In the 1960s, the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, also known as BART, was instrumental in the decline of West Oakland’s struggling 7th Street neighborhood.
Early that decade, BART proposed building a track down the center of 7th Street to service shoppers and commuters traveling to downtown San Francisco. Many in the neighborhood believed that BART’s District Board was heavily weighted in favor of San Francisco’s business interests. Some speculated that Oakland was simply a thoroughfare for people from wealthier parts of the Bay Area who shopped or worked in San Francisco, with poor minority neighbors bearing the brunt of the impact promised by a significant BART undertaking.
The BART proposal came just a few years after the completion of the Cypress Freeway, a massive structure that effectively cut West Oakland off from downtown and more affluent areas of the city.
The decision to place above ground BART tracks on 7th Street required leveling the homes of long-time residents of West Oakland. It also put the clubs and businesses that remained in the area at risk. Noise from the trains was notoriously loud, and promised to change the style and comfort of the neighborhood. The plan met with neighborhood resistance, especially after BART offered below-market-value compensation to homeowners whose houses would be razed for the coming trains.
BART tried to sell their plan to West Oakland residents by highlighting the projected 8,000 jobs BART claimed would infuse West Oakland’s economy with employment opportunities. But as soon as BART broke ground, it became apparent that jobs were not going to locals as promised.
In 1964, local activists formed JOBART in an attempt to ensure fair compensation and economic justice for the neighborhood. Three key JOBART demands were: market value compensation for homes removed for BART construction; a relocation plan to assist displaced homeowners and renters in the neighborhood, (especially the elderly and the poor); and a commitment by BART to non-discriminatory hiring practices. JOBART was supported in its efforts by churches and other local organizations, including the NAACP.
JOBART organizers held meetings and staged protests to pressure BART into action. On June 5, 1966, Flatlands, a newspaper created to report BART and JOBART activities to the neighborhood, detailed a protest that began with 1,000 people and grew to 2,000 before the day was over.
Subsequent protests, and meetings between JOBART and BART officials seemed to end with some positive resolutions for West Oakland. JOBART was able to force a temporary moratorium on evictions in 1966. In 1967, BART announced an affirmative action plan that answered some of JOBART’s demands. But by year’s end, black workers made up just 20% of the construction workforce, mainly as unskilled laborers. They made up less than 2% of apprentices.
The 1960s and the BART crisis were pivotal to the future of West Oakland. While BART tragically heralded West Oakland’s decline, it also united the neighborhood in community activism. By 1967 West Oaklanders had formed the West Oakland Planning Council (WOPC), a delegate assembly of more than 150 organizations. The fighting spirit sparked in the 1960s can still be seen in long-time residents who survived the BART years and remained to raise their families near 7th Street.
“Why didn’t they run the train through Piedmont since they are the ones who will benefit the most from the train? They have never in the history of this country tried to make things comfortable for the poor and the Negroes. But the poor and the Negroes suffer the most and bear all the burdens in order to build the system.”
– From an editorial by Elijah Turner in Flatlands, June 1966