Review | Hella Town: Oakland’s History of Development and Disruption

G.T. Dempsey


     Inevitably, this book begins with Gertrude Stein’s seemingly derogatory statement that, when you get to Oakland, ‘there’s no there there.’  As the author neatly demonstrates, rather than a comment on a perceived barrenness of life, cultural or social or whatever, to be encountered in her hometown (her family had lived in Oakland during her childhood from ages 6 to 17), it was an expression of personal anguish, of nostalgic shock, by Stein on finding on a visit some four decades later that the idyllic rural environment of her childhood had been transformed into ‘corridors of single-family dwellings.’  Bucolic Oakland had gone metropolitan.

     With that out of the way, the author, a professor of architectural and urban history at the California College of the Arts, proceeds on what must be judged a model history of urban development, laying out the stages of ‘Oakland’s built environment’ from its take-off in the last decade of the nineteenth century to the early years of the current century:  ‘from the time when population growth, industrialization, and mechanized transportation unleashed the conditions for the modern city to the contemporary moment when the region’s galloping information-age economy has produced a dire housing shortage amid lopsided privatization of urban development.’  Here, he gives special emphasis to how ‘emergent transportation technologies and systemic racism configured access to urbanized land.’

Book cover for "Hella Town" by Mitchell Schwarzer.
Mitchell Schwarzer Hella Town: Oakland’s History of Development and Disruption (University of California Press, 2021), pp. 412 ISBN: 9780520381124 $26.95

     Oakland’s very identity has long been linked to transportation.  Initially established as a sailing and trading port, this was the Oakland Jack London (perhaps the most famous of Oakland’s home-grown writers – my apologies to Miss Stein) grew up in and where, as a young teen-ager, he made a living as an oyster pirate, acquiring his magisterial skills as a sailor as well as material for one of his many many later novels.  The turn-of-the-century saw its industrialization consequent upon the arrival of the railroad, with Oakland as the main terminal for the San Francisco Bay Area.  Later, it became a pioneering container seaport.  This emergent economic geography produced, as elsewhere in American cities, disparities in the liveability of various areas, from the undesirable to the exclusive.  Some distinctions were natural:  distance from industrial plants and commercial strips.  More were intentional (and racist-based):  ‘From the 1920s onward, most new automotive routes led to (and catalyzed the settlement of) the hills or suburbs, areas that would long be off-limits to people of color, who were left with the older flatlands….’  This racial divide became structurally unsustainable when the military buildup during World War II brought black economic migrants in large numbers from the South, looking for a better standard of living.  By 1980, Oakland had become almost majority black and a center of black culture.  It also, in combat with the long-standing white political establishment, became a center of black political activism.

     Oakland has also suffered from comparison as a place to live (and not just with San Francisco on the other side of the bay), being hemmed in by smaller cities with vibrant identities, such as Berkeley to the north, with its university of international academic standing (and a haven for student radicalism), or Alameda and Piedmont, inner-city oases of graceful living.  In the latter decades of the last century, de-industrialization also hit the city hard, with Oakland operating as a ‘Rust Belt city in the Sun Belt.’  The author structures his narrative around these urban functions of ‘transportation infrastructure, workplace, housing, commerce, parks, and civic attractions.’  The first two chapters (Part I), covering the period between the 1890s and 1945, lay out how ‘electric traction streetcars spawned subdivisions and commercial arterials across town segmented by class and race,’ while Oakland was developing into one of America’s larger manufacturing centers.  The middle three chapters (Part II) analyze ‘efforts over the course of the twentieth century to secure parklands, craft world-class civic structures, and modernize and expand road infrastructure for automobiles.’  The final five chapters (Part III) concentrate on the period after the war ‘when governmental involvement in urban development ramped up and systemic racism continued to play a leading role in city-making.’   At times, the author’s detailing of decades of racist policies and the ensuring political (and other) battles can be excruciating to read but, in the end, he finds that the outlook is positive:  the city’s ‘natural beauty…mild Mediterranean climate, mid-sized urbanity, idiosyncratic neighborhoods, and relative affordability’ are fueling Oakland’s recovery – indeed, re-birth – from the Great Recession of 2008-10.

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     Perhaps a word, finally, on the book’s title.  San Francisco has long been referred to, simply, as ‘the City,’ leading Oaklanders to refer to their home as ‘the Town.’  The adjective ‘hella’ comes from Black urban youth culture in the 1970s, a shortened form of ‘helluva’ meaning ‘extremely.’  Make of that what you will.  This book is a superb example of urban history.

Mitchell Schwarzer Hella Town: Oakland’s History of Development and Disruption (University of California Press, 2021), pp. 412 ISBN: 9780520381124 $26.95

Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was received from the publisher. 

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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.