Building Respect From a City’s Rubble : Oakland: Shaken city sees a chance to shed its unfavorable image as it recovers from earthquake disaster.

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There were just a few days left until Christmas, but Broadway was eerily quiet.

Foggy sidewalks that should have been bustling with holiday shoppers were nearly deserted because the Emporium, Oakland’s biggest department store before the October earthquake, was dark.

And in West Oakland, the city’s oldest and poorest neighborhood, a pair of shivering security guards stood watch at the last surviving piece of the tragic Nimitz Freeway collapse. The freeway spur now is just a short block long--the rest of its mile of devastation cleared of rubble down to the bare dirt.

In much of the rest of Oakland, evidence of the Oct. 17 quake--one of the most damaging natural events in U.S. history--is fading from view. As it fades, talk grows of some civic good to come from the catastrophe.


“Oakland has the chance of a lifetime to rebuild its core . . . as a dazzling 21st-Century metropolis to rival any modern urban center,” an Oakland Tribune editorial said in the quake’s aftermath.

Experts as prominent as Edward J. Blakely, chairman of the graduate program in city planning at UC Berkeley, are also speaking of the quake as a blessing in disguise for Oakland, which hopes to finally emerge from the shadow of San Francisco, its larger and more glamorous rival across the bay.

If the optimism seems to conflict with the nationally televised images of despair in the days after the quake, officials here would blame the undiscerning eye of the TV cameras.

Except for the Nimitz Freeway disaster, which claimed 42 lives, Oakland suffered no loss of life and, compared to cities such as Santa Cruz, Watsonville and Los Altos, only moderate damage.

Most of the city escaped with no physical scars. About $350 million in damage was inflicted on public buildings. The landmark, 75-year-old City Hall has been closed indefinitely. Other historic buildings, including the old train station, took the brunt of the damage. Officials estimate about $30 million in damage to homes, but there was none of the devastation found in San Francisco’s Marina District.

On the good side, some credit the quake with bringing about a subtle change of local opinion about Oakland, a city of about 350,000 that has long felt unfairly regarded as inferior to San Francisco.


The thinking goes like this: The monthlong closing of the Bay Bridge, which cut off easy access to San Francisco, forced residents on the east side of the bay to rediscover Oakland. Crowds in San Francisco restaurants have been thinner, while Oakland eateries say their business has picked up. “Business is definitely up,” said Josh Kerrigan, a waiter at Jack London Square, a shopping village and tourist attraction on the Oakland waterfront.

Oakland regarded itself in the midst of a renaissance even before the quake hit. A huge new downtown plaza is filled with lunching office workers on pleasant days, and city officials say a 1-million-square-foot shopping mall will be built in the early 1990s.

New hotels have lured more conventions to town, and more jobs are shifting here from San Francisco and elsewhere, with office workers enjoying the easier commute to Oakland.

The peculiar hometown pride that rises with success in sports has also been gushing. The Athletics won their second baseball pennant this fall and, in the aftermath of the quake, embarrassed the Giants from San Francisco in the World Series. Fans are even allowing themselves to hope for a return of their beloved Raiders, the football team that owner Al Davis took to Los Angeles after the 1981 season.

But little of the official optimism--and precious little Christmas cheer--could be found last week along Broadway, the downtown shopping street that has stubbornly survived the rise of suburban shopping malls. While Union Square in San Francisco seethed with frenzied shoppers every night, Broadway suffered from the loss of the Emporium, closed by extensive quake damage.

A downtown landmark, the Emporium was also the city’s most vital retail organ, accounting for nearly 2% of the sales tax collected in Oakland. Its squat stone building was the magnet that kept shoppers coming downtown.


With the Emporium dark and workers’ scaffolds making sidewalk travel precarious, the Christmas season has gone sour for dozens of smaller shops nearby. Some reported business was off as much as 50%.

“It’s really slow without the Emporium,” said Marcie Downs, a merchant along Broadway. “I suppose people are going to the malls or into San Francisco.”

