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Berkeley, Oakland & Alameda: The East Bay

Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda
Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda have many Victorian houses

The San Francisco-facing parts of the wider East Bay region, encompassing Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda, have a lot of attractions and things to see and do. They’re also popular places to stay for visitors to the Bay Area, since they’re reasonably well-connected to the BART and SF ferry systems, as well as being a short hop on the freeway over the Bay Bridge, allowing for pretty easy day-trips into San Francisco. On top of that they can be a more affordable option in terms of accommodation than staying in the city itself. All three cities have quite distinct characters and attractions, from each other and San Francisco, meaning they’re well-worth exploration on their own terms and they can make an easy day-trip from SF.

In this article I’ll give you a brief(ish) history of the area, and then make some recommendations for things to do, historic sites to visit and some places to eat and drink in each city.

Early History of the East Bay Area

For at least a thousand years the East Bay must have been a paradise for the Ohlone people, the First Americans who lived in the area (Ohlone is a word meaning ‘people of the West’ in the Miwok language). Sheltered from the unruly Pacific by what’s now known as the San Francisco peninsula, with plentiful fresh water and easy access to the hinterland, not to mention the seafood bounty offered by the bay itself (hence the name of nearby Oyster Bay). It must have seemed like an Eden.

The arrival of the Spanish Empire in the late eighteenth century put a fairly rude end to the Ohlone’s idyllic, sustainable, life-style, as first disease and then war-fighting were followed by slavery for many on the Jesuit Order’s Mission San Francisco de Asís, on the other side of the water. The Mission’s lands extended to Alameda, which at that time was a peninsula connected to Oakland, and Bay Farm Island.

By the 1820’s, when Alta California had become part of Mexico, Oakland, Alameda and Berkeley had been awarded to the Peralta Family, as part of the enormous Rancho San Antonio. The family would hold the land undivided until the 1840’s, by which time Luis Maria Peralta, the patriarch, was the owner of over 9,000 cattle and 2,000 horses and the family had built no less than sixteen houses on his property and a large wharf in Oakland. The ex-Spanish Army sergeant had, quite literally since he was born in Sonora, come a long way.

However, he divided his land and cattle between his many sons and daughters in 1842 and, although they were eventually able to prove their ownership of the land after California became part of the U.S. in 1848, the extended family fell to infighting, such that by the 1860’s the rancho was essentially gone. Most notoriously Luis’ sons were cheated out of a significant chunk of their inheritance by their own lawyer, Horace Carpentier.

Luis’ other main claim to fame is that he is a direct ancestor of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. His home, the Peralta Adobe, is the oldest building in San Jose and it’s now a museum.

The Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, with its Western terminus at the Oakland Long Wharf, an 11,000 foot long railroad and ferry pier. Passengers coming from the East would alight there to take a ferry across the bay to San Francisco. Accordingly the town began to grow at a much faster rate.

Around the same time the College of California, which had been founded in Oakland, moved to a more rural site in nearby Berkeley. It’s better known now as University of California, Berkeley, and out of it grew the entire UC system.

Today UC Berkeley has an annual intake of 45,000 students.

Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda: Post 1900

In 1902 a tidal and shipping lane was dredged along the Eastern border of Alameda, turning it into the island that it remains to this day. Over the next two decades the East Bay area continued its rapid expansion as heavy industry, including shipbuilding yards, canneries and automobile factories were established there.

This created a need for large amounts of labor and many African-Americans moved to the area from the South during the period, looking for the greater social and economic freedoms afforded them on the West Coast.

Many white people joined them and, unfortunately, they brought with them the Jim Crow attitudes and beliefs that they’d grown up with, creating long-lasting racial tensions.

By the 1920’s a large entertainment park, called Neptune Beach, had opened in Alameda and it remained extremely popular with San Franciscans throughout the 1920’s and into the Great Depression years.

Air travel was also becoming popular during the inter-war period and a seaplane port was established at the Alameda Mole, with trans-Pacific flights to China and Japan. In fact it’s from here that Indiana Jones takes-off for Nepal in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark (San Francisco City Hall stood in for Washington D.C. in the same film).

The Second World War brought huge change and development to the East Bay. Kaiser Shipyards built four yards in nearby Richmond and turned the area into one of the largest shipbuilding centers in the world. No less than 747 vessels were completed during the 1941-45 period, including Liberty and Victory ships, as well as aircraft carriers and troop landing crafts. The Richmond Yards created a new record, when a Liberty ship, the SS Robert E. Peary, was assembled in under five days, during a competition between Kaiser’s shipyards in 1945.

Ford Motor Company had already opened a huge factory nearby, manufacturing tanks throughout the war. Many of the workers at Kaiser and Ford were female, since so many men were being called up for military service. Although women had been an increasingly important part of the workforce since the turn of the century, the tough manual nature of these jobs served further to convince society that women were not the ‘weaker sex’.

