Venice by the Bay

Oakland has some venetian gondolas on Lake Merritt, but if you want to find a place in the Bay Area that feels (at least a bit) like Venice, you’ll do better heading across the estuary to Alameda’s lagoons, as I did one day late last week.

Alameda lagoon

Unfortunately, unlike the canals of Venice, Italy (or the canals of Venice, California, for that matter), you won’t have much luck taking a long romantic stroll alongside these lagoons, because there are only a few spots where the public can reach the water’s edge. Most land on the shoreline is private property.

Alameda Lagoon

Also unlike the canals of the Venetian archipelago, these lagoons are neither ancient nor natural. In the mid 1950’s Alamedans, showing all the city planning wisdom of that era, voted to allow a developer to add 350 acres of landfill to the tidal flats south of Alameda’s town center, where a new neighborhood and a shopping center would be built (the Alameda Sun’s website has a dramatic but blurry aerial photograph from 1958 showing the new landfill). Stately Victorians on Alameda’s “Gold Coast,” which had previously been on bayfront property, now presided over these small lagoons instead, with views of other homes instead of ships and sailboats out on the bay.

Alameda lagoon

One legacy of this sudden expansion of the island is that you still notice a stark difference in design as soon as you cross over the lagoons to the newer “South Shore” neighborhood. Whereas the older parts of Alameda have narrower 19th-century streets and pedestrian-friendly shopping districts, the more recent development 50 yards away is the epitome of late-50’s planning, with wider roads, numerous cul-de-sacs, drab ranch houses and a sprawling shopping mall.

The older neighborhoods of Alameda are full of graceful streets and homes like these:

Alameda homes

Not all the houses are so grand, but even the small cottages in the Gold Coast are often beautifully designed:

Alameda home

Contrast those pictures with this streetscape on the opposite side of the lagoon (I assume these homes have front doors, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you where to find them — you might as well just enter through the garages instead):

Alameda homes

I’m obviously not the first person to notice that houses from that era haven’t kept their appeal the way Victorians have (it’s humbling to realize that when these homes were built, it was Victorians that were considered dumpy and undesirable), but it’s not often that you see them in such proximity without being intermingled. If you stand in the cul-de-sacs on the landfill side of the lagoons and look at the ranch houses, you can often see prettier houses looming over them from the other side of the water — that’s how close these neighborhoods are.

Alameda homes

This history is inscribed not only in the architecture and the street plans, but also in the embankments themselves. While the new homes have yards near the level of the water, the formerly bayside properties on the northern side of the lagoons have high, sturdy seawalls, built to withstand strong tides and erosive waves being blown across the bay.

Alameda lagoon

Needless to say, the residents of the Gold Coast fought the landfill development mightily, but in the post-WWII era, when Alameda’s Naval Air Station was no longer a busy deployment site for the Pacific theater, Alameda’s population was declining and voters approved the landfill in order to boost the city’s prospects. Astonishingly, property owners along the erstwhile coastline were not compensated for their loss in any way, although some early plans had called for landfill all the way to their seawalls, as well as construction of a six lane highway through Alameda to a new transbay bridge, so the formation of the lagoons was considered a partial victory by opponents of the development.

Alameda lagoon

Alameda Magazine published a long article in late 2007 about the fight over the development, which provides more history than I have here. There are now much stricter regulations protecting the shores of San Francisco Bay, and needless to say, a proposal like the South Shore development would be a nonstarter today, but reading about these episodes from recent history always makes me wonder which of today’s practices will look unthinkable 50 years hence (and conversely, which of today’s unthinkable practices will seem like no big deal in half a century).

16 Responses to “Venice by the Bay”

  1. Carol says:

    Channeling Jane Jacobs! Go to it!

  2. eric says:

    Very interesting!

  3. jabel says:

    I can’t recall ever seeing this neighborhood when I was living nearby.The older area is quite beautiful.

  4. wordnerd says:

    Could you post a map of the area, or directions to it?

  5. dc says:

    Here’s a map with the lagoons shown near the southern shore of Alameda:

    Just above the “880” sign at the right side of the map, you can see a tiny “ba” logo. That’s the Fruitvale Bart Station, now infamous worldwide. And you should ignore most of the neighborhood names on this map, because for the most part they don’t reflect what people actually call those places.

    The Naval Air Station that occupies the grey area at the entire western end of the island is also built almost entirely on landfill, and I’ve read that Alameda is more than 2.5 times larger than it was 150 years ago. Some other Alameda history trivia: the transcontinental railroad’s first terminus was in Alameda, but it got switched to West Oakland few months later. And at the time, Alameda wasn’t an island at all, but rather a peninsula. The narrow channel crossed by the three bridges on the right side of the map wasn’t dredged until the beginning of the 20th century. Stories for another day.

