Remembrances of Oakland’s Past

by Virginia Brown Keyder

Born in 1948, I grew up on Valle Vista Avenue, one block from Charlie’s Tobacco Shop. I spent my summers in the Grand Lake Theatre (children could see movies for three Seven-Up bottle caps, or 25 cents). I always bought my candy at Charlie’s and remember well his slightly reddish face and mop of curly brown hair. He also sold books, mainly (I hesitate to say exclusively) paperback novels by Pearl Buck. I read every one of them. They were a refuge from a tumultuous alcohol-soaked family life. I came to love China (which was always more real to me than Massachusetts for sure) from those books. I think of Charlie now and then, and of his rival Tobenkin, a gruff Holocaust survivor across the street who reeked of cigars and sold blue popsicles for 6 cents. I think of those days as Xi (possibly) contemplates a visit to the Governor of California. The Pacific Rim was as real then as it is now.

Everyone has a ball of yarn deep inside their brain where early memories dwell. Pull the end and they roll out, sometimes in sequence, sometimes not. Mine are of Oakland in the 1950s and 60s. These memories operate on two planes – geographical and temporal, or what was where and how it changed. I left Oakland for Berkeley after graduating high school in 1966. Then, in the early 1970s, I left California for good, departing first to Montreal, where I saw my first snow, to New York, where I saw my first rat, and then to Istanbul, where everything was a first. Oakland for me was frozen in time.

An occasional insomniac, my nighttime mind sometimes wanders Oakland streets. I grew up on Valle Vista Avenue (the “other” Valle Vista, as we used to say, between Santa Clara and Elwood). I went to Lakeview School. My teachers were all women with old-fashion names like Alice (Grimwood) and Mildred (Stitzel). They were highly intelligent and caring women. Educated women, with few exceptions, had few professional choices other than teaching and nursing in those days. In 1957, Lakeview decided to bring in a man to teach fourth grade. He went from brunette to pure white (and became markedly thinner) in six short months. He never came back and, to my knowledge, Lakeview never tried that again.

Everybody walked to school on their own. To be accompanied by an adult was to be embarrassed beyond endurance. On that short walk down Santa Clara to school were many things I fear no one will remember. Where now stands a large “modern” apartment building (there were no such things in Oakland then – apartments were sturdy red brick affairs dating most likely from the 1930s) was a sort of village of small wooden cottages connected by dirt roads on an uphill slant from the street. I know for a fact that gypsies lived there because they were my friends, and I spent many a Saturday in their joyfully tumultuous households. There were also single-child, single-parent households – a rarity among the stable, and often dysfunctional nuclear families characteristic of the neighborhood – who had come from other less prosperous and more rigid states to escape god knows what. On the corner of Valle Vista and Santa Clara was a dark old wooden house, dubbed haunted on Halloween, inhabited by a couple as old as the building. When they died, two families moved in in sequence and then it was gone, a motel-like apartment building seemingly popping up overnight.

Ours was a quiet neighborhood. Deep into the night one could hear the clanging of the tether ball chains in the schoolyard as they banged against their poles. Also in the soundscape were trains chugging their way into Jack London Square bringing produce from the valley while others meandered through the densely wooded Trestle Glen.

And then all that changed. The MacArthur Freeway tore through the neighborhood like last week’s hurricane through Acapulco. Lakeview’s schoolyard was halved, as were the hedges that spelled out ‘Lakeview’ on Grand Avenue (the remaining half left as it was for years as a reminder). The beautiful old homes on the “other side” of Lakeview on Van Buren and Euclid Avenues were ripped off of their foundations and dragged up Santa Clara to a destination that remains hidden to this day. For years, I thought that’s what was meant by “moving house.”

The calm of our neighborhood was broken forever.

VBK is a third-generation Oaklander who attended Lakeview School, Westlake Jr. High, Oakland H.S, Merritt College, and UC Berkeley, before leaving for Montreal to do graduate work in Middle Eastern History, then law. After graduation from McGill Law, she worked in NYC and joined the NY Bar. She married her college sweetheart and moved to Istanbul and taught various law courses in Istanbul and State University of NY, Binghamton. Virginia regularly commutes between Istanbul and NYC where her two sons reside.





2 responses to “Remembrances of Oakland’s Past”


    I second Cleveland’s comments. Though I don’t know the Oakland you describe, I can feel it through your writing style. Really fun to read your writing.

  2. Cleveland Heights Avatar
    Cleveland Heights

    Beautifully written and reminisced. The bit about the man teaching at Lakeview made me laugh out loud.