The Old Oakland neighborhood of downtown Oakland includes several Victorians that date back to the 1870s. Stephanie Lister/KQED
The Old Oakland neighborhood of downtown Oakland includes several Victorians that date back to the 1870s. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

How Old Oakland’s Historic Buildings Survived Decay (and Demolition)

How Old Oakland’s Historic Buildings Survived Decay (and Demolition)

9 min

Walking along Broadway or Washington Street between Eighth and 10th Streets in downtown Oakland can feel a little like walking back in time.

Just a stone's throw from the business and government hub of City Center, across the street from a vibrant Chinatown and bordered by two major interstates, the neighborhood of Old Oakland has brick-lined sidewalks leading into grand Victorians that date back to the late 1800s.

"It's sort of odd that you've got older buildings and what appear to be older businesses that still exist in an area that I would have thought would have been bulldozed and turned into skyscrapers," said Spencer Barton, who lives around the corner from Old Oakland.

Barton asked Bay Curious: "What the heck is Old Oakland doing here?"

The Railroad Comes to Oakland

The Oakland Long Wharf in 1878. In 1869, the wharf became the western terminus of the First Transcontinental Railroad.
The Oakland Long Wharf in 1878. In 1869, the wharf became the western terminus of the First Transcontinental Railroad. (Library of Congress)

Today's Old Oakland was the heart of downtown Oakland in the 1870s. Before then, Oakland was a small town, dwarfed by booming San Francisco across the bay.

But in 1869, Oakland became the western terminus of the First Transcontinental Railroad, bringing a flood of new residents to the East Bay. The city's population more than tripled from 1870 to 1880, including a large number of African Americans who had recently been freed from slavery.

"On the weekends, if you wanted to stroll around and enjoy the fresh air and open space in an urban setting, you could do that in Oakland," said Annalee Allen, an Oakland historian who coordinates the Oakland Tours Program through the city's Cultural Affairs Department.

To support its growing population, a thriving downtown built up along Washington Street and Broadway, in what is now Old Oakland. Department stores, bakeries, tailors, offices, liquor stores, markets and more filled the street-level storefronts, with residential hotels occupying the upper stories of the neighborhood's grand Victorians.

An illustrated directory of Oakland from 1896 featuring the east side of Washington Street between 8th and 9th Streets shows some of the businesses that made up Oakland's original downtown.
An illustrated directory of Oakland from 1896 featuring the east side of Washington Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets shows some of the businesses that made up Oakland's original downtown. (David Ramsey Map Collection)

The 1906 earthquake and fires that devastated San Francisco brought even more residents to Oakland, and as the city expanded its footprint, the center of town started moving farther uptown along Broadway.

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Old Oakland Gets Left Behind

The neighborhood continued to be a bustling commercial district in the first few decades of the 20th century, filled with smaller business and a few anchor tenants, like Ratto's International Market and Deli on Washington Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets.

Elena Durante holds up an engraved plate from the early days of Ratto's International Market and Deli. Durante's great-grandfather opened the store in 1897.
Elena Durante holds up an engraved plate from the early days of Ratto's International Market and Deli. Durante's great-grandfather opened the store in 1897. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

"Then after World War II people started moving out to the suburbs," said Elena Durante, owner of Ratto's, which was founded in Old Oakland by Durante's great-grandfather in 1897. "Things started to go downhill a little bit in the '50s. And then by the '60s this area was largely considered Skid Row, and there weren't very many retail businesses on this street."

Even though the neighborhood was struggling, many of Old Oakland’s original buildings from the 19th century still remained. One writer in the 1970s described them as “the most distinguished composition of late Victorian architecture west of the Mississippi.”

Old Oakland Rediscovered

These were the buildings that caught the eye of Glenn Storek, a young architecture student from UC Berkeley, when he first visited Oakland's old downtown in the early 1960s for one of his classes.

"That was astounding to me to see those buildings," Storek said of his first time seeing what was then known as Victorian Row. "It just burned an image into my brain."

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By the early 1970s, many of the Victorians that had so enthralled Storek had been condemned and padlocked. Storek by then was a practicing architect specializing in historical rehabilitation, and a friend called him to tell him that one of the buildings was for sale.

"We looked at it pretty skeptically and thought, 'Maybe this is something that could be saved, and maybe we ought to just figure out a way to do it,' " Storek said. "So that's how it started."

Storek and his friend bought that building and another across the street a few months later. But they knew that even if they restored them, it would be hard to find commercial tenants who’d want to move into a neighborhood filled with condemned and decaying buildings.

They went through the neighborhood asking the other building owners if they'd be interested in being part of a restoration project.

"They laughed at us," Storek said. "They just said, 'Are you crazy?' "

At the time, it was a lot easier to destroy a neighborhood than to preserve one. It was the era of redevelopment and urban renewal projects, and cities and developers regularly leveled entire neighborhoods, which were often home to communities of color.

Storek feared the same thing would happen to the historic business district in Old Oakland. In fact, while Storek was trying to find a way to get his restoration plans off the ground, three buildings at Eighth and Washington Streets were torn down.

New Life for Old Oakland

In the mid-1970s, Storek worked with city leaders, including John Williams, the head of the Oakland Redevelopment Agency, and Lionel Wilson, Oakland's first black mayor, to get the city to designate the proposed restoration as an official redevelopment project. Under the agreement, the city would use eminent domain to purchase all of the buildings in the neighborhood and sell them to Storek for the restoration. It also allowed the city to sell bonds, backed by Storek, that could be used to pay for the project.

Several of the businesses that were being bought out — including pawn shops, restaurants and an arts organization — pushed back against the project, and it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that all the original tenants had left and the restoration was able to begin in earnest.

The Storeks (Glenn's brother Richard eventually joined him in the project) had already restored the first two buildings they had bought more than a decade earlier. As they restored more buildings over the second half of the 1980s, they brought in more tenants, including a bookstore, art gallery, Ethiopian restaurant and travel agency.

Architect and developer Glenn Storek at his home with a redwood gargoyle, one of many that were stolen off some of the Victorians in Old Oakland during the neighborhood's restoration and eventually recovered.
Architect and developer Glenn Storek at his home with a redwood gargoyle, one of many that were stolen off some of the Victorians in Old Oakland during the neighborhood's restoration and eventually recovered. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

When the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked the Bay Area on Oct. 17, 1989, none of the Old Oakland buildings restored and retrofitted by the Storeks fell.

"Not a broken window," Storek said.

But funding the ongoing restorations was proving to be a challenge. A few months before the earthquake, the Storeks took out an $8.9 million loan from Citicorp, and just over a year later, in December 1990, the bank foreclosed on the project, saying the Storeks had defaulted on their loan.

"We couldn't survive that, and so the Oakland project fell into bankruptcy," Storek said.

Old Oakland Today

With the Storeks out of the picture, the bank took over and eventually sold the project to a new developer in 2001 (who sold it to another developer in 2015).

Progress was slow, but things have picked up over the past few years. Old Oakland is thriving now with trendy stores, hip restaurants and bars, a popular Friday farmers market and even a Steph Curry pop-up shop.

Today, Old Oakland is home to trendy spots like Blue Bottle Coffee and a Stephen Curry pop-up store.
Today, Old Oakland is home to trendy spots like Blue Bottle Coffee and a Steph Curry pop-up store. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

But none of that might exist if Glenn Storek hadn’t stumbled upon those forgotten Victorians more than 50 years ago.

"I'm absolutely convinced that in probably a year or two, you would have seen [Old Oakland as] bare land and vacant lots," Storek said.

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