What Oakland Wrought: From Gertrude Stein to the Black Panthers and Beyond

Occupy Oakland began on October 10, 2011. It lasted until November 21, 2011. “Occupy Everything Liberate Oakland,” posters read. Protesters occupied Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in front of Oakland City Hall and at other places. Cops in riot gear confronted them and arrested them again and again, though nearly one hundred thousand people demonstrated. Indeed, they put Oakland on the map of memorable historical sites in the annals of American rebellions.

In the process, they gave the lie to Gertrude Stein’s notorious 1937 comment about Oakland: “There is no there there.” Stein lived in Oakland for more than a decade near the end of the nineteenth century, before moving to Baltimore and then to Paris where she collected great art and famous artists and attracted famous writers to her salon. Also, she published books that helped move modernism from bohemia to Middle America. During the Nazi occupation of France, she continued to live her lifestyle. After the liberation of France, she praised Nazi collaborators.

Mitchell Schwarzer, an historian of architecture, landscape and urbanism, is the author of Hella TownOakland’s History of Development and Disruption (University of California Press, $26.95). His new book might be called an unofficial biography of the city where Stein lived from age 6 to 17, and that she lambasted on a visit decades later. It’s also the city where the Oakland As slugged their way to several World Series, the Raiders were once the champs of American football and the Golden State Warriors the reigning kings of basketball. There must be something about Oakland that has led to that kind of sports success. It probably has something to do with the raucous crowds that reflect the city’s demographics.

Hella Town is not a puff piece for an urban metropolis that has many of the makings for a world-class destination for foodies, art lovers and the latest crop of hipsters. Oakland has an international airport, first-class museums, excellent restaurants, a lively port, and railroad lines that connect it to distant cities. It also has a kind of mythical identity as the place where author Jack London became a socialist. It’s also where Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party and became heroes to the Black community. Newton was also shot and killed in Oakland by a member of the Black Guerrilla Family.

In Oakland, Seale and Newton drew up their ten-point program that called for “Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice and Peace.” The demands are as timely now as when first articulated in the Sixties.

To read Hella Town, is in part to understand how and why Oakland gave birth to and nurtured the Panthers, and also arrested them, jailed them, and aimed to exterminate them before they became a force that might put an “End to the Robbery By the Capitalists of Our Black Community.” Oakland’s police force has long seemed as racist as the police force in any other major American city, divided between rich and poor, and people of color and whites.

I lived in Oakland, near the border with Berkeley, its upscale big sister. I’ve attended events at Jack London Square, and many years ago I attended the funeral for Huey Newton that took place at Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland. The love of the Black community for Huey was tangible, even while the media mostly depicted him as a thug and drug addict.

Schwarzer’s biography of Oakland is a big book, an important book, a powerful book and an indispensable guide for anyone who wants to reform the city by any means necessary. The author does not offer a blueprint for social and economic reforms, but he lays out nearly all of Oakland’s problems, mistakes and colossal blunders that have led to a contemporary housing crisis, an unemployment crisis, transportation woes and a legacy of racism that just won’t go away.

Schwarzer shows how Oakland has almost always gotten the shitty end of the political stick in the Bay Area. Plunging into the past, and following chronology like a detective on the scent of a crime, Schwarzer explains how San Francisco, San Jose and Silicon Valley have made out like bandits while the birthplace of the Panthers has all too often gone in rags and tatters.

In a section of his book about transportation, which is always an Oakland problem, Schwarzer writes that, “By cutting the time it took to traverse the Bay Area, the expanded regional transit network benefited San Francisco more than Oakland, the suburbs more than the inner city. The cards of metropolitan mobility reshuffled, Oakland turned into a player with a weak hand willing to go to showdown but unaware that the deck was stacked against it.”

A reader imbued with a sense of fairness, can’t help but identify with the city as an underdog in the battle for resources, labor, parks, safe streets, housing for all and a civic life that’s not overwhelmed by cars, trains, buses and planes, and ignored by people eager to get through Oakland or around Oakland, but not go into Oakland for fear they might be jumped and fleeced. At times, I have included myself in that group of car-bound travelers speeding down the 880, eager to leave the inner city behind me.

Schwarzer seems to know every city street, every neighborhood and every building, whether commercial or residential. He knows the present and he knows the past, going back to the nineteenth century when German-Jewish immigrants like Israel Kahn built Kahn’s Department Store at 10th and Broadway. Schwarzer follows Kahn’s story through the years. How, “In 1893, his sons relocated to 12th and Washington; and in 1912, they rebuilt once again, hiring Charles W. Dickey to design a six-story store at 16th and Broadway, a site basically considered out in the country.

“Epitomizing the grandeur embellished on department store retailing at the time, the latest Kahn’s featured a magisterial 120-foot-high, glass elliptical dome in an atrium at its center.”

As a student and scholar of architecture, Schwarzer knows that buildings live and die, that cities aren’t written in stone, that old structures crumble and new structures take their place without altering the basic relationships of power and money.

The author has also read everything there is to read about Oakland, including Warren Hinckle’s memorable 1966 essay titled “Metropoly,” in which he wrote, “Race begins at sea level in Oakland.” Hinckle, Ramparts notorious editor, added, “Some 90,000 Oakland Negroes, constituting almost one quarter of the city’s total population, are jammed into restricted and blighted areas on both the east and west sides of the city. As the height above sea level increases, the population becomes paler. The attractive, sylvan hill areas are reserved for expensive homes for whites.”

If you’re at all like Hinckle—who was invested in Oakland politically, culturally, emotionally and geographically— this book is for you. If you live elsewhere, but are fascinated by what Jane Jacobs called “the life and death of great American cities” you will likely find that Hella Town opens a door to the place where you live, whether it’s New Orleans, Chicago, Austin or Los Angeles.

Hella Town is hella book.

Schwarzer doesn’t predict what’s in store for Oakland. “Given the dynamic and unpredictable nature of urban change, it is uncertain where the town’s roller coaster ride of city formation will lead next,” he writes. But he gives readers the tools they need to help them see into the future and aim to right egregious wrongs.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.