Head 10 miles east of downtown San Francisco, and you’ll find the epicenter of another bustling Bay Area metropolis: the downtown district of Oakland. But if you’re inclined to think it’s a facsimile of the city with the Golden Gate, you’d be mistaken. Rather, on the other side of the Bay, you’ll find a complementary city imprinted by a different mix of settlers, something that’s still evident in downtown Oakland today.
Take a stroll around Oakland’s downtown district, currently home to more than 5,000 people, and you’ll notice third-wave coffee shops and contemporary housing juxtaposed with 1920s theaters, street murals depicting the town’s black arts heritage, and latticed, pagoda-roofed Chinese restaurant storefronts.
From its earliest days, Old Oakland has been home to a diverse community. Within years of the city incorporating in 1854, Chinese immigrants built one of the first Chinatowns in North America here. Oakland became a major port, and with the creation of the Transcontinental Railroad, a rail hub as well; sizeable groups of Japanese, Korean, and Mexican immigrants soon followed. By the 1920s, downtown Oakland served as a manufacturing hub for industries such as canning, shipbuilding, and metals, and the district was home to businesses run by wealthy entrepreneurs, bustling with elegant restaurants, thriving fresh food markets, and hotels with grand ballrooms.
The neighborhood remained an epicenter for commerce through World War II, which brought tens of thousands of people to Oakland with the promise of war-related work. During this time, the far end of Seventh Street in what is now West Oakland became a nationally famous quarter for African-American musicians, many of whom came from the South, producing a distinct genre of music known as West Coast Blues. This area, known as the “Harlem of the West,” brought in talent from far and wide, including the likes of performers such as Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and Al Green.
Post-war, manufacturing dried up and jobs became scarce, beginning a multi-decade period of decline. White residents flocked to the suburbs, and African-Americans and Latinos, displaced by infrastructure projects, were forced to relocate to neighboring areas such as East Oakland and Fruitvale. As affluent residents fled to neighboring communities on the outskirts of town, entire blocks of downtown Oakland went vacant and abandoned. Despite attempts to revitalize and redevelop the district with new city office buildings and shopping complexes such as the Oakland City Center, downtown Oakland continued to struggle with crime, homelessness, and violence.
Ultimately, Northern California’s skyrocketing real estate prices helped spur redevelopment in downtown Oakland. In the past half-decade, blocks of previously quiet storefronts have been replaced by newly constructed condos, bars, and art galleries to entertain a new wave of locals. While the area has finally experienced a significant building boom, the high price of housing has altered the demographics of downtown Oakland, continuing to push many of its longtime residents out. But what remains is an amalgam of the neighborhood’s rich history; you can still tour a fortune cookie factory, catch performance art at the Paramount Theatre, sip Korean soju in lounges on the edge of Uptown, and catch West Coast Blues performers at the Art and Soul Festival each summer.
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