On a recent cold & drizzly Saturday morning I checked off my first goal on my “Things To Do In Oakland in 2016” list. I attended a walk hosted by Oakland Urban Paths through the streets of what was once a town that sat next door to Oakland, named Brooklyn. As our city has moved to the forefront of the national stage recently, there have been numerous comparisons to New York City’s neighboring borough, Brooklyn. I am going to bow out of the “my town is cooler” debate and find humor in the irony that the 2 town names once sat side-by-side on a map.
Named for a ship that carried Mormon settlers to California in 1846, the town of Brooklyn existed to the east of Lake Merritt from 1856-1872. The town was created by the joining of 2 settlements, Clinton & San Antonio; in 1870 the nearby town of Lynn was annexed in. However 2 years later, in 1872, the vote was cast to annex the entire town of Brooklyn into Oakland.
So what was Brooklyn, CA known for? Well, beer for one. The town was home to numerous breweries, most notably Brooklyn Brewery and East Oakland Brewing Company. At their peak, Brooklyn Brewery was turning out 35 barrels a day of their premier brew, Brooklyn Steam Beer. The host of our walk, local historian Gene Anderson, was quick to remind us that beer was often the chosen beverage in those days since drinking water was sub par, and was therefore quite weak. No double IPA’s for our Brooklyn ancestors. Unfortunately, there are no remnants of either structure.
Another building which no longer stands is the other premier Brooklyn destination, the Tubbs Hotel. Yes, Oakland used to have its very own high end hotel :o) The hotel was situated on Brooklyn’s main drag, Washington Street. A grand 200-room structure built by local businessman Hiram Tubbs, one of the founders of Mountain View Cemetery, the hotel was advertised as an “elegant family residence” and as such it was the early home to famous local author Gertrude Stein. She and her family lived at the Tubbs Hotel for a year while she was a young girl.
Unfortunately the hotel burned to the ground in 1893, over 20 years after Brooklyn was annexed into Oakland. It is said it was on the decline and suffering financially at the time of its demise. What does still stand today is the home of Hiram Tubbs daughter, Grace. The house (pictured below) sits right across International Blvd from the block once occupied by the hotel.
So, with so little still standing from our “Brooklyn Days”, where did our walk take us? It took us through the neighborhoods such as Clinton and Eastlake that currently sit within the borders of what was once Brooklyn, to see the parts of the past that still stand. There is so much history here, gorgeous Queen Anne Victorian homes, churches, and even the original Mothers Cookies factory, found at the corner of 12th Ave & East 18th Street. The company began in 1914, after N.M. Wheatley purchased a vanilla cookie recipe from an elderly couple and began cranking out 2,000 a day. He moved the operation to this building on 18th Street in 1922. The factory moved to their final 81st Ave. location in 1949. The original building has now been converted into live/work loft spaces.
As we wandered around the topic of palm trees came up. These neighborhoods are dotted with huge, old palm trees. Palm trees were a sign of wealth, and as noted by one fellow walker, they were often planted by the well-to-do so that the fire department could locate their homes if help was needed. So as you are walking down the street, if you see a huge old growth palm tree, chances are that someone notable once lived in the home nearby.
I made a return visit to the area this past weekend to wander a bit more and take in some of the homes. The main purpose of my trip was to pop by the corner of 11th Ave. and 19th St., to visit the Clinton Shrine. While I was mildly curious when we visited during our walk, my interest in a second visit piqued after reading several articles online. Started by a resident Dan Stevenson in 2009, he and his wife bought a Buddha at Ace Hardware and epoxied it to a rock on the median in an effort to curb horrid levels of dumping that had become a systemic problem in the area. What started as a hardware store gamble has turned into a lovely and well maintained shrine complete with music & incense that reduced crime in the area by 82%! A second shrine has been erected at the corner of 12th and 20th as well. Amazing…links to great articles about this below.
There is a mix of eclectic and historic in the homes here. As all areas of Oakland are being touched by a dichotomy of growth and gentrification, you can sense that this neighborhood is being tugged along for the ride. I saw historic homes being restored, and on another block a young couple constructing what looked to be their own “tiny house” on an empty lot. While a lot of barking guard dogs serenaded our walk, there was also a lot of genuine curiosity from all members of this diverse community.
If you have 1.795 million to spend, the historic Ellen Kenna House is up for sale. Pictured below, this 8,000+ square foot mansion was built in 1888 after Ellen Kenna used her own money, $14,000 in gold coins to be exact, to purchase the property. She then spent an additional $16,000 to build the grand home; a huge amount of money at the time (*sigh*). Ellen Kenna lived there until her death in 1925, and it went on to become an asylum for infants and young girls with syphilis. It was later divided into 23 apartments until 1980, when it then was converted back to single family use. The most recent owners have gone above & beyond to restore it to its former glory.
As our 2+ hour walk came to an end, we trotted in the cold along International Blvd. back to our starting point at Clinton Park. One of the final conversations we had as a group was standing on a corner of International talking about the Brooklyn Basin Project that is slated to transform Oakland’s shoreline into an urban neighborhood destination of sorts. While growth and change is inevitable, just as the town of Brooklyn felt in 1872, I hope that a balance of old and new, history and modernity, can be achieved for all members of our community. As is known to many Oaklanders, Gertrude Stein made a well-known, and often misunderstood, statement about Oakland during a visit back to the area in 1933, after she had been absent for 30+ years. As she reflected about how much her city and home had changed, she said “there is no there, there”. What was once familiar was now something different, something she didn’t recognize. All I will say is food for thought…and another blog post :o)
There is a tremendous amount of history about the area that I did not cover. Gene Anderson has great links on his blog page about the walk here. There is also a post from last years walk that has additional information.
The local wiki page about Brooklyn also has a wealth of information and links on historic homes, buildings, businesses etc…
In my reading I came across an article about a bit of controversy surrounding the current owners of the Ellen Kenna House, which is now of course being sold. I thought I would share purely to offer more “food for thought”. I came across this piece that was written by a neighbor and published by OaklandLocal in the midst of the brouhaha called 20 Ways To Not Be A Gentrifier in Oakland which I found interesting.
Historic Image of Oakland/Brooklyn Map: UC Berkeley Library via Local Wiki
Historic Image of The Tubbs Hotel: Oakland History Room via Local Wiki
Historic Ad of Tubbs Hotel: Local Wiki
Historic Images of Ellen Kenna and her home: Local Wiki
All other photos by Adrienne Schell