Last spring, I went for a walk. A new resident of the East Bay. Still in the shadow of the recession , I had some time on my hands, and a desire to get away and explore, however mundane. On this day, I was in downtown Oakland, at Oakland City Hall, at the foot of San Pablo Ave. Living near this same avenue , but in Berkeley, I decided that I would walk up it, at least to home. And so I did that, and then kept going…and going. I ended up walking 23 miles , the entire length of the road, over two days. It was absurd…..and enlightening. I wrote about my experiences over the course of several blog posts last year. Back by popular request is a condensed version (if you can call it that), of the whole experience.
Down-town / Up-town
The walk began downtown, in front of Oakland City Hall, at Frank Ogawa Plaza. This square carried added resonance as the home to some Occupy demonstrations (remember them?). In a Walgreen’s storefront there was a rather unlikely display. I am not sure who Oakland’s Guardian Angel is. Is it Walgreens? What I liked is its nice view of San Pablo extending ad infinitem, a proper send off I suppose.
The longest street in the Bay Area is El Camino Real, running nearly the full length of the Peninsula. Coming in second, I am sure, has to be San Pablo Ave. , checking in at a robust 23 miles(some debate there), as it cuts through the heart of the East Bay from downtown Oakland to the Carquinez Strait in the town of Crockett.
The San Pablo Ave. corridor has a rich history as a transit route in the Bay Area. It was, in fact, part of the of one of the first cross-country vehicular routes in the country, old US 40, or the Lincoln Highway. Travelers coming to the Bay Area in the 20s and 30s would cross the Carquinez Bridge, and roll down old San Pablo, past honky-tonks and rest-stops. If they were bound for San Francisco, they would exit at University Avenue to the Berkeley Marina and be ferried there. Here is a wonderful 1933 road map of the Bay Area, note the absence of the bridges, and the prominence of US40:
San Pablo in those days passed through smaller towns, with unincorporated areas in between. As a result, it developed a rather infamous reputation as a result of these less populated in stretches. Here were dozens of road houses where one could drink, hear great music at honky tonks, gamble and so on. Eventually of course, this area filled in with people, and new bridges and freeways thrust the cross-country traveler to other routes. But the character of the avenue was established, as a largely blue-collar workhorse for the East Bay.
So off I went, and in front of the wedding cake that is Oakland City Hall, had I begun late last year, this is what it would’ve looked like- it hosting a rather blue-collar oriented event- Occupy Oakland:
On this day, it was much quieter.
Oakland has a loosely radial urban plan, and the avenue begins at one of its junctures with Broadway. Because of the odd intersections and many parking lots, buildings tend to have a more sculptural and emotive quality, arising from the contrast between the often richly detailed or highly expressive buildings of another era set against a foreground of lonely parking lots. Gap-toothed urbanism.
This downtown is more like what I am familiar with from growing up in the rust-belt; missing teeth, but just like there, those teeth can be impressive. The fringes of the downtown give way to more parking lots, the occasional building, and, most delightfully, the greyhound bus station; always it seems on these fringes (in more ways than one). When I walked past, a bus had just arrived, and there were a couple of genuine-just-arrived in town types taking long drags on cigarettes out front, no doubt surveying their prospects.
A bit further up , things suddenly got denser with the new Uptown Oakland redevelopment, inserting 600+ units into the area. These are meant to be background buildings I suppose and function well in that regard. But this neighborhood has a creative vibe, is hoped to be the center of Oakland’s burgeoning creative class that is migrating from San Francisco, and couldn’t help but think there was a missed opportunity to express that. Some buildings further up the avenue, as we will see, would have worked well here. A freeway marked the end of the downtown/uptown area and I entered a new realm.
Freeways have a long tradition of ripping up neighborhoods, and as the density of the tangle increases close to downtown, lower-income communities are often the ones torn up. Neighborhood transitions can be gradual, but when a freeway overpass is involved, it can dramatically change the landscape from one side to the next, as it does here. Two freeways bracketed the McClymonds Neighborhood, separating it from downtown and more emphatically, from Emeryville. As I passed underneath the first overpass, we were now in a predominantly residential inner city neighborhood. Less dense, and while there were fewer empty lots, there were more boarded up buildings.
