Introducing Deep Oakland 3: Downtown

Deep Oakland starts in chapter 1 with the tectonic Earth forces, embodied in the Hayward fault, that have constructed our city’s landscape; chapter 2 adds to it the cosmic cycle of ice ages that have played out their changes on Lake Merritt, Oakland’s unique water feature. Chapter 3 adds a third thread to the braid that runs through the rest of the book — the imperatives of city-builders and how they react to the local geology, both the opportunities presented and the limitations imposed. Here’s where we get into Oakland’s human history.

Oakland was founded by a trio of scoundrels: well-connected lawyers, led by Horace Carpentier, who grasped the potential of this site and set out to build a prosperous city on its open stage:

This wooded plain by the Bay, they could tell, had the bones of a proper city. And there was something special about it, something beautiful. Though they could see the country differed from the rest of the East Bay, they couldn’t tell how natural forces had made it that way.

They saw that unlike the shores elsewhere in the East Bay, which were either forbidding rocky slopes or soft marsh, here was a platform with the makings of a good harbor. Ships could reach it, with care, through a sheltered inlet and drop anchor by the sandy bluff along its southern edge, a setting made for wharves and piers. Unlike rough-and-tumble San Francisco across the Bay, it was land free of cold Pacific fog, unstable government and unruly culture, where streets could be laid and lots offered to homebuilders in an orderly way. Everywhere, mature trees provided ready-made shade for elegant estates. They saw land ripe for processing and sale.

The sandy platform bore an encinal — a forest of evergreen oaks — that had suffered neglect in the sixty years since the Spanish removed the Ohlones from their land.

The conspirators staked out large claims on this land, then wrested it from its owners by wearing them down in court. They hired a surveyor to lay out a perfectly rectangular grid of streets that happened to feature amenities we still enjoy today: views of significant mountain peaks in all four directions. Then they organized a government to exert power in their personal interest.

The oaks were mostly gone within thirty years, cut down for firewood and charcoal. (This was not our first timber rush: the redwood rush had started a decade earlier.) Carpentier couldn’t save them, though he tried, calling the oaks “the chief ornament and attraction of this city” in his first mayoral address and even naming the new town after them.

He had in mind a genteel suburban town of tracts like Pardee House, the last bit of Carpentier’s vision left within Oakland’s original street grid.

There were other resources in the sandy platform, geological ones. First was the virgin soil, which was fantastically fertile. Second, wells could tap good water everywhere, no more than sixty feet down. Soon both of these were exhausted, the soil by overuse and the water by overpumping and pollution. But for a while, excellent estates were possible, graced by the instant elegance of mature oaks.

And then the city moved on, dismantling the estate lots for development and exploiting water and soil elsewhere in its neighborhood. I revisit these resources in later chapters. But the sandy platform still had more to offer.

I mentioned last week that the fine sand of downtown Oakland is related to the great field of sand dunes that covers San Francisco beneath its urban cover. The dunes came into being during the latest ice age as the ocean dropped by some 400 feet, exposing the sandy seafloor all the way past the Farallons. Ice age gales, more intense than today’s sea winds, brought the finest sand back ashore and built up a blanket some sixty feet thick. Our outpost, which extends beneath West Oakland too, is mapped as the Merritt Sand.

This ancient windblown sand, mixed with a little ancient windblown clay, is about as good a foundation material as there is short of bedrock, and easy to work with. Look for it in any excavation.

It’s beautiful material, dense and firm, the color of caramel, without a single pebble in it.

We’re lucky to have this good foundation material, because bedrock is out of reach in the East Bay flats, buried by hundreds of meters of sediment. Downtown Oakland has grown upon this base into a new encinal of concrete, stone, tile and steel, with a new generation of towers clad in glass that suit this young century in the ways they play with mass and light.

I spend a good part of this chapter celebrating the use of stone in downtown’s buildings, and I point out some favorites that long-time readers may recognize.

You can appreciate this terrain today in several ways. All the streets heading south from West Grand Avenue (more precisely, 20th Street) climb up the edge of the Merritt Sand. The big West Oakland parks — Raimondi, De Fremery, Lowell — all display its impressive flatness and wide views. Snow Park sits on its edge. The bluffs along Lake Merritt show its topography; given that Andrew Lawson of UC Berkeley named it “from its occurrence on Lake Merritt, in the city of Oakland,” this is its type locality.

I sum up: “Most cities owe their germination to an accident of geology; Oakland happened to sprout on a field of sand dunes, its youngest landform. Deep time goes much farther back in Oakland’s other places. Keeping the preliminaries I’ve laid out in mind — the forces of the fault, the cycles of the sea and the impulses of city-builders — let’s pay them a visit.”

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