A Brief History of 7th Street

Seventh Street blossomed in the post-World-War-II era because of its proximity to Oakland’s waterfront, where workers had migrated from around the country to work in the naval shipyards during the war. Sailors and soldiers stationed at the military bases along the bay settled in West Oakland after the war, including a large number of African Americans from the South who brought with them the blues sounds from states like Louisiana and Texas. West Oakland also was the terminus of the transcontinental railroad and the West Coast headquarters of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first national black union.

While it was the influence of African Americans migrating from the South that defined the Seventh Street music scene, the population and culture of West Oakland were very diverse. Greeks, Italians, Chinese, Latinos and people from many other ethnic backgrounds lived, worked and owned shops and businesses on and around Seventh Street. By the mid 1960s this remarkable part of Oakland’s heritage was all but destroyed, the victim of a number of different urban redevelopment schemes. In the 1950s the Cypress Freeway was built, an elevated highway that sliced across Seventh Street and effectively isolated it from the city’s downtown. In the 1960s the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) rail and subway system was constructed, an elevated structure that created a huge eyesore – and deafening noise from passing trains. Also in the 1960s, a stretch of several blocks along one side of Seventh Street was leveled to make way for a mammoth 12-square-block U.S. Postal Service distribution facility. A surplus World War II Sherman tank was used to demolish the old Victorian homes along side streets and make way for the postal facility. Today, a walk down Seventh Street reveals almost no hint of the vitality of the area and the once thriving jazz and blues club scene. The street is marked by boarded up buildings and empty lots and plagued by drug dealing and crime. The Cypress Freeway structure, which collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, was torn down and the freeway re-routed around Seventh Street, as as result of community organizing. Only a scattering of businesses now exist along Seventh Street. The only remaining music club from the 1950s is Esther’s Orbit Room.