West Oakland’s 7th Street is a strip of land that has been defined and redefined by the transit systems running directly through its lanes. This one street perfectly embodies the timeline of Oakland’s complex transit history and how it has transformed. In its life time, it has seen trains, cable cars, the original Cypress street viaduct overpass, the new I-880 freeway and the West Oakland BART.
In the early 1800s, 7th Street was established as a main thoroughfare, with tracks of the newly completed cross continental railroad as the winding focal point for the street. The railroad helped deliver patrons into the blossoming local shops and businesses. In the early 20th century it was the railroad economy and new shipping yard work opportunities that brought a culturally diverse population of blacks from the South, Chinese, Greeks, Latinos and Italians groups of business owners into 7th Street properties. It was in 1940 that the railroad route on 7th Street was abandoned from use but the tracks were re-purposed by the Key System trains, mentioned in another pin of the tour, to transport goods to military outlets in 1942. The Key system street cars carted local Oaklanders to their favorite shopping outlets. Just some of the amenities on the street included markets, pharmacies, furniture stores, pool halls and clothing shops. With a steady amount of skilled and unskilled labor demand in West Oakland, employed residents were using their capital to invest the booming neighborhood, starting businesses and spending their disposable income.
During WWII, federal money was poured into Oakland’s port and shipping industry for wartime efforts. This also infused more wealth into 7th Street and black owned businesses flourished. The popping jazz and blues scene of the street was another defining part of 7th Street character. At night, there was always music emanating out of multiple jazz clubs like Slim Jenkin’s or the famed Ester’s Orbit Room. With the accessibility of transportation and capital of those who lived in West Oakland, the economic prosperity of the street progressed into the late 1940s. The strong consumer base enabled for a thriving neighborhood in West Oakland. Unfortunately, toward the end of the war overcrowding in Oakland triggered a housing crisis and the wide job market started to contract when people came back to their jobs from war. After the war, wealth began to leave West Oakland.
What followed in its transit history accelerated the disintegration of the vibrant 7th Street. The construction of the original I-880 Cypress Freeway started in 1950, when the street was already in the midst of economic downturn. The constant noise and the smell from the nearby car emissions discouraged folks from coming to typically popular nightlife spots or social clubs. Not only did the freeway affect the economy of the street but the health outcomes of those living in the neighborhood, as asthma was more frequently reported for those living close to the freeway. Then in the 1960’s another massive overhaul of the street came when construction started on the above ground West Oakland BART station and railway tracks. The daily howling of the BART cars and large concrete pillars lining the street have made home properties decrease and have changed the overall look to the street. As the city plans progressed, the mass transit in West Oakland began to chip away at the life of 7th Street, as many buildings are blighted and businesses have moved away from the now undesirable location. Still, there are a number of local businesses that have stayed open or new shops that have taken up properties, despite the BART and the freeway disturbances. Though 7th Street has been described by some with a 'Rise and Fall' metaphor, it would be a shame to give it write it off as a fallen neighborhood. It has been manipulated by the changes of a modernizing city, the rapid growth and influx of people, but it's not like the street is dead. It might never reach the same amount of critical energy it experienced when the train would pass right through its streets in the 1800s or during the great Jazz era of the mid-20th century but maybe new life will eventually find its way back to 7th Street in West Oakland.