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Oakland is an extremely liberal high crime city in California. The population is about 400,000. Oakland forms part of the San Francisco Bay Area metropolitan area, which together has a population of over 7 million, making it the sixth largest mertropolitan area in the United States. To Oakland's north is Berkeley, and to the west across the San Francisco Bay and the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge is San Francisco.


The Oakland Museum, designed by architect Kevin Roche, is an unusual combination of indoor galleries and outdoor gardens. The landscaping of terraced plazas placed among the three museums was planned to relieve the fatigue of museum visitors. A million visitors annually enjoy the park-like environment.


In the early 20th century Oakland had the reputation as one of the best planned cities in the nation, with beautiful parks and green belts, and excellent public transit. Progressive politicians included Earl Warren, the district attorney who became governor and Chief Justice, and the Knowland family, including Joseph R. Knowland (1873-1966) and William F. Knowland (1908-1974), the powerful leader of Republicans in the U.S. Senate in 1953-1959.
Downtown Oakland in 1930s

After 1945 it endured decades of ethnic and class turmoil, gaining a sad reputation for crme and left-wing radicalism. The quixotic former governor Jerry Brown (b. 1938) as mayor 1998-2006 helped rebuild business confidence and restore a bit of sanity.

Oakland was the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad that opened in 1869 (passengers were then ferried to San Francisco). In the late 19th century it was the second city in California, with a strong base in railroads, port facilities, shipbuilding and manufacturing.

The Jewish Community

Oakland has always been a multiethnic community. American Jews played a prominent role, and were among the pioneers of Oakland in the 1850s. In the early years, the Oakland Hebrew Benevolent Society, founded in 1862, was the religious, social, and charitable center of the community. Later, the first synagogue, founded in 1875, took over the religious and burial functions. Jews from Poland or Prussian-occupied Poland predominated in the community, and most of them worked in some aspect of the clothing industry. David Solis-Cohen, the noted author, was a leader in the Oakland Jewish community in the 1870s.

In 1879 Oakland's growing Jewish community organized a second congregation, a strictly orthodox group, Poel Zedek. Women's religious organizations flourished, their charitable services extending to needy gentiles as well as Jews. Oakland Jewry was part of the greater San Francisco community, yet maintained its own character. In 1881 the First Hebrew Congregation of Oakland, elected Myer Solomon Levy as its rabbi. The London-born Levy practiced traditional Judaism.

Oakland's Jews were pushed hard to excel in school, both secular and religious. Fannie Bernstein was the first Jew to graduate from the University of California at Berkeley, in 1883. First Hebrew Congregation sponsored a Sabbath school which had 75 children in 1887.

Oakland Jewry was active in public affairs and charitable projects in the 1880s. Rabbi Myer S. Levy was chaplain to the state legislature in 1885. The Daughters of Israel Relief Society continued its good works both inside and outside the Jewish community. Beth Jacob, the traditional congregation of Old World Polish Jews, continued its separate religious practices while it maintained friendly relations with the members of the first Hebrew Congregation.

Able social and political leadership came from David Samuel Hirshberg. Until 1886 he was an officer in the Grand Lodge of B'nai B'rith. He served as Under Sheriff of Alameda County in 1883 and was active in Democratic party affairs. In 1885 he was appointed Chief Clerk of the US Mint in San Francisco. As a politician, he had detractors who accused him of using his position in B'nai B'rith to foster his political career.[1]

When refugees from the fire-stricken, poorer Jewish quarter of San Francisco came to Oakland, the synagogue provided immediate aid. Food and clothing were given to the needy and 350 people were given a place to sleep. For about a week the synagogue fed up to 500 people three times a day. A large part of the expenses were paid by the Jewish Ladies' organization of the synagogue.

Knowland Family

The political career of Republican Congressman Joseph Knowland (1873-1966) ended in 1914 with his defeat for the US Senate. He retained until the 1960s his position of influence, however, in East Bay and California politics. In 1915 he became publisher of the Oakland Tribune. Knowland and Oakland's "Kelly Machine" inevitably clashed, first in 1923, over the selection of a new district attorney. The Knowland victory, which launched the career of Earl Warren, hurt the Kelly forces, and the machine came to an end in a crucial 1930 election. In the mid-1920s Knowland and his newspaper Oakland Tribune were powerful forces in the East Bay, and successfully influenced the outcome of bond issues and governmental changes. Knowland's activity in the organizational life of the community, his experience as a politician, and his behind-the-scenes political activity all made the Tribune effective. His son William F. Knowland (1908-1974), used the Tribune as a base to become U.S. Senator and was a power in state and national affairs until he was defeated for governor in 1958.

Posey Tube

The Posey Tube is the underwater auto tunnel that opened in 1928 to connect Oakland to Alameda. Designed by George A. Posey, chief engineer and surveyor for Alameda County, the tunnel incorporated many state-of-the-art ideas. In addition, the Art Deco architecture of the tunnel portals, designed by Henry Meyers, won praise for combining aesthetics and utilitarian functions. The only shortcoming of the Posey Tube was that the greatly increased automobile traffic went far beyond the estimates of peak load envisioned by the tunnel's planners. Still in use after almost seventy years, the Posey Tube is a monument to the age of the automobile.


