Walking Across the Metropolis- 23 Miles on San Pablo Ave.

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.

The great thing about walking on the road, is you see  much that you normally whiz by, such as  those  little civic placards that greet you at a city limit .  I had forgotten about that part of America, the part that proudly meets the third Thursday of every month above the State Farm Insurance office. The Lions, The Kiwanis, the Optimists, even the Pessimists. Welcome to El Cerrito.
The first thing I noticed in El Cerrito was a serious  upgrade in the streetscaping . They had spent some money. And much to my appreciation, a recognition of this old road as a piece of Americana, on the backside of its street signs.
El Cerrito had also introduced bioswales into their streetscape, seen below. I was really impressed with how this community has invested in San Pablo Ave. The swales, the signage and excellent way-finding, historical placards, a renovated theater, and  new buildings along the corridor, including a fine City Hall. A tidy town.

A Tipping Point

But for every newish shopping center along this stretch, there are many old centers, ones that offer the entrepreneur, as we saw in Berkeley, the chance to pursue their dream. My favorite along here was the Button Store. Nothing but buttons:
 And I noted  the Avenue began to change. The perkiness of El Cerrito faded. I passed some housing, and for the first time, buildings began to turn away from the Avenue:
Further on,  the ratio of building to parking lot seemed to flip . I also began to see some deserted shopping centers. This center used to be an Alberston’s.
This was Richmond, bridging the gap between El Cerrito and San Pablo. I began to notice a different kind of pedestrian here. Let’s call him/her the long distance pedestrian. Here , more dependent on transit and its gradually spread out stops, people of all stripes were walking greater distances to get where they were going. And  I  must have walked a mile parallel with a young girl on the opposite side of the street. She finally ran across the street, and for a moment I thought she was coming to me. And then I looked ahead and saw, as it turns out, her boyfriend. She had a date.
The boulevard offerings reflected its neighborhoods. The preponderance of Asian markets and restaurants in El Cerrito faded in the predominantly black community of Richmond , which gave way to a burst of Latino markets and tacquerias that coincided with my entering San Pablo.  I was getting to what turned out to be the halfway point on this boulevard , and I noticed a distinct landmark ahead- a casino. I felt I’d walked as far as I could, and went inside.
How extraordinary for this “Lytton Band of the Pomo Indians”  that their reservation was exactly the same size as the casino and its parking lot. I entered to check it out and get a beer .  After a day in the intense sun, I was now in the dark, a mirrored maze of a casino. The place was filled with gamblers amidst an acrid thick fog of cigarette smoke . Disoriented,  I finished my beer and staggered outside, heading for the bus stop. As I waited for the bus, I decided I would finish this walk, and walk to Crockett the following week. I noted that there was a restaurant overlooking the water at the end of the road. It was called the Dead Fish.
I would walk to the Dead Fish.

Where Did The Sidewalks Go

My second day found me returning to the casino, this time I passed on the slots and hit the pavement. Up around the next bend, I was in central San Pablo, and it had one of those great cross street arches. I thought, this will be a good day.
But hitting the pavement was brief, because I soon found that said pavement was about to come to an end. So there it was, the end of the sidewalk. Should I walk with or against traffic? I think you’re supposed to walk against it, but I decided I would walk with it, that was so I wouldn’t see the faces of the people who would end up running me over. I began by following a path behind a grim little motel.

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.

Semi-Rural Urbanity

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 ?

Of course, there is much to commend in a development like this, even taking into account a certain sense of fakery (I felt certain Jim Carrey from the Truman Show was just around the corner). There is the density, the preservation of open space.  But the problem I guess for me, is  its still in a bubble; physically AND psychologically. If we go back to the aerial and pan out just a bit, we see the edge of the development, and all the amenities come to a very abrupt end. This is still a place where the car reigns supreme. It didn’t pass the milk test, – if you lived here, could you walk comfortably to get a quart of milk without having to cross an 8-lane road. Answer: no.
I left the sidewalks of Hercules and was quickly expelled back on the shoulder of the highway. The last village I would pass was ahead; Rodeo. I don’t know if it was the name (think Rodeo Drive), or the effects of Hercules, but I expected another shiny confection, but downtown Rodeo turned out to be kind of a dusty place. It did have its charm to be sure, it felt like maybe a farming community from central California.
 The last stretch of the walk was ahead, and it would be something else entirely. I was now in the shadow of Conoco-Philips refinery just ahead and I was certain no one ever walked this road. The road seemed to be popular with the pick-up truck set, as a number passed me at high speeds, including one whose passenger screamed something at me. Again with the screaming. The refinery itself was a fascinating tangle of tanks, tubes , and steam belching towers, in its own way, beautiful:
Past the refinery, the road now rolled through the lovely green Tara Hills. I thought, I’m in the frickin’ country! If only I could have enjoyed it more, for this stretch was nerve-wracking. I again had to constantly cross back and forth on the road, as the hills routinely made one side or the other impassable. Added to the stress were  cars on this open road that now rocketed past me at over 60 miles an hour.
I thought to myself,  this could be it. What a fool, what an idiot, I was going to lose my life because I- —– I was walking to the Dead Fish? I imagined the obituary.

Architect Meets Fate  At Hands of Ford F-150

“On Pilgrimage to Try The Shrimp Scampi”
What was I doing out here in the middle of nowhere? What was I looking for? And it just seemed this road was never going to end. I was hot, I was tired.Finally , I rounded a bend, and the trees gave way, and I saw my destination. I knew the “Dead Fish” sat right next to the Carquinez Bridge. I was nearly there.
I was now within sight of my goal, but the last hundred yards were going to be the hardest challenge yet. There was simply nowhere to walk. There was a cliff below, and no shoulder on the road. I stood there for a while, and wondered what I was going to do. Finally,  I listened for cars, and hearing none, I ran down the middle of the road and staggered into the parking lot. I had made it.
I composed myself, made it look like I was just strollin’ up to the door from my car., and I entered the Dead Fish, sat down, an ordered a beer. Yup, nothing to see here, just me, and yeah, I drove here and my car is that one in the lot.
I sipped my beer, waited for my scampi, and reflected. Downtown Oakland seemed very far away. 23 miles on the ground, but light years by any other measurement. I think what really resonated with me was simply watching how people interacted with the street, the obvious contrast between the city and the suburbs, as well as the more nuanced differences that grow out of economic necessity- those that drive, those that take the bus, those that walk a mile to meet a date.  And what made it more compelling was that it was all up close. It was also not hard to reflect on the variety within my own experience; the walk at times pleasurable, at other times harrowing, a direct reflection of this 23-mile cross-section I had just traversed.
I swallowed my first forkful of scampi. It was heavenly. But that bliss was in short order interrupted as I thought……….how the hell am I going to get home?