Debacle on 34th St.

This is the view to the north as you pass down 34th Street in Oakland between Telegraph and MLK, which I finally got around to photographing today:


If you look at aerial photos of Oakland from the 40’s or 50’s, before these freeways and BART tracks were built, then you will find that the land shown here used to be blanketed with small houses. These days many of the surrounding blocks, especially on the western side, are even more depressed—and depressing—than average in Oakland: vacant lots and vacant buildings outnumber inhabited lots on some blocks of MLK, and with a few exceptions, the only extant businesses to be found nearby are liquor stores. It’s no wonder that one neighborhood abutting this thicket of freeway overpasses is known as Ghost Town. (The Telegraph side of the freeway is somewhat healthier, but thanks to these barriers which divide Oakland into pieces and attract blight to the gaps in between, improvements in one neighborhood often have trouble spreading organically into other neighborhoods which sit less than a hundred yards away.)

Interlocking Interchange

As consolation, perhaps, for the razing of hundreds of homes, the empty land under these interchanges was leased by CalTrans to the City of Oakland for use as city parks. And what lovely parks they are!

Grove Shafter Park

When I pass by trash-strewn Oakland parks-cum-homeless shelters like these, then I am reminded yet again of how smart it is for Oakland to ban our dogs from city parks. God forbid that any gamboling dogs should damage the beautiful lawn or disturb any of the families picnicking here, right? (Incidentally, I hope CalTrans has checked the structural integrity of that first column. I know they have their hands full with the Bay Bridge falling apart, but I wouldn’t want to be atop that cracked concrete during an earthquake.)

I was reminded by a column in the Contra Costa Times today that construction of a fourth tunnel for Highway 24 under the Oakland Hills is scheduled to start next year. The BART Board of Directors also gave final approval to the redundant, ugly, expensive and slow Oakland Airport Connector last week, so construction on that will start next year too. Both construction projects are scheduled to last through 2013, so for three years, Oakland will be bracketed by two large public works projects, one at our northern tip and one at our southern tip, both of which are intended to serve the needs of suburban commuters and travelers. Meanwhile the city spread between the two projects will continue to suffer, as parks go unmaintained, bus service is reduced, library hours are shortened, and so on. The story is always the same: cater to suburbanites and drivers, screw the urban poor, and justify it by citing job creation. Job creation is used as a trump card in a city with a 17% unemployment rate, but you can also create jobs paving city streets or increasing bus service or building infill BART stations instead of expanding highways and building elevated cable cars to the airport.

I’ve wondered in some of my earlier posts whether our new New Deal would leave a legacy of enlightened infrastructure like enhanced bike paths and more extensive mass transit infrastructure. How naive those musings seem now: it should have been obvious that CalTrans and BART and the other relevant authorities would use much of their American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds ($197.7 million in the case of the Highway 24 tunnel, $70 million in the case of BART’s airport connector) to fund long-planned projects that will either encourage car commuting (the fourth tunnel for Hwy 24) or duplicate an existing airport shuttle at the expense of local bus and rail service while creating additional overhead eyesores over the streets of Oakland (the airport connector).

Oh What a Tangled Web We Weave

As it happens, both Highway 24 and the BART tracks leading from suburban Contra Costa County toward the Oakland airport are shown in the photos above. While those freeway drivers or BART riders speed from Walnut Creek to the airport under the 34th Street crossing, bypassing Oakland almost entirely, people will continue to be shot to death on that blighted stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and few people will feel any need to take notice.

17 Responses to “Debacle on 34th St.”

  1. Steve says:

    Amazing post.

  2. Naomi Schiff says:

    Interesting to see that photo. I took a photo from that same spot (in black and white!) in about 1974, when it was new, and there were not yet the somewhat erratic earthquake patch-ups which have affected the symmetry. I will look for it and try to send it to you, if you like. It dates from a much more freeway-enthused era! I enjoyed reading your excellent ruminations on these strange freeway-created noman’s-land areas. It is strange how invisible stuff like this is, until you stand in the right place.

  3. dc says:

    That’s very true—when you go up Telegraph, for instance, you notice that you pass under a few unpleasant overpasses, but unless you look around a bit, the extent of the overhead network is fairly hidden. I don’t know if that’s good or bad—as horrific and damaging as I think these freeways are, the soaring interchanges do have a certain beauty, unlike the lower overpasses, which are generally just dark and ugly.

    If you have a digital version of that photo handy, I’d be interested in seeing it (my email is in the upper left corner of the blog), but don’t go to any trouble. I was hoping for a bluer sky yesterday, and given the semi-overcast skies, I wonder if black and white would have been more effective in the photos above.

  4. ng says:

    These last two comments underline one of the main problems — the ugliness isn’t so apparent unless you’re down in it. That lets the world pretty much pass it by, and leaves the residents to suffer.

  5. unique distance from isolation says:

    Repelatron skyways… I was particularly struck by your apt remarks about the ARRA and the WPA. This stuff is so infuriating! And very sad.

  6. ab says:

    Supposedly, a section of grove-shafter park, the park in your post, just north of 580 is going to have a dog area. It’s always full of people with dogs anyway. And, since the park rangers got a major budget cut it’s pretty easy to bring your dog the park and avoid a ticket. And, since the park rangers got a major budget cut you’ll also need the dog to fend off the crackheads.

  7. dc says:

    As a followup to what I said about funding choices, I just read this:

    “According to the most recent report to Congress, 16,419 direct job-months were created by every $1 billion in transit aid. Roads lagged behind with 8,781 job-months created per $1 billion in stimulus aid.”

