Former Gas Station at Union & 14th, Photo by CB Smith-Dahl
Anyone who walks, bikes, or drives through West Oakland has seen them: brown patches of abandoned properties. They are part of the definition of urban blight and there is a reason they sit, decade after decade, neglected and unchanging.
(This story is part of Oakland Local's original series on polluted properties in West Oakland: "Toxic Tour 2: Right Beneath Our Feet." Read all stories in this series, and donate now to help us continue this coverage.)
The federal government defines them this way: "Brownfields are real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. Cleaning up and reinvesting in these properties protects the environment, reduces blight, and takes development pressures off green spaces and working lands.
So how did it get this way? Since its earliest development, West Oakland was a transportation hub popular for commercial and industrial development. The first population boom came when West Oakland became the last stop on the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the next after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and another during World War II. In those days, most people preferred to walk to work and wanted to live close to factories and docks.
According to a 1977 newspaper article in The Montclarian, unlike other parts of the city, West Oakland wasn't actually zoned until the 1935. So West Oakland wound up a "mixed use" community, with a patchwork of commercial and industrial spaces overlapping residences and schools.
Mark Gomez, Supervisor of Environmental Protection and Compliance for the city of Oakland affirms, "In West Oakland, there’s a situation where residential neighborhoods and industrial practices have been intertwined very closely for many many years. And as a result, there’s contamination both at sites where there were past industrial or commercial practices. There’s a lot of other properties throughout West Oakland that have much lower levels of contamination, but they're are still at levels that require some form of cleanup, either before redevelopment or renovation occurs, or simply in order to make the neighborhood safer."
Then, as now, many of the businesses that kept the local economy going were small businesses. When people talk about pollution in West Oakland, they often talk about the Naval Shipyard or the Port of Oakland. However, in the decades before environmental standards were set, small businesses also left their chemical footprint. Many businesses had either above-ground or below-ground gasoline and oil tanks that they used for the company vehicles and engines. Dry cleaning companies also had to store large containers of chlorinated solvents on site. According to Envirostor, a database maintained by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, multiple leaking underground fuel tanks (or LUFTS) are undergoing cleanup throughout the West Oakland area.
In the 1970s, at the same time as federal environmental laws began to take hold, West Oakland was also experiencing the loss of manufacturing jobs and industry. Much of the neighborhood was shifting to a salvage economy -- with residents complaining that multiple local junkyards were simply dumping waste into backyards, streets, and gutters. Former resident Phillip Brown recalls summer work stripping cars at his brother's shop. "In High School, everyone was jealous of my job."
Properties went from asset to liability nearly overnight, because companies could suddenly be sued for what they had left in the ground -- even if they had sold the properties to other owners. Waste cleanup is expensive, and even if an owner made the investment, there was little market for West Oakland properties. Zoning was revised in the late 70s, and again just last year to help move new industry and pollution away from where residents play and go to school. Past toxins remain, however. In some cases, just the fear that a site may have contamination is enough to create blight.
James Jones lives next to an abandoned gas station on the corner of Union and 14th. "It's racism," he says when talking about the pollution next door. Although a monitoring system was installed on the property a few months ago, no one has come to tell him what it's checking for and he's frustrated. "West Oakland is a mostly Black neighborhood. No one cares about what happens to us."
Complicating the situation is a desire to develop high-income housing in the area. With expansive views of the Bay and an easy commute to San Francisco, Rick Holliday has already built several condominium complexes and plans to build more. One local scrap metal recycler who asked that his name be withheld complained about a developer who purchased property right next to his facility then got it rezoned for residential/commercial mix. "I don't want to be a polluter," he lamented, "But then this makes it impossible."
The original Bay Area Toxic Tour series was published in 2009 by Newsdesk.org
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