I took the bike on a ride through West Oakland this morning. My initial goal was to revisit the steel sculptures we saw the other day. They’re very interesting up close. The kowtowing figure on the southeast corner of the intersection is easily accessible and photographable. These are magnificent, fanciful compositions.
My secondary interest was in finding the new lofts in the old Pacific Cannery building. This is a project developed by an old friend, Rick. I’ve been wanting to see the development and I knew it was over on the edge of West Oakland. I headed west from Mandela Parkway on 16th Street and the first landmark I recognized was the old Oakland Railroad Station at Wood and 16th. The joy of discovery was quickly tempered as I saw the state of the station.
My brother Jon and I took at train trip together when we were young, from Oakland to Seattle to hike with some friends in the Cascade mountains. We boarded the train in the majestic station at 16th and Wood for that trip. It would have been the summer of 1973. I was 15, Jon was 14. I remember thinking, even then, that the building was in a pretty sorry state of repair. It was obviously a building that had a glorious past, but shrinking rail ridership meant too few passengers to fill the building. It felt lonely, and a little run down.
Today, as I caught a first glimpse I was transported back to 1973. Just as quickly, though, that memory disappeared to be replaced by an image of decay. The building suffered significant damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It’s been boarded up for over 20 years, waiting to be rescued from the ravages of time. Vandals and nature have taken a costly toll. Today, the building is a stark and graphic symbol of the extent to which our nation has abandoned its railway infrastructure.
Apparently the the building may yet be saved. As part of the development of the Central Station neighborhood (hundreds of condominiums and apartments of which the Pacific Cannery Lofts are just a small part) the old decaying station was acquired by Bridge Housing. A plan for restoring the building and putting back to use is on the drawing boards.
Of course the railroad has long since found another route through Oakland, and now the trains come and go from a new station near Jack London Square. The developers of the surrounding apartment and condominium complexes have paid homage to the station, replicating the ironwork landing platform in a decorative installation near the new apartments. The whole neighborhood now sports an interesting collection of housing. The new developments sit cheek by jowl with industrial buildings and little houses built in the early 1900s. Some of those houses have been (or are being) lovingly restored or updated. Others seem like they may not have been painted in several decades. It’s an awkward time in this section of West Oakland. Gentrification is not an easily managed (or an entirely positive) process.
I look forward to seeing the old train station remodeled and open to visitors. Even if it never serves another railroad passenger it would be a shame to let it decay any further. And I hope the new Central Station neighborhood is able to preserve some of its character and culture even as new developments grow around the station.
UPDATE: On my way home I passed the African American Museum and Library on 14th Street in Downtown. Oaktown Art has a great entry about the museum today. »