In this area, the general rhythm was apartment, boarded up building, auto body shop, soul food joint, artist studio, and repeat. In short, this area, and much of downtown Oakland, is more representative of the typical American city, great moments……. and gaps. But I suppose it serves its purpose, as auto-body shops and welders have to go somewhere, and in Oakland, with cheaper space, artists can better afford to set up shop amidst the gaps:
Another overpass emphatically terminated this neighborhood, and I made my way beneath its gloom, and came out in Emeryville. And soon the street was bursting with all manner of chain retail as the Bay Bridge Center made it presence felt on the street. In this case , the abrupt transition is not just about overpasses, but crossing a city line. This area has been redeveloped by Emeryville into a shopping zone,and while there are some old structures and some local retail, much of this is what you would expect to see in a shopping center. And the smells were different, Barb-b-q gave way to the stench of Colonel’s Original recipe.
I carried on beyond Emeryville, and here, without the redevelopment muscle of Emeryville, the street retained some of its old charm amidst the typical challenges of the inner city neighborhoods. New, old, and aspirational.
Like many inner city neighborhoods, it can be a place where entrepreneurship is invited or on display, be it the storefront waiting for a new owner, people acting on their dreams (vegan donuts) , or just trying to make few extra bucks (a billboard in the front yard). Note the house with the billboard also offers Psychic services. Change here is incremental, and as such, the stretch has a little of everything.
There was additional entrepreneurship on display here, as just past these houses, a hooker asked me for (1) business, and failing that , (2) a cigarette, then , failing that, (3) a lighter. She then lectured me on the evils of smoking and walked into this burger joint. She was right though, at least about the smoking.
Crossing Ashby Avenue and in to Berkeley, the character of the street began to change. As I would soon see, the pedestrian activity would be more focused in certain nodes (University Ave, Albany). Though honestly, some of the most interesting stuff was in between; more gap-toothed urbanism, this time, an incredible number of small brightly colored boxes containing a remarkable array of products. Take a gander at the Box Shops of Berkeley:
I mean, a Typewriter Store. Fantastic.
But soon enough, the multi-colored Box Shops of Berkeley were a memory, and I was near home. I was in a groove, so I decided to carry on.
So I walked into Albany. There was plenty of pedestrian activity on this stretch of San Pablo, and at the same time, I sensed bits of the old Lincoln Highway here, with old roadside bars and diners that I imagined beckoned the weary traveler back in the day, including the classic Sam’s Log cabin.
A Tipping Point
Where Did The Sidewalks Go
This was in the Hilltop area, and cars , without any intermittent streets, were flying past me. A few even honked and shouted. A police car passed and I half imagined he would pull a u-turn and come back to see if there was something wrong. He did not. I had to repeatedly cross this street, as the adjacent hills sometimes came too close to the road for comfort. And crossing the street was no picnic, it took an eternity just to negotiate this intersections.
Soon, I would see actual pedestrians, a group of women walking. It did not look like they were out for a leisurely stroll (nor was I anymore).
Then , I happened on, well, what looked like a shrine….no doubt a pedestrian.
The suburban street narrowed down as we came into Pinole. A very pleasant village embraced by the Tara Hills, with echoes of its past as a way station on the Lincoln Highway. It had real sidewalks, with people using them! I stopped for lunch.
For several blocks, I was in another era, and I momentarily forgot about the last few miles. I once again mixed in with other pedestrians, yup, just out for a stroll. Unfortunately, this would not last, and it was soon back to walking along the highway. The road now felt like it was connecting villages, with less , if anything, in between. And the next village was Hercules.
Hercules, at least this part just off San Pablo, is a New Urbanist village, a planned community of moderately dense neighborhoods, where great pains are taken to downplay the vehicle; plenty of sidewalks out front with the cars deposited in the back, out of sight. The town steps forward by looking to the past. Seen from above, you might guess this town was in the Netherlands somewhere. But no, this was Hercules.
I detoured into the development, and of course, walking through the community was uniformly pleasant. Service alleys , as noted, behind the houses kept cars and garage doors out of site. White picket fences in abundance.
Even trash day had a near symphonic level of perfection. Everything was just , well perfect. Maybe, in fact, too perfect ?
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