A Look to the Past: Rockridge Residents Recall Impact of the Coming of BART and Highway 24

Sunday, February 7, 2016

When I moved to Rockridge in 1977, it never occurred to me to ask when the Grove-Shafter Freeway (Highway 24) and BART were established, and how different the neighborhood might have looked and felt previously. One day my neighbor Pat Nolan, a resident since 1957, told me about the freeway's devastating impact and described the Rockridge of 50 years ago. From then on I started looking anew at my neighborhood.

What follows is an oral history, an arrangement of memories, shared by people I interviewed who lived here during the 1960s when BART and the freeway cut a wide, disruptive swath through Rockridge.

Catherine Griffing, RR resident 1957-present: Oh, it was great. Lots of kids lived around here. We'd hop on our bikes and ride all over. We'd play Hide and Go Seek and run in and out of neighbor's yards. No one minded.
Claire Lomax, RR resident 1945-79, 1987-present: There was never the sense of being afraid of anything.
Greg Brennan, RR resident 1957-present: We didn't even lock our doors back then.
Jeannette Lakness-King, RR resident 1951-66: We had seasons for tetherball, hopscotch, bicycling, roller skating and kickball. When "Mickey Mouse Club" was at its 1950s peak we chose parts and acted out the show.
Greg Brennan: On weekends we'd leave in the morning and show up at dusk. Come home dirty and wet from Temescal Creek. The creek had polliwogs, frogs, plenty of blackberries. We'd go up to Lake Temescal and fish for crawdads.
Eric Clausen, RR and Temescal resident 1959-2009: We knew every inch of that creek, from Lake Temescal down to Claremont and Telegraph where the DMV is now.
Edward Guthmann: Rockridge was developed after the 1906 earthquake, when thousands of displaced San Franciscans moved across the Bay. It was a modest, unpretentious neighborhood - not the shopping destination and restaurant center it has become.

Greg Candler, RR resident 1955-1973: Looking back, it seems to have almost a small-town feeling to it. Not what you think of as Oakland today.
Greg Brennan: Not affluent the way it is today.
Claire Lomax: This was not "Rockridge" when I grew up. There wasn't that kind of trendiness.
David Chilimidos, RR resident 1957-72, 79-82, 85-92: There was a mix of white, Hispanic, Italian, Greek and Portuguese families. Mostly blue-collar.
Eric Clausen: It was probably 90 percent Italian. The kids I grew up with all went to Catholic schools. I knew them from the neighborhood but never saw them in school.
Jeannette Lakness-King: I grew up on Hudson Street between Claremont and Miles. Within half a block of our house, there were three grocery stores. We also had a pharmacy with a fountain, a liquor store, two beauty salons and a dry cleaner.
Michael Kan, RR resident 1961-74, 2009-present: Chimes Market occupied the current Cactus Taqueria and Maison d'Etre space. Across was the Chimes Theater.
Greg Brennan: The Chimes Theater burned down when I was 8 years old, in 1963. There was a skating rink upstairs in the same building, a bowling alley downstairs.
Claire Lomax: There was Woolworth's where Cole Hardware is now.
Catherine Griffing: There was a newspaper stand inside The Hut. My Dad would get tobacco for his pipe, and I would get comic books.

Greg Brennan: Before the freeway, Shafter Avenue didn't bend to the right [at Forest], but continued on an angle through what's now the BART parking lot. It intersected College Avenue at a vee corner, like where Lawton meets College at Eddie's Liquors.
Annette Floystrup, RR resident 1955-72, 1981-present: We had a classic, flatiron Bank of America on that corner. With architectural medallions of the Christopher Columbus ships. It was a gorgeous building and it smelled divine inside.
Claire Lomax: It had brass window grilles, marble floors. Austere, classical. That bank was built to last forever.
E.G.: The Bank of America came down in 1966, along with dozens of shops, churches and public buildings in Rockridge, Temescal and West Oakland. The State Highway Commission decided what route the Grove-Shafter Freeway would take, with little regard for the disruption of neighborhoods.

