advantage of the opportunity to expand his clientele. During playoff and Word Series games, the Brekkes would set up a table outside of the restaurant and sell sandwiches to people driving to the games.
Nearby the cafeteria, the Chevrolet assembly factory (owned by General Motors) occupied what is now Eastmont Town Center. The factory operated from 1916 until 1963. Brekke said that the plant’s management frequented the restaurant for lunch.
When Eastmont Mall opened at the location in 1970, it was a thriving shopping center. It closed down as a mall in the early 2000s and currently houses social service offices, a police station, a handful of retail shops, and an Oakland Public Library branch.
Oakland Mayors through the decades
Throughout Oakland’s decades of change, Brekke has stayed attuned to local politics and the happenings in City Hall and has voted in 18 mayoral elections—and he has plenty to say about those who’ve held office in Oakland.
“Houlihan was a crook!” Brekke said of John Charles Houlihan, who was mayor from 1961 until 1966, when he resigned. “He used to steal money from old ladies.” Still working as a private attorney while he held office, Houlihan was convicted of grand theft for embezzling $95,000 from the estate of an elderly woman named Sarilla Whitlock, among other embezzlement charges. Despite this, Brekke did have favorable things to say about his achievements as mayor. Houlihan oversaw the construction of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, a new building for the Oakland Museum of California, and other improvements around town.
Brekke also remembers Lionel J. Wilson, the first Black mayor of Oakland who served three terms from 1977 to 1991. “He was also a baseball player,” noted Brekke, a baseball fan since the Oakland Athletics moved to Oakland from Kansas City in 1968. Before his political career, Wilson played for the Oakland Larks, one of the then West Coast Negro Baseball League teams.
He doesn’t hold back his opinions when it comes to the legacies of past mayors, including Ron Dellums’s term from 2007 to 2011, which he described as a “complete failure.”
He also remembers the 2010 mayoral election, when the city of Oakland used ranked-choice voting for the first time. “I hate that,” Brekke said. During that election, the top three candidates were Jean Quan, Don Perata, and Rebbeca Kaplan. After all the votes were tallied, Quan declared victory with 51% percent of the vote, by a margin of 2,058 votes.
“Don Perata came out sure that he would win the election,” Brekke recalled. “He might have been the best, but he was arrogant.”
When it comes to current Mayor Libby Schaaf, Brekke thinks it’s a shame that two professional sports teams, the Raiders, and the Warriors, left the city under her watch. He disapproves of taxpayers paying for new stadiums and believes the A’s ballpark project at Howard Terminal will not come to fruition. “They are all but gone,” he said of the Oakland Athletics’ potential move. However, he is optimistic about a soccer team building a privately financed stadium.
What should the next Mayor and future council members focus on?
Brekke said that although there’s always been crime in Oakland through the decades, there’s nothing like the gun violence he’s seeing today. As a result, he would like to see the next wave of elected officials focus on public safety. “Their jobs are going to be pretty damn hard,” he said. “There’s no one that’s going to pick them up.”
Brekke is cautious about candidates running for new offices who have served less than one term in their current office or have recently run for another office and lost that campaign. “They’re in a hurry,” he said, adding, “they just want political power.” As for candidates with family connections to Oakland politics, Brekke believes they are “banking on [the family’s] name.”
With multiple generations of younger family members still in Oakland, Brekke is aware that living here isn’t as easy as it once was financially. For Oakland residents who find homeownership an unattainable goal, Brekke has a message: Don’t give up on Oakland. “If you are able to, save, save, save, that’s the main thing.”
Just like his family remains rooted and active in Oakland, Brekke wants other families who have built a community here to be able to stay.
“The weather is really nice. We have good people, good restaurants, good parks,” he said. “And despite everything that is going on, it is a great place to live.”