    So even if you ignore all the other reasons that funding mass transit is better than funding highways, transit funding is almost twice as good in terms of job creation too. Details from Streetsblogger (and former Talking Points Memoirist—or should that be Memorizer?) Elana Schor are here.

  8. unique distance from isolation says:

    I was just reading another blog post, and I thought of this one. Here’s the post I was reading:

    Gabriel says: “It looks a lot better when they tear down the highways–and that is a horrible park!”

  9. ng says:

    That post above (from u.d.f.i.) should be encouraging in that some people in the Bay Area see that it’s good to get rid of those awful freeways.

  10. KenO says:

    Hey DC! Lovely photos and blog. Glad I found it.

    I’d love to see Hwy 24 and all of Oakland’s aerial freeways removed entirely.

    This would… better connect the city. Remove pollution of all kinds. RAISE PROPERTY VALUES. Improve views. Free up land for living.

    Jack London to downtown.
    Temescal/RR to West Oakland.
    Montclair to Lake Merritt.
    Mills College to the flatlands.

    Keep up the good blgging!

  11. dc says:

    KenO: Thanks! I’d love to see these monstrosities get torn down, but unfortunately, it seems politically unfeasible for the next few decades—unless the collapse of petroculture occurs faster than I expect, but even if that happens, then we’ll be too poor to raze them and replace them with parks or urban farms or whatever. They’ll probably end up slowly crumbling instead, too damaged to use as roads (highways require a TON of maintenance to remain safe for drivers, as the sinkhole in I-880 during the recent rains reminded us), but too expensive to tear down and replace. Maybe nature will take its course and weeds will grow through the asphalt, and we’ll end up with elevated parks on which to exercise our dogs…

  12. Daniel Levy says:

    Yeah. Let’s start a campaign to get rid of the freeways! The city would be so much better. Maybe the new A’s ballpark could go where there is currently freeway. It does seem politically crazy, but we could start off small and get bigger. 580, 980 and 24 are the biggest intruders and since they really connect places to SF, would be the hardest to get rid of. highway 13 is small and might be easier to get rid of since it is less important. then we could move to 980, 580 and then 24. 880 goes through mostly industrial areas and has some horrible overpasses downtown, which would need to go. once the freeways are gone, we could re-sew up the neighborhoods and streets that were destroyed by it.

    plan for closing highway 13.
    do a “study” by merely blocking off the freeway at first (temporary, a trial period)
    then, make it permanent and rezone the land, make plans for streets etc, and invite real estate developers in.
    once a developer decides to develop a plot, make necessary infrastructure improvements for the development; we could also offer developers the plots at low cost, and have them demolish sections of the freeway so taxpayers would not have to pay for it.


    “if you don’t want traffic, don’t have roads.”

  13. dc says:

    My first thought is that highway 13 sits right on top of the hayward fault, so I’m not sure it’s suitable for replacing with homes. Another problem with starting small with highway 13 is that I’m not sure the benefits would be as clear. Since it goes through mostly suburban parts of Oakland, it has fewer negative effects, so it might be hard to use as an example of how razing freeways can help surrounding neighborhoods.

    Speaking of faults, and overcoming political resistance, the most likely scenario for demolishing any of the freeways might be if they get damaged in a major earthquake (that’s how residents managed to move the freeway that bisected West Oakland and that’s how SF managed to get rid of the Embarcadero and Central freeways).

    I think there are just too many people who are too used to having 580, 880, and 24 available, and the political will to demolish any of them won’t be there for generations unless we suffer some enormous societal collapse (in which case the freeways will be the least of our problems). After seeing the furor that happened over the summer when parking hours were extended to 8 pm, and the way the city council almost immediately rolled them back to 6, it would take an epochal shift in mindset for anyone in power in Oakland to endorse (never mind propose) demolishing any of the freeways. On top of the resistance from most people in Oakland, you would have enormous resistance from people stretching all the way to the central valley, where entire towns have been built up on the premise that Interstate 580 would provide door-to-door service to downtown San Francisco.

  14. len raphael says:

    We’ll be more lilkely to see some of the dams built with Federal money demolished before some of these freeways come down.

  15. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    I very much enjoyed reading this post.

    I think you pretty much have to have 24, at least the bits from Berkeley to Walnut Creek, otherwise how would anyone get to the east side of the hill? It’s asking a bit much to say all traffic should take BART. Knocking down the rest of it from Berkeley to 580 would be fine by me, though.

    Shutting down 13 doesn’t make a lot of sense, either, because it’s really -=in=- the Hayward Fault and therefore well below grade. Replacing it with a street wouldn’t make any sense because it would be grade separated and have no intersections. What you’d wind up with is just … CA-13 all over again. Perhaps the one thing you could do with 13 would be to knock it back to one narrow little lane in each direction and let nature reclaim the difference.

    I sure hope that crack depicted in your photo is just some kind of fa├žade covering the real support structure!

  16. Mark says:

    Back in the mid 1970s a couple of high school classmates and I made a film called “Where Do The Children Play?” (basically a visual accompaniment to the Cat Stevens song). The film included a shot of my little sister playing in the Grove-Shafter park. She was all alone. We used a semi-long shot to emphasize the scale of the freeway flying over the park. It made my sister look tiny. At that time the park was new so it was not as run down as it is today.

  17. Lauren Quinn says:

    Gorgeous photos of some not-so-gorgeous places, excellent discussion of some tough issues.

    Just found your blog, and I’m loving it. Thanks for this.

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