The U.S. Government capitalized on this movement with a series of posters celebrating ‘Rosie the Riveter’, a fictitious worker at a war-time factory who represented the effort that so many women were making. After the war the yards closed, and part of their footprint is now the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park.

Another legacy of this era is the Kaiser Permanente healthcare organization. It was begun as a medical system to treat Kaiser’s workers and is now one of the largest such organizations in the U.S.. It’s corporate headquarters are still in Oakland.

East Bay, From WWII to Today

During the post-war years many of the manufacturing plants in Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda began to close down, creating economic issues, which were exacerbated by racial tensions. It didn’t help that in the 1950’s and 60’s the area, and particularly Oakland, were bisected by several enormous freeways, further disrupting or destroying the social and economic fabric of the neighborhoods of the East Bay.

It’s no coincidence of course that the freeways cut through low-income neighborhoods. Their needs were often seen as less important – even more so when weighed against the ‘benefits’ to the wider city – and they lacked the economic muscle to throw up the legal obstacles necessary to stop projects of that nature.

It’s believed that single-family zoning was first used (as a way to keep minorities out of ‘white neighborhoods’) in Berkeley in 1916, but after World War Two ‘white flight’ becomes very noticeable in the demographic data. Oakland went from being 95% white in 1940, to less than 33% in 1990, as white residents moved to Alameda, Berkeley and other suburbs. Meanwhile the Black population increased from 3% to 44% (it’s now around 24%).

Bear in mind that from 1950 to 1990 the population of Oakland as a whole actually declined (in other words newcomers were simply replacing residents that were leaving).

Oakland Police Department Office attacking anti-Vietnam War protester, 1967
Oakland Police Department Officer attacking anti-Vietnam War protester, 1967 (photo San Francisco Chronicle)

The Oakland Police Department began a policy of specifically recruiting white officers from the South, believing that they would be more open to using repressive tactics. By 1966 only sixteen of the city’s 651 police officers were black (and you can imagine what it was like for those poor guys). In the same year the Black Panther Party was founded by two students at Merritt College, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Of course it wasn’t only Black people that were victimized and repressed by the OPD and the following year the Brown Berets were formed in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, modeled on the Black Panthers. Their aims were to protect the Chicano and Latino community from police brutality, as well as providing a free breakfast program (organized with the Black Panthers).

UC Berkeley became particularly associated with anti-Vietnam War protests and social-radicalism during this period, a reputation it still maintains (to some extent) up to today.

Recommendations for Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda

Nowadays, many of the past tensions have receded. Much of the civic debate in Oakland revolves around gentrification, as residents are pushed out of San Francisco by rising property prices and relocate across the bay (driving up prices for locals there). Alameda is a very picturesque small city with a lovely historic downtown and Berkeley very much has the feel of the college town that it is, with a thriving downtown, full of bars, restaurants, cafes and independent shops.

BERKELEY

Berkeley is a pretty, leafy college town – that’s just across the bay from one of the greatest cities on earth. Nevertheless it’s perhaps surprising how much of its sleepy charm that the city has managed to retain. There’s a vibrant downtown, centered around UC Berkeley, and several other areas of cultural, natural, gastronomic and convivial interest. Here are a few:

Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA)

Judah L Magnes Museum

Hearst Greek Theatre

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Tilden Regional Park (including Botanic Garden)

Westbrae Biergarten

La Note Restaurant Provencal

Zino

This map is interactive. To open in Google Maps click the icon in the top right corner.

OAKLAND

Oakland was sliced and diced with a whole series of freeways in from the 1950’s to the 1990’s, so it can feel quite fragmented. Nevertheless there are some lovely parts of the city that are well-worth exploring – as well as some great restaurants. Here are some ideas:

African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO)

Chabot Space and Science Center

Oakland Aviation Museum

Pardee Home Museum

Peralta Hacienda Historical Park

Children’s Fairyland

Fox Oakland Theatre

Paramount Theatre

Grand Lake Theatre

Jack London Square

Oakland Athletics (Major League Baseball)

Dr. Aurelia Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park

To Pho Anh Dao

Drake’s Dealership

This map is interactive. To open in Google Maps click the icon in the top right corner.

ALAMEDA

Alameda is a picturesque city, which has still maintained its seaside charm. It’s a great size, and features wide streets with (mostly) slow-moving traffic, so it’s perfect to explore by bike. For more information about that read this article for a potential route. There’s plenty to occupy the visitor for a very pleasant day.

Alameda Museum

Alameda Theatre

High Street Bridge

USS Hornet

Pacific Pinball Museum

This map is interactive. To open in Google Maps click the icon in the top right corner.

If you have any feedback on Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda: the East Bay please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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