by Ken Katz
Unlike the Main Street that Walt Disney unveiled to the world in 1955, cities invariably change over time. A case in point is a residential neighborhood above Mandana and east of Lakeshore that is identified in property records as East Piedmont Heights.
As shown on this 1877 map, plans for developing four short blocks north of Cottage St. (now Mandana) were already in place but everything else east of what is now Grand Avenue and above what is now the freeway was a vast expanse of undeveloped land with what would later be renamed the Piedmont Paving Company Quarry at its upper reaches. A small portion of the parcel that was owned by Peder Sather (the namesake for Sather Gate and the Campanile) would be developed as East Piedmont Heights by Wickham Havens beginning circa 1907.
The street layout for East Piedmont Heights, as shown in the 1912 map above, is exactly as it is today with the exception of a couple of street name changes—the most significant being Lerida Avenue, which was re-dubbed Balfour after a landslide on the upper end destroyed a couple of homes.
This photo, taken from Kenmore looking east, is roughly contemporaneous with the 1912 map. Look closely and you’ll see a six-horse team pulling a pair of wagons down Lakeshore. It’s hard to determine the contents but, most likely, it was crushed rock from the quarry that is now the site of Davies Tennis Stadium. Most of the houses pictured here are circa 1910, but the house on the far right and the Tudor-style home with the cross-hatched wood trim to its left were occupied prior to the 1906 earthquake which (pun intended) really shook things up for the City of Oakland—not to mention San Francisco. Here’s a brief excerpt from Oakland Wiki’s article about the Earthquake:
During the afternoon and night of the 18th thousands of refugees from San Francisco came to Oakland and the people of that city fed them and found places for them to sleep. On the next day the plans for relief had been fully developed, so that no one who entered from the stricken metropolis was hungry or without a place to sleep. This rush of refugees continued without interruption up to Sunday morning, and it is estimated that 270,000 people were thus cared for in that time by a city of less than 100,000 people, which has few wholesale business houses and but few warehouses.
The majority of those emigres permanently relocated to the East Bay, likely sparking a housing boom citywide. Judging by the above photo, also circa 1912, the immediate impact on East Piedmont Heights was negligible. The majority of the homes constructed thus far were in the Craftsman style and intended for an upper middle class clientele. A couple of the larger, more elegant homes possibly had live-in butlers or maids. Our home, which we purchased in the early 1970s, was built in 1910 with fir—not oak—flooring, and although it didn’t have maid’s quarters, there was a button under the dining room table that could be used to summon daytime help to clear the table. The home’s owner at the time and into the 1940s was Louis Lefevre, Head of Sales in the corset department of a local women’s emporium.
This photo circa the mid-1920s shows an abundance of recently constructed homes on the Lakeshore Avenue perimeter of East Piedmont Heights. Craftsman architecture had given way to Prairie Style homes with more stucco and less trim. Over the next couple of decades, as those bare hills were being developed, home designs evolved in response to changing tastes and/or the circumstances of any given property. The overwhelming majority of those buildings were single family, but the EPH boundaries do include a few multi-family buildings that date from the 1920s or 1930s. These ranged from duplexes to a fairly large apartment building on Lakeshore at Santa Ray and a small Presbyterian Chapel on Lakeshore near Mandana that was replaced by the new Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church (LABC) Sanctuary in 1957.
Through all those decades of new construction and dramatic change, one constant remained unchallenged: racial covenants in the bylaws of the Lakeshore Homes Association combined with exclusionary policies on all the remaining properties above what is now the freeway. An excellent 2020 article in the Piedmont Exedra titled After Dearing: Residential segregation and the ongoing effects on Piedmont included this revelation regarding Wickham Havens, the East Piedmont Estates developer:
In 1910, Wickham Havens (Frank Havens’ son) marketed racial restrictions for East Piedmont Heights: “Here are the essential facts about this property… It is rigidly restricted and in a restricted section” (Oakland Tribune, 10/15/1910). A 1912 ad for Havenscourt, another Wickham Havens development in Oakland, says: “We developed and sold Piedmont. We made Piedmont what it is. With our long experience we believe we can make Havenscourt even more beautiful in its own way than the ‘millionaire districts’ of Piedmont.” The same advertisement promised “no saloons–no Chinese, Japanese, Negroes, or Filipinos–no poles or wires in the streets.”
According to Jim Hopkins, Senior Pastor at LABC, those barriers finally came down in the mid-1950s thanks to their congregation working with the American Baptist Church and a group called The Christian Friendliness Mission. Through their combined efforts, Rev. Payton Pierce from the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in downtown Oakland was chosen to occupy a home they managed to purchase on the 4000 block of Balfour Avenue. I wish I could say that the Pierce family was warmly welcomed, but from Jim’s account, the opposite was the case. Nonetheless, a seemingly impenetrable barrier had been broken and with the impetus of the nationwide Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, restrictions on who could live where became intolerable.
In 1972, when I started restoration of a house that was literally falling down (but priced accordingly), our neighbors in the “Balfour-Rosal Circle” included at least fifteen Black families, several residents of Asian descent, and a number of gay and lesbian residents, whom I suspect felt more comfortable in an integrated neighborhood. The late Terri Brock was one of our Black neighbors. Fellow old-timers will fondly remember her as a kindergarten through second grade teacher at Crocker Highlands School. Another Black resident was the late William Love, who moved to the neighborhood in 1970. Bill taught at Merritt College and the College of Alameda and was described as the driving force behind the relocation of the Cypress Freeway after the 1989 earthquake.