City officials are hoping a refurbished Emporium will reopen next year and revive the street. Rumors that the store would abandon Broadway were denied by the Emporium’s parent firm, Los Angeles-based Carter Hawley Hale, which says the Oakland store does the second-highest volume in the chain. But its brown masonry, Beaux Arts-style facade, long a fixture on Broadway, will be given a more modern look, according to plans filed with Oakland city officials.

In West Oakland, the city’s most troubled ghetto, a place afflicted with crack cocaine trafficking and numbing poverty, the quake has come to be viewed as a boon of another sort.

The area’s 100-year-old Victorian houses were once the homes of sea captains and the city’s founding Portuguese and Italian families. But when a double-deck freeway was erected high above Cypress Street in the 1950s, it blocked residents’ view of the Oakland hills and also isolated West Oakland from the rest of the city. The “Cypress structure,” as it was officially known, came to be dubbed Oakland’s Berlin Wall for its divisive effect on the neighborhood, which slipped further into decay.

Now that the freeway has tumbled and the rubble has been cleared, leaving a milelong swath of dirt along the right of way, there is growing pressure to stop any rebuilding.


“It never should have been put here,” said George Dill, who lives in one of the old houses. “There were no blacks in power when that highway got built, but now it’s going to be different.”

Last week the Oakland City Council voted unanimously to oppose rebuilding the freeway. Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson, 74, and his three main challengers in next year’s mayoral election--Oakland council members Wilson Riles Jr. and Leo Bazile, and state Assemblyman Elihu M. Harris (D-Oakland)--all of whom are black, oppose rebuilding.

Pressure is building to move the entire freeway to the west, closer to the Oakland waterfront. “The collapse of the Cypress structure has presented a unique opportunity,” said Carol McArthur, spokeswoman for Wilson.

Caltrans is cool to the idea, saying it could cost $400 million and take 10 years to relocate the freeway, which was a crucial link for commuters into San Francisco. It would cost half that to rebuild along Cypress Street, Caltrans officials say. But they concede the decision may ultimately be decided by the West Oakland community, which is undergoing a resurgence of its historic activism.

In the 1960s, Huey Newton organized the Black Panthers in West Oakland. He was shot and killed a block from the despised freeway this year, apparently during a drug deal gone bad, and when Gov. George Deukmejian visited the freeway site last week some graffiti on a wall proclaimed “Long Live Huey P. Newton! Fallen Comrade!!”

The freeway issue has given rise to new groups critical of quake relief efforts, including one with roots in Newton’s Oakland. Called “People’s Organized Response,” its fiery rhetoric comes from former Panther leaders Bobby Seale and David Hilliard, and one-time fugitive attorney Stephen Bingham.


Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers with Newton, lives in Philadelphia but announced in Oakland this month that he will move back to his former hometown (where he finished second in the 1973 mayoral election) to help revive the neighborhood. At an outdoor rally this month, he invoked Newton’s name and urged West Oakland residents to “move upon the bootlicking politicians” who have mistreated the neighborhood. Now 52, Seale also promoted his book “Barbecue’n with Bobby,” saying at a press conference, “I want to be to barbecue what Jane Fonda is to aerobics.”

Bingham, who fled the United States to escape charges that he supplied the gun for a deadly San Quentin prison escape attempt in 1971, returned to stand trial in 1984. He was acquitted and now works with the National Lawyers Guild.

Another group, Citizens Emergency Response Team, enjoys the backing of Wilson, who since 1977 has been mayor of this city, where nearly half the residents are black.

Meanwhile, the jackhammers have stilled, bringing the first peace to the West Oakland neighborhood since the quake brought invading armies of rescuers, then journalists and finally demolition crews.

The final blocklong spur of freeway has been left standing as a laboratory for research into the effects of quakes on freeways. It has been visited by more than 1,000 engineers, including Soviets, Japanese and New Zealanders. But residents are relieved that the heavy work has wound down.

“I’m glad it’s finally over,” said Horace Albritton, a longtime resident.