“Young blood, you should get you a Old Skool. Now that’s a true investment that’ll always increase in value” this old Black man said to me as he tried to sell me his 1971 Cutlass Supreme he’d just dumped $18,000 worth of work into. I was on my way to firm up details for a DJ gig that required me to walk through the monthly fair weather gathering between 21st and West Grand once anchored by the Telegraph Giant Burger location and the dueling Gas Stations on either side of Telegraph Avenue.
When I returned to the East Bay in 2011, it was a haven of the Oakland that had been rather key in bringing my family in their journey to this pocket of the West Coast. In the early 20th Century, Oakland more or less was The Detroit of The West.
A Chevrolet factory sprang up in East Oakland, as did a location churning out former head of General Motors William Crapo Durant’s namesake brand of cars. Ford established a factory in Richmond just 10 miles north. Faegol trucks came from here as well, as well for a short period of time Chrysler managed to churn out Dodges and Plymouths where Bayfair Mall came to rise in San Leandro.
It informed the California industrial garden approach to expansion in the Pre and Immediate Post-War. Bungalows with single car garages sprang up like mushrooms around trees of industry like these factories. To privately and proudly mobilize oneself, the transition from streetcar to personal car was an essential marker of class station and pride. Long after the factories left the Oakland city limits and nearby adjacent cities for Suburbs, then the Los Angeles basin, then overseas, the pride in what was once created within the limits of “The Town” still reverb with pride for many residents.
Because of these mere renderings of a group of artist’s dreams and some engineer’s schemes in Detroit some time, way way long ago, many of us are from families that were able to make this place home.
Now, 100 years after Chevrolet spit out its first car on Oakland soil, it’s a place not too welcoming to those that put their blood, sweat and health on the line to make this place somewhere they felt like creating a life based on combinations of dreams and resources.
The gathering in the core of Oakland that conjured cars at the beginning of the month is a lot shallower these days. The Giant burger now stands shuttered. It’ll most likely soon to be demolished into another relic of Oakland’s past to make way for another glass box of overpriced housing next to a station of our crumbling mass transit system.
Like Detroit itself, Oakland has struggled through a long slog of Post-War decimation oddly facilitated by the automobile.
As the factories left town, in their wake came the decimation of neighborhoods. Most fatally was the blow to West Oakland the Cypress Viaduct was. Cutting Oakland’s historically African American enclave in half, it cleaved in half a vibrant community with a Berlin Wall of double decked 4 lane concrete (of dubious construction methods) to ease the commute of white collar (and well, white given the Bay Area’s housing covenants of the era) from the commerce and connection to Downtown Oakland. Only nature saw fit to attempt to bridge that gap again in 1989.
Its time, it’s progress. We’re decidedly moving away from the 100 years where the automobile was such a central cast member of our lives, and the transition is on a number of levels painful for those thankful for what the automobile has allowed us to be, allowed us to do.
In that we have a hard time rectifying the fact that these dreams in steel helped facilitate our deaths in rather complex ways.
I heard the sentiment of the man trying to sell me his Cutlass as a reflection of the twinkle in my eye, yet also the longing that the fantasy of owning one of these past wonders was past its expiration date.
I learned a hard lesson with each successively older Mercedes Benz I owned up through 2015. You give up more of your life for these inanimate hunks of steel to preserve them, that, if you aren’t privileged with enough finances to support them (followed by time) they take a toll on more meaningful relationships with other aspects of life.
It’s reflective of a world right now that threatens to squish out all enthusiasm and vitality period. It takes a mighty strong person to stand in any sense of Pride, of ownership, of self-actualization, of survival even as the greed these machines actually helped produced tries to cut off all access to any wealth for those more common, more mundane to create a safe, sane and satisfying life for themselves.
These monthly gatherings are their own type of Pride parade, so to say. They might be full of straight men, which is horrible way for me to define pride, given this week, but it’s a Pride Parade nonetheless.
I’m proud of what automobiles have facilitated for me, and at the same time I recognize what a complex history they give to me on a detailed level of existence, and on a long road trip view of life.
It’s still a question, as I’ve written about old cars online for 6 years now whether I can keep finding new things to say about them, or if there’s even a desire to own one once again. It reflects my questions of how long can I stay in “Detroit of The West” before it becomes some new place, yet undefined by the cultural legacies of the past.
Thankfully, within all that, there’s other individuals that are far more unwaveringly proud to pursue their dreams of steel. Thanks be to “The Town” for still giving them a little bit of square space to have their parades.
3 thoughts on “Dynamic Divergence: Town Pride – Oakland 100 years since becoming “Detroit of The West””
Well written as always .
I have a Lady friend who’s Family moved to Oakland from a farm in Texas before WWII, her Father was one of the few Black Engineers in the U.S. Army when he served with distinction in WWII before getting out and raising up a family in a nice little hose on a hill side in Oak Town . he ran an Insurance Agency (Miller) on the boulevard until his death a few years back, his Wife kept it going as long as she could, all members of that Family said Oakland _left_ them_ with the endless thieving and violence etc. .
Anyways, nice cars and great photography !.
My old Shop Truck was a 1949 Chevy 3100 series, nothing special, made in the Oakland GM Plant and still up there in 1963 when they new black / yellow license plates came out (‘A’ series Commercial Tag) , God alone knows how it came to be in So. Cal. where I bought it twenty years ago.
Please don’t give up on your Auto Journalism ! .
I completely agree with you, Nate, this is a well-written piece. And I’ll second your motion… don’t give up your Auto Journalism, Laurence. Your voice is needed here.
Well, I certainly learned something from this!