Oakland’s Greyhound station today (photo by Amir Aziz) and in 2016 (photo by Hilda Chen).

Tucked next to Highway 24 on San Pablo Avenue, where downtown and West Oakland meet, the old Greyhound Bus Station is a place where countless Oaklanders started out on a trip beyond the city for the first time, where thousands of soldiers went to fight in more than five wars, from Germany to Afghanistan, and where people from all walks of life crossed paths and fell in love. For many, the Greyhound station connected the community and provided a sense of safety in public space that is often missing today. Its architecture reflects grand ambitions. When it first opened in 1926, the station’s Beaux-Arts design and octagonal ceiling were praised as wonderous additions to Oakland’s increasingly ornate cityscape.

But now, the station’s existence is threatened. Greyhound pulled its buses from the San Pablo depot in 2021. Shuttered since last year, the abandoned building has recently become a canvass for graffiti, stripped of its elements, broken into and vandalized, host for the occasional underground dance party, or used by homeless people as shelter to escape the rain. 

The building’s slow decline is due to changes in the bus transportation industry, including a recent buyout of many of Greyhound’s former properties by a hedge fund better known for destroying newspapers.

The Greyhound station is probably doomed. But because of its historic importance at the literal crossroads of many Oakland communities, The Oaklandside interviewed people with strong ties to the building and bus line, asking them why they associate it with a time in Oakland they loved, and what they think about the station’s demise. And while it’s still standing, we decided to give the building a sendoff by going deep into its historical importance. 

A grand place with a good feeling

Before Greyhound there was the California Transit Company, an early operator of buses, which were innovations in the early 20th Century. And in 1926, California Transit was looking to build a station in Oakland. The company teamed up with Leon Nishkin on an ambitious four-month construction plan for the Company’s main bus terminal and business headquarters. 

The total project cost $250,000 dollars, or about $4.2 million today. 

When the depot opened in July 1926 dozens of people showed up including public officials and passengers. From the beginning, the 56-foot octagonal rotunda garnered attention, especially its 38-foot high dome. Passengers gazed up at it while their luggage was taken to a mezzanine floor where it could be tied to the roof of the waiting bus. 

The San Pablo Avenue station’s dome and rotunda awed early California Transit customers. According to an article in Architect and Engineer Magazine, the panels between the ribs of the dome were “acoustically treated” to create better sound inside the bus depot. Credit: Architect and Engineer Magazine, Nov. 1926

At the opening ceremony, California Transit’s owner W.E. “Buck” Travis, a Nevada native who managed a family business of old stagecoach lines and jitneys, said he chose the location because San Pablo Avenue was one of the main “arteries leading to the valleys and northwest.”

“This new building pushes bus line transportation into a front line position in this state,” Travis said from a platform, according to the Visalia Times. “It puts the motor stage on a comparable basis with any railroad for comfort, beauty, safety, and general satisfaction.” 

The Oakland station also had a manufacturing plant for making parts of the buses on-site. 

“This half-million dollar new industry for Oakland emphasizes the importance to Oakland of its strategic location as a motor transportation center,” the Oakland Tribune said at the time. 

By April 1928, the station was carrying 600 passengers “in and out of Oakland daily,” according to a Tribune story, and was the main end destination of its transcontinental line.

The building’s design, by architects Frederic L. Swartz and Columbus Jose Ryland, was part of the 1920s Beaux-Arts movement, with some additional Renaissance details. It had metal fittings on banisters and railings, the front of the building was made of precast stone of travertine color, while its doors and frames were made of plate glass and bronze. Sawed oak covered the ticket counters.

The Union Stage Depot opened to the public in 1926 on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland. An ad in the Oakland Tribune described the buses as a “safe, reliable, luxurious service.” Credit: Architect and Engineer Magazine, Nov. 1926

“The colors in the room are warm and the openings of the eight bays are framed and linteled with bronze metal work of beautiful detail,” said an article from Architect and Engineer at the time. The floor included four 20-foot double benches that seated 100 people. 

The building was remodeled in 1946 and again in 1951.

People loved the early buses. A monthly magazine called Butterfat called traveling on the California Transit bus service from Modesto to Oakland a “much more comfortable ride” than a train, labeling it luxurious

Also appreciated were innovations in service logistics, including using timetables and transfers to cut hours of time from local and interstate travel. This sometimes meant pushing workers to become more efficient, sometimes to an exploitative degree. For example, bus operators were paid based on the number of miles a day they could drive. And they figured out a system to make sure buses were constantly on the road instead of idling at stations. 

