ROBERT OGILVIE, DIRECTOR, PLANNING FOR HEALTHY PLACES: I'm Robert Ogilvie, director of Planning for Healthy Places, a project of Public Health Law & Policy. This podcast, A Struggle to Be Heard, explores the link between redevelopment and public health in West Oakland.
After World War II, West Oakland was a diverse, working-class neighborhood. There were African-American migrants, a small Asian population, and an established white community. The port and the railroad were the two main employers. Seventh Street was the heart of West Oakland. It was lined with shops, restaurants, churches, and a movie theater. It was a vibrant area, but the residential blocks lacked infrastructure and were crowded with wartime migrants. Many of the Victorian era homes were starting to become rundown.
During this time, many city, state, and federal agencies tried to revitalize low-income neighborhoods. These agencies had the power of eminent domain—the ability to seize and tear down private property to make way for new development. In the redevelopment process, whole city blocks were cleared and residents lost their homes.
MARGARET GORDON, WEST OAKLAND NEIGHBORHOOD ACTIVIST: In the late '50s on into the '60s, when redevelopment came into a community it was called "Negro removal," because that's what it was. The city was able, through the federal government, through eminent domain, to move people out, tear down that house, and build something else. And most of those communities were people of color.
ROBERT OGILVIE: In West Oakland, buildings were demolished and residents evicted along 7th Street to make way for elevated BART tracks. Sculptor Bruce Beasley has lived in West Oakland since 1962.
BRUCE BEASLEY, WEST OAKLAND NEIGHBORHOOD ACTIVIST: Fortunately, I was here to see 7th Street when it was an active street, and that was before BART. BART just killed 7th Street.
ROBERT OGILVIE: During the same period, CalTrans cleared land for two interstate highways, cutting the neighborhood off from the rest of the city and dividing it in half. The housing authority took land to build new projects. And using tanks, the federal government demolished six square blocks to make way for a large Post Office complex. Residents were promised jobs there. But instead, the land lay vacant for almost a decade before the postal facility was even built.
BRUCE BEASLEY: What I saw was that eminent domain was absolutely a killer for people who were on the bottom. So I saw people who had come here in the '40s, been shipyard workers, bought homes, and they were turned into renters! And I thought that was just outrageous.
ROBERT OGILVIE: When these projects were first proposed there wasn't a lot of organized community opposition. And redevelopment agencies weren't required to get public input.
BRUCE BEASLEY: It's hard to believe now how passive people were in the early '60s and even the mid-'60s. It was very hard to generate opposition to things that the government did.
ROBERT OGILVIE: But by the mid-1960s that started to change. The Black Panther movement began in West Oakland at this time. The Panthers and others worked to change conditions in the neighborhood. Some of the first successful community organizing wasn't in opposition to large infrastructure projects like BART and the highway, but smaller, everyday issues like the lack of street lights.
BRUCE BEASLEY: Physically there were no street lights in West Oakland. I don't mean there were old dim ones. There were none and never had been.
ROBERT OGILVIE: Neighborhood activists did research and discovered that more than a decade earlier, the public utility had agreed to install street lights if the city would simply pay the electricity bill.
BRUCE BEASLEY: Well, that sounded pretty good to me. So. But I realized that city knew that and that they just didn't want pay the bill for the black part of town.
ROBERT OGILVIE: Residents confronted city officials with this information.
BRUCE BEASLEY: We had street lights in six weeks. Well, those kinds of things started galvanizing people.
ROBERT OGILVIE: In 1968, state law changed to require redevelopment agencies to create resident advisory councils before they used eminent domain. Suddenly, communities had a voice in the redevelopment process. Although the law now requires redevelopment agencies to work with neighborhood residents, it hasn't been an easy relationship.
MARGARET GORDON: The community didn't have any real resources, no real tools, no real advocacy, no real organizing. Once again they didn't have the funding, they didn't have the technical assistance. And there's still today not a lot of that.
ROBERT OGILVIE: Today, West Oakland residents continue to organize to make redevelopment work better. And they've all but eliminated the use of eminent domain. Committed neighborhood activists like Margaret Gordon and Bruce Beasley now participate in the West Oakland Project Area Committee—or WOPAC—a coalition of residents that oversees how redevelopment funds are spent. WOPAC has invested in community-led projects like Mandela Foods Cooperative. It's a new grocery store across the street from BART that's part of a mixed-use development. The idea is to bring healthy food to the neighborhood.
JAMES BELL, WORKER-OWNER, MANDELA FOODS COOPERATIVE: It's basically a site for sore eyes for a lot of people because there haven't been decent food choices here in so long.
ROBERT OGILVIE: Redevelopment and other government agencies often bring in ideas and projects from the outside. But what's different about this is that the redevelopment agency has invested in a business by and for local residents.
JAMES BELL: By this store finally being open here it's obvious West Oakland is changing and it's changing for the better.
ROBERT OGILVIE: While the legacy of eminent domain abuses and paternalistic and discriminatory government policies will always be a part of West Oakland's history, projects like Mandela Foods give reason for hope. When redevelopment agencies invest in community leadership and local businesses, they have the potential to make meaningful, positive changes.
For Planning for Healthy Places, I'm Robert Ogilvie. For other podcasts in this series and more information on redevelopment and public health, visit www.healthyplanning.org.
ChangeLab Solutions, formerly Public Health Law & Policy (PHLP)
Robert Ogilvie and Hannah Burton Laurison
Lyssa Rome, Paul Lancour, Geoff Triplett (GTrip Music and Sound Design), and Jessica Zdeb
This podcast was funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to ChangeLab Solutions and the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative.
Betty Marvin, Oakland Cultural Heritage Survey
Lavera Wilson, African-American Museum and Library at Oakland
Oakland History Room, Oakland Public Library
Karen McDaniel, Bay Area Rapid Transit
Debbie Cismowski, CalTrans
Mandela Foods Cooperative
Final music provided by Mevio's Music Alley: music.mevio.com