June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
Saving Hundred-Year-Old Buildings
The idea of urban renewal has traditionally been predicated on the superficially reasonable assumption that the best way to handle crumbling blight is to pluck it out—raze it, tear it down, get rid of it—and build something better: shopping malls and office complexes, say, or apartments and town houses, civic centers and sports arenas.
Yet the careless enthusiasm that has gotten things torn down and built up over the past twenty years or so has inflicted some rather important casualties. Entire neighborhoods have disappeared, neighborhoods that once housed generations of people in that jostling familiarity that gives the city scene its redemptive quality of community. With the neighborhoods went their people; most of them poor or on the thin edge of poverty, they were shuttled off and scattered to whatever housing government might provide or their spindly incomes obtain. And then there were the structures themselves; they spoke of a time when buildings were designed to house people, not institutions, and in their wholesale destruction much was lost of grace, beauty, intricacy, and that sense of continuity that for want of any better term we call history.
So it has gone throughout much of urban America. But not everywhere. Not, for example, in the fifty-six square blocks of the Oak Center district of Oakland, a northern California city situated on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay. Oak Center was one of the oldest sections of the city. Many of its buildings dated from the Gold Rush period, scores from the i88o’s and 1890’s, and others from the period immediately following the earthquake and fire of 1906. Once a highly respectable middle-class area, during the years following World War n Oak Center gradually declined, as most such areas did, into an increasingly ignored and all but abandoned urban ghetto, one apparently destined for the bulldozer’s blade.
But it remained a neighborhood. When an adjoining area of fifty square blocks was completely razed for redevelopment in 1963, the citizens of Oak Center organized the Oak Center Neighborhood Association, went to the officials of the Oakland Redevelopment Agency (ORA), and made one thing perfectly clear: they wanted to keep their community. Not only keep it, but restoreas much of it as they could, give it back some of the history the pressures of the twentieth century had taken from it. In a gesture that defied tradition, the ORA agreed. Thenceforth, rehabilitation and restoration took precedence over simple destruction; no building was demolished if structurally sound; no resident was uprooted who insisted on remaining; and local rights and wishes were given priority. Outright grants of up to $3,500 were made available, as well as twenty-year, 3-per-cent rehabilitation loans of up to $17,400 per living unit. Those who did not wish to restore their homes sold them to the ORA, which refurbished them and sold them to low-income families at down payments as small as $200 and with mortgages running from twenty to forty years.
The pressures of recession recently brought the Oak Center experiment to an end, but not before more than 350 out of the 465 salvageable buildings in the district had been completely restored. Its citizens hope to obtain funding in the future to complete the remaining work. One would like to think they can, for in Oak Center the concept of urban renewal has acquired perhaps a more precise meaning: the renewal and preservation not only of some fine old buildings—as the photographs taken by Chad Slattery on these and the following two pages illustrate—but of one of the oldest and best of American urban traditions—the neighborhood.