A 1922 tire ad featured a California Transit Company bus. The bus’s three rear doors are labeled “Smokers” while the three in front doors are for “Ladies.” Credit: Underwood Archives

Logistics experts also created local and express lines and figured out ways to accommodate growing numbers of passengers at lower prices than trains. 

“Between 1931 and 1935 management increased the number of passengers on board each bus by 60 percent,” said Gregory Lee Thompson in his book The Passenger Train in the Motor Age. California Transit’s buses “could stop on demand, making them attractive to passengers riding short distances as well as long distances.”  

Not everything went great, of course. In its first few years of service, the California Transit Company, which became Pacific Greyhound after a 1929 merger, suffered several collisions that led to serious injuries. The service was sued a few times by California residents for negligence and at one point, one of its drivers caught on fire inside the station because the company was hazardously stockpiling gasoline in a storeroom. 

A thriving industry and a bustling station

Pacific Greyhound published this map in 1940 to give passengers a sense of the sights they could see traveling by bus. Credit: The David Rumsey Map Collection

The mid-Twentieth Century was a busy time for Oakland’s Greyhound station. New highways and expanded bus services gave middle and low-income Americans plenty of travel options. 

William Bilal, who lived in Oakland with his family then, started riding Greyhound as a child in the 1960s to visit relatives in Washington State. 

“Times were hard for us during that time. There wasn’t a lot of income and not a lot of jobs. So traveling by Greyhound was just kind of the highlight for us,” he said. 

Gretchen Brinsen, now 60 years old, also traveled on Greyhound as a child with her brother starting in 1970. She said her mother felt the Oakland station was so safe that she often let them travel to Davis by themselves, to see their father after their divorce. 

“I remember that the station was beautiful and it smelled really neat in there,” she said. “We felt like we were on an adventure. We knew which gate to line up at and listened for the announcement on the loudspeaker and never had any trouble.”

Patricia Fox McKern and Taryn Ali both saw the depot as a place where romance bloomed, thirty years apart. 

McKern’s parents met by trading letters after World War II and saw each other for the first time in 1949 outside the station’s gates.

Ali’s parents met in 1979 inside the station when her father Terry was a bus supervisor and her mother Myra traveled back and forth from Sacramento.

“It was beautiful, and my mother absolutely loved it. [It was part of] downtown in the 60s and full of life. I was an only daughter and my mother would take me there via AC transit, to shop and have lunch [nearby] at Newberrys,” McKern said. 

“My mom remembered seeing my dad in his Greyhound uniform and thinking how cute he looked working there,” Ali said. 

Patricia Fox McKern’s parents corresponded between Oakland and British Columbia in letters after World War II. Patricia’s father arrived at the Oakland Greyhound station in 1949 and he married McKearn’s mother within a year. Credit: Courtesy of Patricia Fox McKern

By the early 1980s, the bus depot’s age was starting to show, and fewer middle-class people were using Greyhound to travel, preferring instead their own automobiles or airplanes. But there was still a sense of pride in the bus system and its depots.

William Bilal started working at the San Pablo Avenue station as a service supervisor in the late 1980s. He managed baggage handlers, ticket refunds, and bus schedules. Bilal told The Oaklandside he especially appreciated that the business rewarded workers for following the rules. For example, if a bus was overbooked but seniors or people in wheelchairs needed a seat, supervisors had to remove able-bodied customers and place them on the next bus. It was a process that could have been confrontational, so they had to approach people carefully. 

One time, Bilal removed a family of five from a bus to seat six seniors. The family waited until the next bus and went on their way. The next day, Bilal’s supervisor, Robert Henley, called him to his office. He told Bilal the family he removed was the owner of Greyhound at the time, Fred Currey, who he was told traveled the country every summer to check on the business.

“Henley told me ‘He came and spoke with me and left this for you.’ And he handed me an envelope with a check for $300. And it was because I followed protocol to the letter.” 

Since the station was open 20 hours a day, Bilal often opened it for families who couldn’t stay elsewhere. 

“It would be two, three o’clock in the morning, sometimes it was raining, and we’d have passengers get off with women and children. We’d allow them to sleep there. It was community-oriented in that way.” Bilal said he sometimes stayed in the station all night with those families. “It was a pivotal service, especially to the African American community,” he said.  

Decaying but necessary

Sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, Bilal went to pick up a friend who traveled to Oakland from Chicago and noticed the Greyhound station had become “a shell of itself.” There was graffiti on the walls. Some of the dining areas had to be cordoned off because they were too dirty. Security guards had become a necessity. 

But the station was still serving the crucial role of connecting Oaklanders to opportunities beyond the city.

Carver Cordes, an Oakland resident who went to college at Pomona, saw the depot as a lifeline to the outside world. Cordes was legally blind and couldn’t drive, so was forced to rely on Greyhound workers to tell him when and where he could get off. 