In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan was very active in Oakland. Klansmen reflected the overall native-born white male population in Oakland and had more representation among white-collar and skilled workers. Klansmen enjoyed political success in opposition to ethnic patronage for Catholics and machine politics, basing their appeal on local, specific issues such as road paving. The collapse of the Klan in the city came about because some Klan members gave in to the corruption of machine politics, not because the Klan had lost its socioeconomic base or support due to its ideological marginality.[2]

World War II

Oakland boomed in World War II, as an influx of black and white migrants taking jobs in shipbuilding drastically altered the demographic make-up of the East Bay, including the nearby cities of Berkeley, Alameda, and Richmond, which had previously consisted of mostly white lower- and middle-class communities. Most of the newcomers lived in newly constructed public housing that defined the patterns of racial and class segregation that lasted for the next quarter century. There was considerable political turmoil as the new residents sought to wrest control of local government from the white business establishment. This was especially apparent in Oakland, where reform-minded activism persisted through the 1950s.

The housing policies of both the federal and local governments during the war encouraged the racial and ethnic tensions that still remain. The acute housing shortage that developed with an influx of workers for the shipyards forced the federal government to step in to assure wartime production. The programs turned working-class neighborhoods, which had been racially and ethnically diverse, into ghettos like those in eastern cities. At the same time, the Federal Housing Administration favored loans for houses in new all-white developments on the urban fringes.[3]

Recent years

In recent years, Oakland has become known nationwide for two things. The first is a 2009 police shooting at the platform of a local BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station. The officer in question claimed that he was reaching for a Taser, but ended up grabbing his gun. This led to a period of civil unrest as the shooting of a young African-American man by a white police officer stirred up degrees of both racial tension and anger at the police department. The crisis was subsequently somewhat mismanaged by Oakland Police, leading to downtown protests and relatively small-scale rioting, including some looting. Some similar social unrest also occurred around the Occupy Oakland protests, up to and including a march that shut down the Port of Oakland, one of the major economic engines of the city.

Oakland has also become a center for urban agriculture and the foodie movement. There are many groups growing food within the city, one of the foremost being City Slicker Farms, as well as several weekly farmers markets, and many gourmet restaurants featuring locally sourced food. This upswing in restaurants led to Oakland being named the fifth-best place to visit in the world in 2012 by the New York Times.[4]

Although not as nationally know for it as neighbor cities San Francisco and Berkeley, Oakland is something of a liberal hotbed.


Unions grew rapidly under the New Deal and were not reluctant to challenge business for control of the city. The most serious strike came in May 1934, as dock workers and longshoremen along the West Coast went on strike for better hours and pay, a union hiring hall and a coast-wide contract. Communists were in control of the union, the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA), led by Harry Bridges (1901-1990). The West Coast Waterfront Strike lasted 83 days with longshoremen returning to work on July 31. Arbitration was agreed to and it resulted in a victory for the strikers. and the unionization of all West Coast ports in the United States.[5]

In 1946 the Retail Merchants Association (RMA) of Oakland refused to allow two member stores to negotiate with Retail Clerks Union local 1265. Workers from Kahn's and Hastings department stores retaliated by striking, and soon were battling not only their employers and the RMA, but also the city council and the Oakland Tribune, both controlled by powerful, antiunion publisher Joseph Knowland. When even the police joined the fray, 130,000 workers from 142 American Federation of Labor unions throughout the city took December 3–5, 1946, as a "work holiday" to support the strikers and protest police partiality.

The general strike in Oakland was part of a nationwide series of strikes in 1946. The Oakland incident involved most city workers whole-heartedly endorsing a strike which for 54 hours shut down most economic activity in the city. Essential facilities were maintained at minimum levels while city leaders and national union officials worked to end the strike, but its official termination neither resolved smoldering issues nor penetrated worker discontent. In the 1947 municipal election a labor slate of candidates defeated the incumbents.

Out of worker solidarity grew political activism. Together, Oakland's workers put labor members on city council, forced the RMA to accept collective bargaining, and created the progressive Oakland Voters League.[6]

Black Politics

In 1977 Oakland elected the city's first African American mayor, Lionel Wilson. He was reeelectedd in 1981 and 1985 thanks to his support for civil rights, for business expansion, and for redevelopment of the decayed downtown, including major league teams in football, baseball and basketball. Conservative candidates have not fared well. For example, Ted Dang's loss in the 1994 mayoral race to African-American incumbent Elihu Harris can be attributed primarily to his inability to unite diverse Asian-American groups, his conservative emphasis in a predominantly leftist city, and an antagonistic campaign strategy that exacerbated racial tension. His antigovernment and negative themes ran counter to Harris's attempts to create an activist government and a strong multiracial coalition. Dang's failure to balance ideology, interest, and racial identification, lack of political experience, and overreliance on his campaign manager ultimately cost him the race.

