A Time-Traveling Map for Rapidly Changing Oakland

4 min
Liam O'Donoghue's Long Lost Oakland map highlights pieces of the city's history that no longer exist. (Courtesy of Liam O'Donoghue)

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Imagine standing along the shores of Oakland’s Lake Merritt, but instead of seeing the downtown skyline you see Native American shellmounds, a roller coaster and grizzly bears.

That’s the idea behind a new project called Long Lost Oakland. It’s a map of the buildings, plants and animals that used to be there.

A close-up of the map shows an old amusement park, called Idora Park. (Bianca Taylor/KQED)
A historic photo of Idora Park. (Courtesy of Liam O'Donoghue)

Even though he has lived here for only eight years, Liam O'Donoghue knows a lot about Oakland. He's the host of the podcast East Bay Yesterday, and spent the last year buried in historical archives, researching centuries of Oakland’s past to recreate what the city once was, in a beautiful hand-illustrated map.

The poster-size map is colorful, and the drawings are bold like you’d see in a comic book. But don’t expect this map to give you any directions.

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"I think that this map actually is useful for navigating," he says. "But it's more about navigating through time, as opposed to navigating through the geography of a city."

And that time spans from the 1800s to the mid-1900s, when San Francisco Bay was filled with coho salmon and orchards lined the streets of the Fruitvale District.

When streetcars -- part of what was called the Key System -- rumbled through downtown and across the Bay Bridge.

A historical drawing of a house in today's Fruitvale District, circa 1878. (Courtesy of Liam O'Donoghue)

O'Donoghue says his inspiration for making this map came from the city itself.

"I live on Telegraph Avenue. My desk window looks right out at the city," he explains. "Over the many years I've lived there, I've watched buildings get torn down, I've watched new buildings go up. Part of this project is about sort of understanding the disorientation of living in a city where so much is changing so fast."

But this time of rapid change is not unusual for Oakland. O'Donoghue says the Transcontinental Railroad, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the Great Depression are all examples of changes that Oakland faced in a matter of decades.

"Understanding how Oakland dealt with these times of rapid change is helpful for navigating the changes that we're going through now. And it's not about saying that, you know, all the changes happening now are good or OK, but it's like, how did they deal with it and what can we learn from the mistakes?"

And there are some big mistakes to learn from. Like the treatment of the native Ohlone people.

"I don't think genocide is too strong of a word to use to describe what happened to the Ohlone civilization," O'Donoghue says somberly.

"[Colonization] destroyed a lot of the habitat. There were invasive species. This is the flip side, like all the wonderful things you see in Oakland right now. It all came at a price."

The map shows an Ohlone shellmound where it would have existed before colonization. (Courtesy of Liam O'Donoghue)

O'Donoghue has set up a kickstarter to support the Long Lost Oakland project, but he’s giving the map away to teachers for free, in the hope that it will inspire students of all ages do their own research.

So far, it’s working.

O'Donoghue notes the email he received from a fourth-grade teacher in Fruitvale: "[She] said that she's inspired by Long Lost Oakland to do a project with her class where she's going to have her students interview their older relatives about Fruitvale history. And she's going to do a long-lost Fruitvale map based on kind of the stories that her students collect from their friends and relatives."

Liam O'Donoghue created Long Lost Oakland, and hosts the podcast East Bay Yesterday. (Bianca Taylor/KQED)

This is exactly what O'Donoghue set out to do with Long Lost Oakland: create something beautiful that gets people to look twice at the streets they walk down every day.

In a time when change seems like the only constant, a map that shows us where we’ve been might be just the thing we need to tell us where to go.

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