“It was invaluable to have a human tell you needed to go down to Union Station in Los Angeles, and then there’s a line you could take to the city from there. They knew how to navigate.”

The 45-year-old Cordes said being in the Oakland station put him in a good frame of mind even if he was going through something difficult in his life. 

“Sometimes people were there because there was a bad reason. Someone was sick [and they needed to go visit]. But the lighting was good and the vaulted ceiling centered me,” he said. 

Dustin and Mark, two Greyhound passengers outside Oakland’s bus depot in 2006. They were photographed by Richard Rinaldi for Rinaldi’s book See America by Bus, which highlights Greyhound passengers across the U.S. between 2004 and 2008. Credit: Richard Rinaldi

But by the time Taryn Ali took the Greyhound bus in 1999 to attend college at UC Santa Barbara, the Greyhound romance and adventure she associated with her parents, as well as with fun trips she took with her grandmother to Arkansas, were all but gone. She experienced some of the scariest times she’s had on public transportation. 

“By then there was always an odor or people that were talking to themselves,” she said. Ali put on headphones and played music from a Discman to not think about the environment. 

By the 1990s, the neighborhood surrounding the Greyhound station had become a ghost town, without walking traffic. Ali said it felt like it was in a desolate scene from a movie. 

The bus bays in the back of the Oakland station in 2006. Source: Richard Rinaldi

“Oakland would shut down on the weekends. You could see, like, tumbleweeds. There was literally no one around. Everybody would leave on Friday and they wouldn’t return until Monday. Except for Greyhound, which was popping,” Ali said. 

As the 2000s unfolded, parts of the neighborhood began to gentrify.

In 2001, the advocacy group Just Cause/Causa Justa organized eviction protests at the Westerner Hotel at 1918 San Pablo, across the street from the depot. The group told Poor Magazine their coalition supported new residents and businesses but expected it done in a way “that maintains opportunities for low-income residents, downtown workers, artists, nonprofit organizations, social service agencies, and neighborhood-serving businesses to preserve Oakland’s unique cultural and economic diversity.” The hotel was demolished

End of the road

By 2013, Greyhound had more than 7,000 employees, 2,000 buses, and revenues of nearly a billion dollars serving 4,000 destinations. But Oakland’s once palatial depot was crumbling from years of neglect. 

Gaston Evans, the manager from 2010 to 2020, told The Oaklandside there was a lot of crime around the station. One of the last incidents that stuck in his memory was in 2018 when he noticed a man armed with a knife hanging around. Evans called the police, but OPD didn’t arrest the man. Two hours later, after Evans had gone home for the night and police had left, that man, who was said to be waiting for a Greyhound bus, killed a 59-year-old Oakland resident in the parking lot

Homeless encampments grew on San Pablo Avenue. Evans said he tried his best to bring in social programs that could help people. 

Greyhound station manager Gaston Evans provided toys to kids at the station through his nonprofit WeThaPeople in 2018. Credit: Gaston Evans

In 2017, Evans and the Oakland Private Industry Council hosted a career fair at the council’s offices where candidates could apply for union bus driver jobs. Evans told The Oaklandside he went out of his way to give people either their first job or their first job after years of unemployment. 

Greyhound staff also participated in a yearly winter clothing drive that distributed hundreds of coats to homeless and low-income people. They created an annual teddy bear and school supplies giveaway and partnered with the East Bay Children’s Book Project to encourage people to donate books, all hosted by the bus station. Evans and his staff created a special area inside the terminal where children could play, with thick rubber mats, toys, and a children’s library. At times, stranded families used the area to sleep.  

“On Christmas and Thanksgiving, people would be there for days waiting to get on a bus, especially if it snowed in Reno,” Evans said. 

Another difficulty was the rise of immigration sweeps by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which started under President George W. Bush and continued through the Trump era. Greyhound buses were the only long-range option for undocumented people to travel without showing their ID. Border Patrol agents frequently boarded buses and entered stations, subjecting tens of thousands of passengers to racial discrimination. The State of Washington would later sue Greyhound and the government for these sweeps, leading to a $2.2 million settlement.  

One surprising part of the Greyhound business that stayed successful through the end of Oakland’s depot was its shipping business. Starting from the late 1980s, people were able to send deliveries on Greyhound buses at discounted rates, often one-fifth to one-sixth the price of companies like UPS. Gretchen Brinsen remembers sending a bedframe to her father’s house in Davis for less than $20. 

Despite all of this, Gaston said his station continued to perform at a high level. The 43-year-old told The Oaklandside the San Pablo Avenue depot was known for having the longest streak for on-time performance, leading to his being named the city manager of the year and his supervisor winning the shipping agent of the year. 

