Oakland’s storied past doesn’t just reside in its ghosts. Every dwelling tells tales in the way it’s built, and yet despite the city’s some 150,000 occupied housing units, the building history of the cityscape typically remains behind the scenes.

If you have an interest in uncovering the mysteries of the place you call home, you can get some answers at the city’s Oakland Cultural Heritage Survey (OCHS). Located in the City of Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency, the archive holds countless records of the city’s buildings.

“Very occasionally, people come in with ghost stories,” says archivist Betty Marvin. Her blunt pragmatism belies her compact frame, which is draped with long, silver hair. “They look at the address directories, see who lived there, and say, ‘That must be the ghost,’ and they’re quite pleased with themselves.”

I came to the OCHS in search of ghosts, but not the haunting kind. Before he moved, a next door neighbor who grew up in the Glenview once told me about my late grandma’s house. “The husband played the piano,” he said, “and blasted the music through an amp rigged to his window.

Eager to learn more about this Park Boulevard Liberace and the house, I visited Marvin with only an address in hand.

When I walked into the OCHS enclave, Marvin unfurled the Sanborn maps on a huge wooden table. She helped me decipher the now re-named streets and color-coded blocks that said what buildings had walls of brick, or wood. With each new updated Sanborn, the bungalows proliferated amidst plots of land.

Marvin also busted out the city directories, newsletters and even walking tour notes about the neighborhood. In one dusty volume, I looked up the address and found that a couple named Mr. and Mrs. Chew lived there. They were both registered as republicans, with Mrs. Chew appearing in the directory as “housewife,” and Edward Chew an urban planner. Could this be my piano player?

Having read back issues of the Glenview News, I found that the mostly German and Irish residents didn’t always welcome their Asian neighbors. Still, it seemed that the Chews had a happy life there. The neighbor who told me about the pianist said he liked to pipe up when the Key System trolley rolled down the street, or when an unsuspecting pedestrian passed by. “They would often jump up in their tracks,” he said.

For more background information on Mr. and Mrs. Chew, Marvin has suggested I visit the California Genealogical Society and Library. This spot has more details on the personalities (or ghosts) who once lived in the Golden State.

Marvin recommends that people bring photos to the OCHS so she can copy them for the archive. Someday I’ll bring by pictures taken by the contractor builder who bought the house from the Chews before selling it to my grandma. Taken in the 1980s, the yellowed photographs portray the Oakland twist on the Arts and Crafts movement: Pueblo style mixed with California Bungalow design.

The builder also said that they Meyer lemon tree in the backyard belonged to the Chews. It still stands there, next to the redwood tree my grandma stole from a Santa Rosa construction site. But that’s another story.

TAKE ACTION:

1.    Read the manual: The Oakland Heritage Alliance (OHA) posts a useful brochure online about researching the history of your home.

2.    Before you visit the Oakland Cultural Heritage Survey, Marvin suggests that you bring any “pre-existing puzzle pieces” to share with the archive. She and co-archivist Gayle Lombardi will be happy to help.

3.    Check out the Oakland History Room (OHR), located in the main branch of the Oakland Public Library. As the OHA’s brochure suggests, the OHR has more developed records for buildings built before 1910. They also have file folders for the city’s neighborhoods, and if your block had a running newspaper, check the microfiche in the main library for street stories from back in the day. For more resources, see the OHA brochure.