Community wins housing, saves historic station

OAKLAND, Calif. — A sense of high drama filled the City Council chamber May 3 as former Congressman Ronald V. Dellums called on council members to put the needs of West Oakland’s working-class community first in their deliberations on the area’s largest-ever housing development.

Plans for the Wood Street Project of nearly 1,600 homes and apartments also feature preservation of the historic old Beaux-Arts train station at 16th and Wood streets as a museum of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, founded in 1925 by A. Phillip Randolph and others.

Packing the council chamber and its balconies, and spilling over into halls and a nearby hearing room, were West Oakland residents and businesspeople, supporters of the Train Station Coalition and backers of the development firm. While most welcomed the project, their views conflicted on several key aspects.

The 16th Street station, said Dellums, who grew up nearby, “embraces the history of Oakland, our community. This was my ‘hood.’” He told how “in the midst of racism and hostility,” his father and his uncle C.L. Dellums joined Randolph in founding the first trade union organized and led by African Americans. The union’s headquarters was at 7th and Wood streets, and the old station was the porters’ worksite.

The station’s history “is about the integrity of the whole community,” Dellums said, pointing out that land in the area was wrested from the earlier Mexican population, while Asian Americans laid track and ethnic European and other immigrants settled in the area. During World War II the community was a major entry point for African Americans coming to work in war-related industries.

Dellums spoke in support of the Train Station Coalition’s demands for accountable development, affordable housing, prevailing wages, environmentally sound practices and preservation of the entire train station. “In a world of red states, blue states,” Dellums said, “let us be visionaries and leaders, let us show that in Oakland we can move beyond those labels.”

More than 100 speakers followed, debating issues such as gentrification, air quality and jobs for community residents.

Many area residents expressed deep anger over builders’ earlier broken promises of development that would benefit the community. At issue, too, was the current developer’s proposal to tear down part of the historic station building.

Train Station Coalition member Leo Handy observed, “All cultures, all races came through that station. The station belongs to West Oakland, and to all of Oakland.

“Don’t sell that heritage to the developers,” he said. “Stop the gentrification and the removal of low income residents and people of color.”

Amaha Kassa, co-director of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, said, “Community and union jobs are not in conflict. If we accept that premise, we give up on good paying jobs for the community.”

The heads of the Alameda County Building Trades Council and Central Labor Council spoke in support of the Train Station Coalition’s demands.

In the end, a compromise was announced, including increasing affordable housing, helping low-income families buy new homes, priority for local residents in skilled jobs, and job training and opportunities for unskilled residents. The entire station is to be preserved.

After further fine-tuning, the issue is to come before the Council again at its meeting May 17.