“Greyhound in Oakland went out on top,” he said. 

By the Spring of 2021, almost everyone that worked at the station had lost their jobs. 

Abandoned but still inspiring Oaklanders’ imaginations

Five DJs played techno music under the station’s illuminated dome on Feb. 17, 2023. Credit: screenshot via Instagram user niceones.club.

When it closed two years ago, the San Pablo Avenue Greyhound bus station was just five years short of a century of service. Now it’s threatened by fires and vandals, enjoyed only by those brave enough to trespass.

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit three years ago, the U.K. conglomerate FirstGroup, owner of Laidlaw and the Greyhound brand, sold Greyhound’s buses and routes to the Germany-based FlixBus for $78 million in 2021. Then FirstGroup sold 33 Greyhound bus stations this past September to a real estate company called Twenty Lake Holdings LLC for $140 million. The sale included Oakland’s station, according to Stuart Butchers, a FirstGroup spokesperson. The amount the building was sold for was not disclosed. 

Most of the buses that run out of Oakland today are Flix or Greyhound rides, leaving the city every day from a strip of land next to the West Oakland BART station. Some of their customers told us they don’t feel as safe waiting outside, often in the dark. They also feel it’s inequitable to only have an online option to buy tickets.

Twenty Lake Holdings, according to the Washington Post, is a subsidiary of Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund better known for buying up newspapers, laying off staff, and extracting profits—a strategy that’s led to cuts at local papers such as the San Jose Mercury News and East Bay Times.

The Oaklandside attempted to contact the station’s current owner, Alden Global Capital, for an interview for this story, including questions about why the property hasn’t been secured better, but the hedge fund did not respond to an inquiry asking what its plans are for the old station. 

According to Michael Hunt, spokesperson for the Oakland Fire Department, there have been several fires in the last few months, including two structure fires on January 12 and 13. The city was so concerned about smoke causing rubbernecking and collisions on Highway 24 that it boarded up the station’s doors and red-tagged the building.  

“It is illegal to enter the premises and a health and safety hazard to enter for any reason,” Hunt said. 

There have been 16 reported burglaries, 25 assaults, and a couple of attempted suicides in and around the building over the last three years, according to police records. 

Despite the building’s hazardous status, or possibly because of it, local ravers recently threw a large party inside. 

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On February 17, more than 150 people danced through the night to the sounds of five different DJs. One of Russia’s most popular DJs, Anna Fruit, took over for part of the night, bumping her latest tracks to a ruby-red hue of lights as people danced under the white dome on the old granite marble floors, now strewn with dirt and trash. The partygoers projected a giant vibrating Oculus eye on the main dome. 

The marketing videos for the party highlighted graffiti on the building, some from Oakland’s vanguard of street artists. Some are colorful and inspired, many commenting on the current state of the city including its various forms of injustice, including gentrification. 

“It was a legendary event,” one of the partygoers told The Oaklandside. 

While there were unhoused people who were staying in the area, one of the ravers said they gave them money earned at the door to leave for the night. 

People connected to the organizers told The Oaklandside they did not want to have the party highlighted because they wanted to throw another rave before the building is inevitably destroyed by developers. They sought to highlight Oakland’s expensive entertainment options and said Oakland needed a vibrant underground party scene, especially for people who cannot afford to attend big venues. 

Another person who attended suggested that someone should buy the place because there’s enough space for a full bar and the acoustics are “really incredible.” 

YouTube video

While not all Oaklanders think the station should be saved for raves, many feel it still has value. 

A survey conducted by Oakland in the 1980s noted the building’s potential historic importance, although the station currently is not designated as a historical site, according to city records.

Architectural historian Michael Hibma told The Oaklandside that there could be a “good argument” about designating the building as a historic resource, especially because it’s associated with the development of Oakland and the East Bay.  

“Think of all the folks over the last 90-plus years who got on a bus heading west and stepped off here to start a new life in California,” he said.  

“That bus stop is more than a landmark but an important hub for working-class people who cannot afford cars to get places, to see family, to travel for enjoyment, to travel for a new job, schools,” wrote Tina Heringer in response to a Facebook post in January lamenting the station’s abandonment. “Poor areas don’t get protection from giant real estate investors.”

“I’d love to see the depot restored with pictures and stories for children and others to learn about its history,” Patricia McKern said. “Lots of church pews around for people to sit and visit and maybe a lunch counter with a comic book stand or two.” 

Maybe it would bring back memories, McKern said, of when she was a child, standing in front of the main doors, closing her eyes, and trying to imagine her parents meeting for the first time and slowly falling in love. 

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Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.