Photo Exhibit Celebrates the Original Kasper's, a Unique Corner of Oakland History

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A side profile of Kasper's, a local hot dog business, with a McDonalds in the background. Graffiti cover the sides, and it appears that a homeless person is living on one side of the walls.
Malcolm Ryder's photo exhibit, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Kasper's," documents the iconic hot dog institution and the changing neighborhood elements surrounding it. This photograph is entitled "Golden Arches." (Malcolm Ryder)

There aren’t many old-school, immigrant-built, onion-slinging hot dog spots left in Oakland. But for anyone who grew up in the East Bay, Kasper’s (along with family rival business, Casper’s) has long been an unrivaled hot dog institution — rugged and reliable, like the blue-collar workers it has fed throughout the years.

And perhaps no other Kasper’s venue is as distinctly recognizable as the “Original Kasper’s” — a tiny, triangular outpost on 4521 Telegraph Ave. in Oakland.

Even though the Temescal location closed its doors in 2003, it has remained as an iconic reminder of the area’s food and architectural history. Indeed, the uniquely located and oddly undersized flatiron building — originally a gas station — has endured for nearly two decades without any indication of what would happen next. 

During that time, graffiti artists have turned it into a de facto outdoor gallery, nearby high-rise apartments have multiplied around it and rent prices in the zip code have skyrocketed.

“The history of the building itself isn’t hard to find, but the mystery of why the owner let it sit there for 14 years was intriguing,” says Malcolm Ryder, a local photographer who has documented the building’s transformation since 2015. “As time went by, I paid more attention. The changes became the subject matter.”

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What results from Ryder’s obsession is a photo exhibit, playfully titled “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Kasper’s,” which will debut at the Oakland Public Library’s Temescal branch on Saturday, Oct. 15. Created in partnership with Oakland-based writer Constance Hale, the exhibit serves as an invitation for residents to engage with the many flavors and iterations of the iconic (and often neglected) Original Kasper’s.

a side profile of the oddly shaped flatiron Kasper's building shows the thin, graffiti-covered corner of the iconic Oakland building
The Original Kasper's is known for its unique location and flatiron dimensions. (Malcolm Ryder)

The series of shots, which span roughly seven years, are part of “Oaktown,” a macro project that Ryder is compiling to trace the evolution of local spaces and businesses in the city. By zooming in on the ghost of Kasper’s on Telegraph, he’s putting larger questions about politics, social access, homelessness and public space into focus.

One of his photographs, “Golden Arches,” is framed in a way that accentuates Kasper’s graffiti-splashed walls with a makeshift shelter of boxes and discarded materials on the side while the corporate symbol of a McDonald’s arch peeks out from across the street. From that angle, it’s hard to miss the discrepancy of economic realities and food access that has troubled Bay Area cities like Oakland in times of gentrification and residential displacement.

The whole series reminds viewers that Kasper’s is more than a place that used to (and will soon again) serve hot dogs. It’s about connectivity to home, about representation and preservation, about feeding a sense of communal pride.

In addition to honoring the longtime hot dog institution through a variety of poetic perspectives placed above the library’s bookshelves, the exhibit’s opening day event will include a slew of guests and hands-on activities. From Delency Parham (the “Tales of the Town” podcast maker of oral histories for Black Oaklanders) to Hear Here Community Billboard (a roving vintage truck that displays local information for North Oakland residents), visitors will not only get to see Ryder’s documentation of Kasper’s but will also interact with the neighborhood’s current influencers and tastemakers. 

Among the afternoon’s other highlights, a coloring book page of Kasper’s will be provided, allowing guests to interact with the building’s walls in the way graffiti artists have done in the past. And if those ingredients aren’t enough to appetize visitors, guests will have the chance to move actual pieces of the Kasper’s wall that were torn down for renovation and reassemble them, like a life-size jigsaw puzzle.

“We hope we can get others to pay more attention to what may otherwise be perceived as blight or vandalism and to see the stories of those who have lived or eaten here,” Hale says.

exhibit organizers, Connie Hale (left) and Malcolm Ryder (right), stand proudly in front of the current Kasper's building in Oakland
Connie Hale (left) and Malcolm Ryder (right) stand in front of Original Kasper's on Telegraph Ave. in Oakland. (Alan Chazaro)

Though exhibit organizers Ryder and Hale hoped to get Kasper’s hot dogs served at the event, they were unable to convince Kasper’s to supply the goods. Fans of the local chain can look forward to an even better consolation prize, however: The Temescal Kasper’s will reopen later this fall under the ownership of John and Vince Traverso, two brothers who own and operate the relocated Kingfish Pub a few blocks away.

“We want to keep it as original as possible with an updated code in the 21st century,” John Traverso tells me while serving an IPA at the nearby pub.

The reopened North Oakland venue will be the fifth Kasper’s in the Bay, with other locations in East Oakland, San Lorenzo, Castro Valley and Concord.

Once that moment arrives, I know my wife—a lifetime Kasper’s and Casper’s loyalist—and I will be among the first in line to get served.

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at Kasper’s” will debut at the Oakland Public Library Temescal Branch (5205 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) on Saturday, Oct. 15 from 2 to 6 p.m. The photos will be on display until Jan. 15. Free.