Cypress Freeway

The Cypress Freeway was just one of the urban developments that struck a fatal blow to an already embattled West Oakland.

Built in the 1950’s, the construction of the freeway effectively severed West Oakland from the downtown and from Oakland’s more affluent communities. By the time the freeway arrived, West Oakland was already facing economic hardship. During WWII, people came to Oakland from all over the United States to find jobs in Oakland’s shipyards and transit stations. Once the war ended, the boom began to bust.

In order to build the freeway, officials uprooted 600 families and dozens of businesses that stood in the way of construction. The noise and smell from the freeway changed the face of the neighborhood. Some studies showed that residents of West Oakland began to develop a higher incidence of asthma and some cancers than their counterparts in other areas of the city.

Remaining businesses could not survive, and many of them closed. Some West Oakland residents saw the Cypress onslaught as the beginning of the end.

In 1989, the Cypress Freeway collapsed during the Loma Prieta earthquake. The freeway collapse was a devastating event that killed 41 people and shocked the San Francisco Bay Area. When Caltrans planned to rebuild the freeway in the same location, West Oakland activists, under the banner of the Citizens Emergency Relief Team (CERT), proposed a different route for the freeway, one that would minimize impact on West Oakland. CERT boasted an influential local membership, including a BART director, a former mayor of Oakland, and a Port of Oakland CEO.

Over time, CERT and other community groups were able to sensitize Caltrans to some of the neighborhood’s concerns. One area of West Oakland, however, remained outside of both Caltrans’ and CERT’s attention. Although the new route for the freeway was a vast improvement, it still bisected a residential area commonly known as “Lower Bottom.” The residents of that area filed a lawsuit against Caltrans in 1993 charging that the freeway was responsible for excessive noise and pollutants that endangered the community’s health. Though this original claim was settled, more litigation followed when toxic chemicals were discovered under the demolished Cypress pillars.

Caltrans mistakenly believed that CERT represented all of West Oakland. The people of “Lower Bottom” made themselves known to Caltrans but ultimately the new Cypress structure was rebuilt along the new route as planned. With the cooperation of West Oakland businesspeople and city officials, Caltrans renamed the street originally covered by the Cypress Freeway; Mandela Parkway. In 2005 Caltrans completed construction of bicycle paths, walkways, and green areas along the parkway.

Postal Distribution Facility Moves In

Postal FacilityThe construction of a massive postal distribution facility, along with a freeway and elevated train, ushered in a new era for West Oakland in the 1960s. With its parking and storage lots, the postal facility took up 12 square blocks and contributed to increased pollution in an area already plagued with health problems. When it was built on 7th Street from Wood to Peralta, it displaced every structure on the street’s south side.

By the 1960s, West Oakland – like much of the Bay Area – was in serious financial decline. A dramatic postwar reduction in jobs resulted in a soaring poverty rate. In Oakland, a quarter of the population earned an annual salary of less that $4,000. For a decade starting in the late 1950s, city and county governments rolled out three key projects that – though they were supposed to improve the situation – further devastated the struggling community. These projects included the construction of: the Cypress Freeway; above ground BART trains; and a Postal Distribution Facility in the heart of the 7th Street business district. Despite the fact that private lands were reclaimed for these projects that resulted in hundreds of families losing their homes, the Postmaster General insisted that his agency was doing the neighborhood a favor.

The three projects went hand-in-hand with new ideas about urban renewal and a desire to remove “urban blight” from the city landscape. A thriving African-American community, once known as “The Harlem of the West,” was similarly wiped out in San Francisco’s Fillmore District. Under the banner of modernization and social improvement, homes owned by people who were not wealthy enough to pay for their upkeep were viewed as blighted and marked for removal to make way for new housing, transportation and other municipal plans. Throughout the decade, hundreds of people were displaced with less than fair market repayment for their properties. Many property owners were engaged in litigation for years in an attempt to receive just compensation.

The project was announced in 1958 but wasn’t completed until 1969. The area remained a construction zone spewing dust and noise for more than three years, erasing hopes that 7th Street could be restored to its former glory. A surplus Sherman tank was used to plow down Victorian homes to make way for the postal facility. Though officials promised that the postal distribution facility would provide 2,700 jobs, employees transfered from other offices received all but 200 of the jobs. There was no relocation plan for many displaced residents, although several community groups emerged at the time to try to negotiate a better deal for the newly disenfranchised.