    Here are two aerial views of Alameda, one from 1939 and one from the present time. If you look at the bottom edge of the images, you can tell that landfill was also added to Bay Farm Island. It’s part of the City of Alameda, but is on the same peninsula as Oakland airport. Unlike the rest of Alameda, it used to be an island, but was connected to the mainland with landfill. Another story for another day.

  6. jabel says:

    Wow all those trips I took to the NAS back in the 80’s through the 90’s I was right around the corner and never knew it.

  7. dc says:

    The lagoons are easy to miss. As I mentioned, they’re mostly surrounded by private property, so even if you are in the neighborhood, you only get occasional glimpses of them unless you know where to look. I had to poke around quite a bit in order to take some of the photos in this post.

    I worked on the decommissioned NAS for about 3 years, and I used to shop at the TJ’s at the South Shore mall (recently renamed, absurdly, “Alameda Towne Centre” [sic]) a block from the lagoons, but I didn’t know anything about them until recently.

  8. wordnerd says:

    Those aerial photos are terrific. Now–can you find some of Boston before Back Bay was filled in?

  9. dc says:

    The resolution of their cameras wasn’t so great back then.

  10. ruth gutmann says:

    I enjoyed your pictures. The houses seem to have very little space between them, and that’s probably why the lagoons are not easily seen. The water must be very still and clear, judging by the reflections of the houses. The old houses sure look good–at least from the outside. Any gondolas on those lagoons?

  11. dc says:

    Ruth: no gondolas; just some paddle boats and canoes.

  12. ruth gutmann says:

    I’ve revisted your lagoon pictures precisely because they have stayed in my mind. What makes water so attractive to us? (I have some guesses.)

    Before looking for a college, Hannie actually said that it had to be near a river! The Charles should have filled the bill..

    We may be looking for water more than for oil in the future. On a cheerier note: I loved Amsterdam when I saw the Grachts (canals) in 1939.

    Your current emphases on urbanism and environment in the larger sense are well chosen and are a relief, at least to me, from our daily preoccupations: how long before we recover from what ails this country?

  13. dc says:

    Ruth: I have some guesses about why water is so attractive to us too, and they are probably similar to your guesses. (Once we start seeing any human traits as evolutionary adaptations, it’s hard not to start seeing all human traits as evolutionary adaptations.)

    I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the sprawling suburban developments out in the desert in Southern California and Arizona, but when they build them, they often put an artificial lake in the middle, and then give the development a name like “Lago Vista Hacienda” or something ridiculous like that. In order to fool people into thinking that moving to a suburban development hundreds of miles away from any water was a reasonable thing to do, they had to build fake water sources next to the properties in order to fulfill people’s visceral water-yearnings. (Many of those new “luxury” developments will probably be slums or ghost towns within the next couple of years; some of them practically are already.)

    I’m preoccupied with the same things you are, but I don’t feel as if I have anything new to say about those matters, so I’m trying to stick to things I can see with my own eyes or have some first-hand knowledge of, like journalism. Write what you know, as they say…

  14. eric says:

    I’d be curious to hear if you see things you see with your own eyes that reflect the country’s current ailments. I feel strangely insulated, myself. Maybe a FEW more empty storefronts, but nothing, yet, that looks like the full-on depression we seem to be descending into. (And articles like today’s front-page one about the guy whose friend gave him a janitor’s job as a way to get maintain seamless health coverage don’t seem particularly convincing, either.) What’s it like beyond the PRC, out there in the real world?

  15. dc says:

    eric: not much with my own eyes, except my anecdotal sense that there are many more empty storefronts around, and a few people I know have either lost work or seen colleagues laid off (the LA Times newsroom staff has famously gone from 1200 to fewer than 600 just in this decade, and further layoffs/buyouts are in the works). Interestingly, the houses I see for sale around my neighborhood seem to stay on the market for less time than they did a year ago. This could just mean that more sellers are low-balling their asking prices or are accepting low-ball offers (or choosing not to try to sell their homes at all), but I’ve been surprised that I haven’t seen as many unsold or foreclosed homes in my neighborhood as I did last year.

    It’s hard for me to know what the depths of a deep depression would actually look like. More closed businesses, for sure, and more foreclosed homes, and fewer new cars on the street, but what else? More homeless around? More day laborers standing on street corners hoping to get picked for a few hours of manual labor? I assume so, but there are already a fair number of both around Oakland, and it would take a really dramatic increase in order for me to tell the difference.

    My neck of the woods is probably not an ideal case study either; the PRB is a lot like the PRC, and Oakland has always had more than its share of visible poverty and blight, so increases in poverty and blight are hard to spot. I assume the changes are most dramatically visible in the recently-built exurbs.

  16. eric says:

    The depths of a deep depression would (will?) look quite different, I think. How, I don’t know, either. Fewer cars, period? More potholes? More beggars? More construction of grand public places? Shabbier chic? More crime? Bars on windows? We’ll see…

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