Opposition "was strong then, very strong," Oakland native Ray Mellana says in Jeff Norman's 2006 book "Temescal Legacies," but ultimately inadequate to stop the multi-million-dollar project. The Oakland City Council voted in 1958 to green-light the State Highway Commission's plans, angering citizens who felt the decision was a concession to outside interests at the expense of Oakland residents.

A citizens' group, The North Oakland Home Defenders, tried to block the Grove-Shafter Freeway. Their lawsuit, dismissed by the State Supreme Court in 1960, claimed that the agreement between Oakland City Council and the highway commission was unconstitutional - an effort to transfer city legislative powers to the state.

Catherine Griffing: I remember being in third grade at Rockridge Elementary School on Broadway Terrace [1965-66]. Representatives of BART came to the school doing their PR. They showed us pictures of BART and talked about how fast it would get from Oakland to San Francisco. They talked about a tube going under water.
Pat Nolan, RR resident, 1957-present: Even when they started talking about it, things began to change.
E.G.: Hundreds of homes were destroyed to clear a wide pathway for the freeway and BART, from the Caldecott Tunnel to West Oakland.
Jeannette Lakness-King: Around 1959 we first learned that the state would be buying the houses in our neighborhood.
Claire Lomax: We were in an upstairs flat [on Oakgrove] and could look over to Miles. When the sun went down, you'd see this beautiful light on the eucalyptus trees. My sister had friends on Miles, and their house was going to be taken by eminent domain. My sister was outraged.
Evelyn Clevenger, RR resident since 1927: They took all the houses, didn't pay much for them. They gave it a fancy name: "Eminent Domain." I call it stealing.
Greg Brennan: It was crazy. They were getting ready to tear down a lot of the homes. A lot of people had abandoned them, and we used to break into those houses. You'd find old appliances, refrigerators with leftover food. Kids would break windows.
Eric Clausen: My neighbor was an old British guy who paid me to go in those old houses and find stuff. He'd then sell it at the Alameda penny market.
Jeannette Lakness-King: My parents went to court to ask for more compensation for the house. They did not get much more, but we stayed there until it was settled. In the meantime, nearly all the other houses in the neighborhood that were slated to be demolished were taken down.
Pat Nolan: It very quickly became like pictures you see of places that have been bombed out.
Annette Floystrup: They started tearing houses down long before they began construction. It was terribly sad.
Jeannette Lakness-King: Ours came down in 1966, one of the last on the street to be leveled. We moved to Oak Crest Drive. [When the Hudson Street house was leveled], my mom got a call from one of the neighbors and we went down to watch. To my best recollection, they used a wrecking ball and took it down in no time flat.
Scott Donaldson, RR resident 1953-69: The demolition changed the neighborhood completely and seemed to last forever to a young kid.
Greg Brennan: They ran a wrecking ball through all of that stuff. Somebody could have made a fortune on the doors, the hinges, all the brass, old crystal doorknobs. There was just heaps of stuff and they ran bulldozers through all of it.
Claire Lomax: Residences were overgrown with weeds. Everything was just, like, gone.
Scott Donaldson: I felt betrayed. It was years before they actually built the freeway. Things were never the same again.
E.G.: A small number of houses were moved to other locations. One belonged to a family on Shafter Avenue east of College Avenue. After the freeway construction, that part of Shafter was renamed Miles.
Name withheld by request, RR resident 1958-present: I was married in 1955 and in 1958 we bought the house at 5682 Shafter, next to the Claremont Jr. High schoolyard. We lived there five years. When the letter came in the mail [announcing the freeway] my husband immediately went into action. He said, "If this house goes down I go with it." We moved the house to Ivanhoe St. They gave us the value of the home and the lot, so we had that money to buy this lot.

In the next issue, we'll look back at the impacts made on Rockridge during the construction of the Grove-Shafter Freeway and BART.

Written by Edward Guthmann