The events of the 1960s were instrumental in politicizing many West Oakland residents, and several community agencies that formed to protect their interests still exist today. Contemporary plans for “re-development” are often met with suspicion by long-time residents who cannot forget what happened to their community. Despite plans that aim to reassure residents and include them in the process, many neighbors are reluctant to forget the past, in part because it continues to inform the present.

A 2003 West Oakland Environmental Indicators Study by the Pacific Institute estimated that about 2,942 daily truck trips through the neighborhood were from truck-related businesses in West Oakland. Of that number, more than 900 trips were from the postal distribution facility. According to the study, there are six times more diesel particulates emitted per person, and over 90 times more diesel particulates per square mile per year in West Oakland than in the State of California. Seventh Street neighbors continue to struggle to find a way to reflect the area’s rich heritage and preserve historic buildings while embracing an uncertain future bordered by BART tracks, highways, and the postal facility.

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Moves In

In the 1960s, the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, also known as BART, was instrumental in the decline of West Oakland’s struggling 7th Street neighborhood.

Early that decade, BART proposed building a track down the center of 7th Street to service shoppers and commuters traveling to downtown San Francisco. Many in the neighborhood believed that BART’s District Board was heavily weighted in favor of San Francisco’s business interests. Some speculated that Oakland was simply a thoroughfare for people from wealthier parts of the Bay Area who shopped or worked in San Francisco, with poor minority neighbors bearing the brunt of the impact promised by a significant BART undertaking.

The BART proposal came just a few years after the completion of the Cypress Freeway, a massive structure that effectively cut West Oakland off from downtown and more affluent areas of the city.

The decision to place above ground BART tracks on 7th Street required leveling the homes of long-time residents of West Oakland. It also put the clubs and businesses that remained in the area at risk. Noise from the trains was notoriously loud, and promised to change the style and comfort of the neighborhood. The plan met with neighborhood resistance, especially after BART offered below-market-value compensation to homeowners whose houses would be razed for the coming trains.

BART tried to sell their plan to West Oakland residents by highlighting the projected 8,000 jobs BART claimed would infuse West Oakland’s economy with employment opportunities. But as soon as BART broke ground, it became apparent that jobs were not going to locals as promised.

In 1964, local activists formed JOBART in an attempt to ensure fair compensation and economic justice for the neighborhood. Three key JOBART demands were: market value compensation for homes removed for BART construction; a relocation plan to assist displaced homeowners and renters in the neighborhood, (especially the elderly and the poor); and a commitment by BART to non-discriminatory hiring practices. JOBART was supported in its efforts by churches and other local organizations, including the NAACP.

JOBART organizers held meetings and staged protests to pressure BART into action. On June 5, 1966, Flatlands, a newspaper created to report BART and JOBART activities to the neighborhood, detailed a protest that began with 1,000 people and grew to 2,000 before the day was over.

Subsequent protests, and meetings between JOBART and BART officials seemed to end with some positive resolutions for West Oakland. JOBART was able to force a temporary moratorium on evictions in 1966. In 1967, BART announced an affirmative action plan that answered some of JOBART’s demands. But by year’s end, black workers made up just 20% of the construction workforce, mainly as unskilled laborers. They made up less than 2% of apprentices.

The 1960s and the BART crisis were pivotal to the future of West Oakland. While BART tragically heralded West Oakland’s decline, it also united the neighborhood in community activism. By 1967 West Oaklanders had formed the West Oakland Planning Council (WOPC), a delegate assembly of more than 150 organizations. The fighting spirit sparked in the 1960s can still be seen in long-time residents who survived the BART years and remained to raise their families near 7th Street.

Why didn’t they run the train through Piedmont since they are the ones who will benefit the most from the train? They have never in the history of this country tried to make things comfortable for the poor and the Negroes. But the poor and the Negroes suffer the most and bear all the burdens in order to build the system.
– From an editorial by Elijah Turner in Flatlands, June 1966