In the 1960s in West Oakland, an adjacent suburb, a conservative city council that believed economic and political problems would best be solved by increasing economic development. However, the minority population, 40% black and 10% Latino as well 10% Asian (from the 1970 census), insisted on a redistribution of existing wealth, which led to the establishment of their own representative governmental organs. Both factions eventually found it to their mutual benefit to negotiate in an institutionalized manner.

Opposition to Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system encouraged West Oakland activists to create a strong local identity. BART supporters valued regional mobility and blamed ghetto poverty on the inaccessibility of suburban jobs. However black activists blamed BART for harming the ghetto poor by encouraging job migration to the suburbs and displacing residents. As compensation, they demanded that BART hire black workers and increase relocation payments. While West Oakland activists largely failed to influence BART, the newly unified community did gain local control of schools and urban poverty programs.

The Black Panthers, led by Bobby Seale, had a major base in the city. The Black Panther newspaper was founded in 1967 in Oakland as the main vehicle of expression of the Black Panther Party. Devoted to the cause of radical black nationalism in the United States, the paper was developed not only as a means of reaching its local constituency but also as a means of gaining national media exposure. During its 12 years of existence, it served to give definition, form, and substance to a particular vision of black identity. Subsequent revivals of the paper in the 1990s demonstrated the continuing allure of the Black Panther movement and the relevance of its role in the black nationalist movement.

Marcus Foster (1923 – 1973) was an outstanding black educator who gained a national reputation while serving as associate sSuperintendent of schools in Philadelphia, and as the first black Superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District. He was assassinated in 1973 by the Symbionese Liberation Army as a political statement against blacks who cooperated with whites.

On the far left, Democrat Ron Dellums (1935- ), represented Berkeley and Oakland in Congress, (1971-1998). He became the chair of the powerful House Armed Services Committee in January 1993. A strong pacifist, his district nevertheless houses a major naval facility that faced closure in the current phase of downsizing the military budget. Dellums was thus placed in a curious position of being philosophically opposed to military spending but pragmatically defending his district's interests. He was the first African American elected to Congress from Northern California, and was replaced in 1998 by the equally militant, but much less powerful, Democrat Barbara Lee (b. 1946).


In sports, Oakland is home to the MLB's Oakland Athletics.

It was previously the home of the NFL's Oakland Raiders (which departed for Las Vegas after the 2019 season; prior to that the team departed for Los Angeles before returning to Oakland) and the NBA's Golden State Warriors (which returned to its original California home in San Francisco beginning with the 2019-2020 season).

Further reading

  • Elkind, Sarah S. Bay Cities and Water Politics: The Battle for Resources in Boston and Oakland. (1998). 246 pp.
  • Johnson, Marilynn S. The Second Gold Rush: Oakland and the East Bay in World War II (1994). 302 pp.
  • McCory, Jesse J. Marcus Foster and the Oakland Public Schools: Leadership in an Urban Bureaucracy. (1978). 163 pp.
  • Montgomery, Gayle B. and James W. Johnson. One Step from the White House: The Rise and Fall of Senator William F. Knowland. (1998) Online at UC Press.
  • Oden, Robert Stanley. "Power Shift: A Sociological Study of the Political Incorporation of People of Color in Oakland, California, 1966-1996." PhD Dissertation U. of California, Santa Cruz 1999. 248 pp. DAI 2000 60(11): 4193-A. DA9951415
  • Pressman, Jeffrey L. Federal Programs and City Politics: The Dynamics of Aid Process in Oakland (1975) argues that the Oakland experience shows that without upgrading local political leadership, money alone cannot solve urban problems.
  • Pressman, Jeffrey L., and Aaron B. Wildavsky. Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington Are Dashed in Oakland. (1973). 182 pp on the failure of the Great Society in Oakland.
  • Self, Robert. "'To Plan Our Liberation': Black Power And The Politics Of Place In Oakland, California, 1965-1977," Journal of Urban History 2000 26(6): 759-792.
  • Starr, Kevin. "Tough Love: Jerry Brown's Oakland,", Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003. (2004). pp 356–71.
  • Ware, Alan. The Breakdown of Democratic Party Organization, 1940-1980. (1985). 275 pp. compares Oakland and Berkeley
  • Wyatt, Daniel E. Joseph Russell Knowland: The Political Years, 1899-1915 (1982).

External links


  1. William M. Kramer, "The Emergence of Oakland Jewry." Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly 1978 10 (2): 99-125, (3): 238-259, (4): 353-373; 11(1): 69-86; 1979 11(2): 173-186, (3): 265-278. Journal Issn: 0043-4221
  2. Chris Rhomberg, "White Nativism and Urban Politics: The 1920s Ku Klux Klan in Oakland, California." Journal of American Ethnic History 1998 17(2): 39-55.
  3. See Johnson (1994)
  4. http://travel.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/travel/45-places-to-go-in-2012.html?pagewanted=all
  5. Robert W. Cherny, "Prelude to the Popular Front: The Communist Party in California, 1931-35." American Communist History 2002 1(1): 5-42 online at EBSCO
  6. Philip J. Wolman, "The Oakland General Strike of 1946." Southern California Quarterly 1975 57(2): 147-178. Journal Issn: 0038-3929