The “complexion” of the EPH neighborhood had changed in other ways as well. Most significantly, what originally started as an upper middle class neighborhood had become somewhat less upper and more middle. The trades were well represented with a mailman, carpenters, a longshoreman, a tile setter, and lots of teachers, including the late Bob Moorhead, an Oakland Public School District “Teacher of the Year” and his late wife Jean who, as Director of the Broadway Children’s School, was Oakland’s “Mother of the Year” honoree in 1983. Artists and musicians were also in abundance.
One of the largest contingents, however, consisted of folks who listed their employment status as “retired.” My favorite retiree was Don Parrish, who had inherited the home he grew up in and famously remembered planting a World War I Victory Garden on undeveloped land across the street from their Balfour Avenue family home. In some ways, Don was the prototypical American of that era—far less mobile than recent generations, as was also likely the case for a large percentage of the folks who bought homes here in the teens, twenties and thirties. That scenario would explain why, in the 1970s, there were so many senior citizen neighbors here and almost no kids for our kids to play with. Over the next decade, however, the transition accelerated, as my nearest neighbors sold their homes. One to a Kaiser doctor. A second to a child psychologist. A third to a math professor, and a fourth to a college art instructor.
Fast forward to the present day. As home prices have skyrocketed, every indication is that East Piedmont Heights, in terms of income levels, is once again becoming more upper and less middle. As for ethnic diversity, unfortunately, the number of Black families has been halved over the past fifty years, but there has simultaneously been an influx of first-and second-generation residents with roots in India and Asia, as well as “mixed marriages.” These new neighbors maintain the progressive character of the neighborhood, in a precinct where third-party candidates out-polled the Republican nominee in the last two presidential elections. We are actively involved in social issues. A neighbor across the street is a member of the Crocker Highlands Equity and Anti-Racism Committee. Up the block, another neighbor formerly chaired the group. In terms of occupations, relatively new residents include two Kaiser doctors and an entrepreneur whose start-up is designing batteries that are longer-lasting and more efficient. Another longer-term resident has been experimenting with specialized crops that could eventually replace petroleum as a fuel source. Admittedly, there is one beneficiary of the social media boom but he’s such a nice guy, I’ve resisted all temptations to ask him to bump up our Splash Pad Facebook page ratings.
But here’s the rub: high prices for homes and apartment rentals have become prohibitive throughout the Bay Area, including Oakland, which especially impacts the immigrant and minority communities that are central to our city’s multicultural identity. It also especially impacts artists and musicians who constitute a cultural hub that would be hard to match elsewhere, as well as those who provide everyday services—waiting tables, cutting hair, mowing lawns, etc. We should have recognized what was transpiring in 2018 when Russell Moore closed Camino Restaurant citing the reality that they couldn’t afford to pay staff what they’d actually need to continue living in the East Bay. But the even bigger tragedy is the extent to which individuals and even families are living in cars or sleeping on the streets—creating encampments that compare unfavorably to those in developing countries.
A partial solution would be to increase wages, but the even more pressing issue is the lack of sufficient housing, particularly affordable housing. Hopefully, the fifty units of affordable housing planned for the KwikWay/Vegan Mob site will get underway sometime soon and ditto for the project planned for the south end of Lake Merritt on East 12th. And, long term, according to this article in The Oaklandside, the city’s twenty-year plan, just approved by the State, calls for a total of 26,000 new housing units, including 10,000 that are deemed affordable.
One of the major obstacles that needs to be overcome in order to achieve those goals is finding suitable properties where the city can squeeze in new housing as needed. This has been going on for generations and will likely continue for generations. Our home sits on a corner lot that was originally 160 feet deep. Circa 1930, the property was subdivided, and a new home was constructed on the smaller parcel. Across the street, this formal English garden was the front-yard of the Tudor-style home mentioned above. Owned by the Jastram family whose great granddaughter still lives there, it was sacrificed for a Spanish-style stucco home during the same time period and next door to that house, the owners built a small cottage—a very early version of an Accessory Living Unit (ADU) that was also later subdivided and sold in the late 1970s. In the last decade, the city and the state have both been advocating construction of ADUs in back yards, though the permitting process remains challenging and costly. The other option that has become increasingly popular is modifying single-family homes to include a separate living unit, as my neighbors did by converting their basement into a cozy apartment with their kids and grandkids overhead.
It’s a huge undertaking, but Oakland’s future as the vibrant city we love so much (despite all its current challenges) demands that we respond just as our predecessors did for the refugees from San Francisco in 1906—by the next day, plans for relief had been fully developed, so that no one who entered from the stricken metropolis was hungry or without a place to sleep.
Author’s Note: This piece is based largely on personal experience and observations of my immediate neighborhood with a lot of speculation and far too little research. If we reported anything that’s incorrect, please correct the record and, just as importantly, if you have additional information, please share your comments below.
Addendum: Thanks to Dorothy Londagin and the Oakland History Facebook page, here’s a link to the East Piedmont Heights Tract Map.