The construction of a massive postal distribution facility, along with a freeway and elevated train, ushered in a new era for West Oakland in the 1960s. With its parking and storage lots, the postal facility took up 12 square blocks and contributed to increased pollution in an area already plagued with health problems. When it was built on 7th Street from Wood to Peralta, it displaced every structure on the street’s south side.
By the 1960s, West Oakland – like much of the Bay Area – was in serious financial decline. A dramatic postwar reduction in jobs resulted in a soaring poverty rate. In Oakland, a quarter of the population earned an annual salary of less that $4,000. For a decade starting in the late 1950s, city and county governments rolled out three key projects that – though they were supposed to improve the situation – further devastated the struggling community. These projects included the construction of: the Cypress Freeway; above ground BART trains; and a Postal Distribution Facility in the heart of the 7th Street business district. Despite the fact that private lands were reclaimed for these projects that resulted in hundreds of families losing their homes, the Postmaster General insisted that his agency was doing the neighborhood a favor.
The three projects went hand-in-hand with new ideas about urban renewal and a desire to remove “urban blight” from the city landscape. A thriving African-American community, once known as “The Harlem of the West,” was similarly wiped out in San Francisco’s Fillmore District. Under the banner of modernization and social improvement, homes owned by people who were not wealthy enough to pay for their upkeep were viewed as blighted and marked for removal to make way for new housing, transportation and other municipal plans. Throughout the decade, hundreds of people were displaced with less than fair market repayment for their properties. Many property owners were engaged in litigation for years in an attempt to receive just compensation.
The project was announced in 1958 but wasn’t completed until 1969. The area remained a construction zone spewing dust and noise for more than three years, erasing hopes that 7th Street could be restored to its former glory. A surplus Sherman tank was used to plow down Victorian homes to make way for the postal facility. Though officials promised that the postal distribution facility would provide 2,700 jobs, employees transfered from other offices received all but 200 of the jobs. There was no relocation plan for many displaced residents, although several community groups emerged at the time to try to negotiate a better deal for the newly disenfranchised.
The events of the 1960s were instrumental in politicizing many West Oakland residents, and several community agencies that formed to protect their interests still exist today. Contemporary plans for “re-development” are often met with suspicion by long-time residents who cannot forget what happened to their community. Despite plans that aim to reassure residents and include them in the process, many neighbors are reluctant to forget the past, in part because it continues to inform the present.
A 2003 West Oakland Environmental Indicators Study by the Pacific Institute estimated that about 2,942 daily truck trips through the neighborhood were from truck-related businesses in West Oakland. Of that number, more than 900 trips were from the postal distribution facility. According to the study, there are six times more diesel particulates emitted per person, and over 90 times more diesel particulates per square mile per year in West Oakland than in the State of California. Seventh Street neighbors continue to struggle to find a way to reflect the area’s rich heritage and preserve historic buildings while embracing an uncertain future bordered by BART tracks, highways, and the postal facility.