We were curious about the “senior center under construction” where the fire that temporarily closed BART service between San Francisco and Oakland began. It turns out the site has a long and rather unhappy history.
The building under construction was the Red Star Senior Apartments -- a name which has nothing to do with the political leanings of Oakland: the Red Star Yeast Factory stood on this site for nearly a century.
Particularly in its later years, the factory was notorious in West Oakland for the odors and the potentially hazardous chemicals it emitted. In this 2002 article in the East Bay Express about the dramatic rates of asthma in the neighborhood, Red Star was called "the largest polluter in West Oakland and one of the six biggest in Oakland".
Its owners were being pressed, both by environmental activists and Bay Area regulators, to clean up their act. Instead, it closed in 2003, and about 50 people lost their jobs. Still, many people in the neighborhood were glad to see the factory close.
"Hallelujah! I can't tell you how excited I am," said Monsa Nitoto, chair of the Coalition for West Oakland Revitalization, which plans to build housing near the factory. "It's so important we get this stuff out of the community."
The fight to clean up or close down the Red Star factory was a milestone for many East Bay environmental and social justice activists. For example, former White House advisor Van Jones, who gave public radio's Living on Earth a tour of the site in 2005.