Stepping into the Past: A Walking Tour of West Oakland Circa 1940
paired up with
for a West Oakland walking tour of his childhood stomping grounds on Saturday.
We started at Tina Tamale Ramos’ La Borinquena on 7th street between Jefferson and Clay. The Restaurant and Mex-icatessen was founded in 1944 by Ramos’ grandparents, Adriano Valesquez and Rosa Lopez. Llamas tells the crowd about an old man in a cart selling cheese and Ramos adds that the old may was a Marquez brother:”You know those muti-million dollar Marquez brothers? He sold cheese out of his car.”
The Barrio, consisted of rows of Victorian houses filled with extended families of varied ethnicities. Llamas mentioned the Italians, the Portuguese, the Mexicans, the Puerto Ricans, the Jews, and the Chinese, all of which had many boys around his and his brother’s age. These boys populated Jefferson Park and other nearby ball fields, rode the trains by hopping on for free, did odd jobs at the local establishments owned by neighboring families, and went to school at St. Mary’s Church.
We meandered over to Jefferson Park, Llamas ordering us to imagine all of the Victorian style houses that filled the blocks in the 40’s, some of which remained in stark contrast to the lots filled with work vans and 18-wheelers, or overgrown weeds underneath the highway. Llamas reminisced about the bikes he and his friends would buy from the thrift store that were not Schwinns, since those “were like a Cadillac” and the street cars they would hop to go out to berkeley, East Oakland and San Pablo. At the time, ten thousand people a day were commuting to San Pablo to work in the shipyard. There were big steel mills over there as well, including Bethelham and Kaiser, canneries and the Army base.
What is missing from Jefferson Park today is the big cement building that housed a community center. The Oakland Police Department would come to Jefferson Park, pick up all the kids who played on hardball teams, throw them in the back of the Paddy Wagons, and take them to baseball parks throughout Oakland.
WEST OAKLAND CLAIMS TO FAME
Frank Robinson, was a boy on Father Duggan’s team. He lived in the tenements on Washington, built in the 1900’s for single men who came to work on the railroads. Robinson, picked up by an East Coast team, later became the first black manager of a baseball team, The SF Giants. Oakland also saw quite a few famous people come through in the 1930’s and 40’s with their rhythm and blues bars hosting people like Ray Charles and Tina Turner.
FAMILY BUSINESSES in WEST OAKLAND
Llamas’ father owned La Ideal Music Store as well as the neighborhood barbershop. Through the music store, Llamas met famous musicians such as Pedro Infante, who his family would have to dinner whenever he was in town.
Another neighborhood staple was The Rio Grande, a Cafe on 7th at MLK (Grove), owned by Monsignor Tony Valdivia’s parents, who is now Father Tony, a childhood friend of Lllams. (Present at the tour on Saturday.) La Enchilada shop, founded by Dominguita Velasco, an activist, who is still alive today at 114 years of age, was also on 7th St, along with Durham Farms Creamery, where they would go to get hamburgers and shakes, while watching the Hell’s Angels do doughnuts outside of the Portuguese family’s gas station and body shop on 7th and Castro, since the son specialized in fixing Harley’s, the preferred ride of the infamous motorcycle gang. With the different ethinic food establishments so close by, Llamas invented a multicultural combination of a Mexican tortilla and some salami from Clarizio, which he dubbed a “salami taco.”
On the corner of 7th and MLK is still St. Mary’s Church, though it was closed down in the early 2000’s. This was the site of Llama’s schooling, under the leadership of Pastor Charles Phillips and Father Duggan. Phillips was an agriculturist, and an activist, supporting the movements of Portuguese Dairy Farmers. Father Duggan, seeing that boxing was big in Oakland when Llamas was growing up and wanting to keep the kids off the streets, dug out a basement in one of the school buildings to make into a community center. Duggan had a regulation size ring set up and funded by the Oakland Police. The center also had a gym to work out in, cards, board games and a pool table, as Llamas informed us was the staple in all hang outs in West Oakland. Every ethnic group had a bar and pool hall and all the children knew how to play pool and cards by eight or nine years old. Gambling was also big in Oakland.
Down on Jefferson at the corner of 9th is Oakland Flower Shop which was opened in the 40’s and is still operating today. The 10th St Market, which started as the 6th St Market, was where Llamas got his first job as a “lumper.” He was responsible for getting the “lugs” and “sacs” of produce to the cars of the customers, as these were the denominations in which they were sold. Swan’s Market, was sort of department store precursor that carried groceries and cheap work clothes, as well as the home of Llama’s first Orange Julius.
The South Pacific Train Station became home to Mi Rancho in the 1930’s, the first Mexican grocery store in Oakland. Owner, Consuelo Cobain was a local broadcaster on KLX in addition to being the shop owner. Also in this area, was ex-policeman Robert Lewis’ contribution to West Oakland, The Burlesque Theatre, Moulin Rouge. Don Luis owned the first Mexican bar in Oakland, Mexicali Rose. This area was also home to the Mexican owned Star Theatre, and the Pachucos, a local Mexican Gang. 528 7th St was the location of Llamas’ uncle’s jewelry store that was then taken up by the Black Panthers as a meeting spot.
Ruben Llamas’ book Eye from the Edge: A Memoir of West Oakland, California can be purchased in local bookstores such as Spectator Books and Laurel Books and Oakland Heritage Alliance’s upcoming Fall building tours and lectures will keep you versed in local history.
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