When it opened in 1912, Oakland’s 16th Street Station was the end of the line for passengers traveling on the Transcontinental Railroad. On Saturday, BRIDGE Housing, the nonprofit affordable housing developer that owns the building, threw a party to celebrate the station’s 100th birthday. The station hasn’t been in use since the early 1990s, but it’s the centerpiece of a long-term plan by BRIDGE and the City of Oakland to bring housing, retail and community space to West Oakland’s Prescott neighborhood, using the station as a central hub.
“This year it’s the centennial,” said Frankie Whitman, a private consultant who has worked closely with BRIDGE on redevelopment plans for the station. “How can we just let that go by without some kind of public recognition?”
The 16th Street Station was once the terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad, connecting Oakland with the rest of the country by train. Starting in the 1920s, the station was the West Coast home of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African-American union in the country. Among the union’s members was C.L. Dellums, who became its president in 1966. Dellums was the uncle of former Oakland mayor and U.S. Congressman Ron Dellums.
“The African-American experience in Northern California is tied to this building,” said Nicka Smith, who was at Saturday’s event taking photographs for the California Genealogical Society and Library, and the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California. “That’s why I’m here.”
“It’s historic,” said Hodari Davis, national program coordinator of Youth Speaks, whose members performed spoken word poetry at the celebration. “It’s reflective of a time in Oakland when Oakland was a bit more connected to the rest of the world.”
The station was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and closed shortly after. By then, Amtrak had already decided to reroute its trains to stations in Jack London Square and Emeryville. For years, the station sat empty, vulnerable to graffiti, vandalism and the elements. “Pretty decrepit,” is how Whitman described the building’s physical state today, though the building is structurally sound, she added.
Since acquiring the building in 2002, BRIDGE has been working to restore the station as well as build housing in the area. According to the developer’s press releases, BRIDGE, along with the City of Oakland and private landowners, will develop 1,200 homes in the 29 acres around the station.
On Saturday, the normally desolate station was alive with camera and tripod-toting photographers eager for a shot of the Beaux Arts-style building’s interior, which is normally off-limits to the public. Colorful food trucks and information tents lined the perimeter of the station’s dusty parking lot, and just inside the main gate, volunteers with the East Bay Bike Coalition provided bike valet service.
Closer to the station, children played at a petting zoo. At a donation table, volunteers encouraged visitors to enter a raffle to raise funds to help cover the cost of the event. As guests milled about, DJ Big Tone pumped out funk and soul and a troupe of young performers—stilt-walking clowns and jugglers—paraded through the station, grinning and posing for photographers’ ready cameras.
The event was about celebrating the station’s centennial, but it was also a barometer for gauging community interest in the facility. “Will people come and use it?” Whitman asked.
While the main aim of the redevelopment plan is to turn the station into the focal point of the neighborhood, what that community hub might look like isn’t clear.
Whitman said BRIDGE has held community meetings to discuss the station’s future: There has been talk of everything from putting an urban garden in the front parking lot and a cooperative kitchen in the building, to establishing a school in the baggage wing and placing cafes and shops in the main hall.
There is also interest in using the space as a performance center, Whitman said, and even in its current state, couples request to hold their weddings inside. “There is not a space in the East Bay that is this big for events,” she said.
The building’s exterior and the baggage wing might be the first candidates for restoration, Whitman said, noting that the baggage wing is in particularly poor condition. In the last 20 years, homeless families have camped there, and the wing has survived small fires. “It’s in pretty bad shape,” she said. “We want to gut that, clean it up.”
But progress has been slow. The recession has made fundraising difficult, and the sums needed to redevelop the station are substantial. BRIDGE estimates the cost of restoration at more than $20 million. Whitman said $255,000 has been raised so far—$5,000 from a National Trust for Historic Preservation grant and a $250,000 grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment. The rest of the funding will need to come from federal grants, funds for historic preservation and private donors, Whitman said. When asked what the timeline is for restoration, she answered with a shake of her head.
The housing construction part of the plan has progressed more quickly. In 2009, BRIDGE opened Ironhorse Apartments, an affordable housing complex with 99 rental units, just a block from the 16th Street Station. Private developers have also been active in the area, building the Pacific Cannery Lofts and Zephyr Gate townhomes, with nearly 300 units between them.
On Saturday, posters about the station’s history were displayed in the main hall and an exhibit showcased photos and artifacts, including an Amtrak uniform jacket worn by dining car attendants and historical postcards featuring images of the station.
The event drew history buffs like Gordon Osmundson, a self-described “rail enthusiast” who knows the station’s history by heart. As a teenager in the late 1960’s, he would bike from his home in Kensington to the station, where he explored with his camera. “Even then, this place was pretty seedy,” he said. “It had this run down feel to it.”
That derelict atmosphere, exacerbated by years of neglect after the station’s closure, is part of what draws photographers from around the Bay Area to the site. An online community of photographers met at the centennial. Dan Rosa was one of dozens of visitors with a camera and tripod set up in the main hall.
“It’s an intriguing location for lots of people,” he said, explaining that the building is well known in local photography circles. Rosa seemed disappointed by the enthusiastic turnout—there were too many people in the space to capture a good image. Despite the crowds, he was glad for an opportunity to get inside, he said, because he has wanted to photograph the station for some time. “I’m glad they’ve opened it up,” he said. “I’ve thought about coming and breaking in.”
Over the years, many others have acted on that desire. Keeping out graffiti artists, photographers and curious passers-by has been a challenge for BRIDGE. The back of the station is painted over with graffiti. Marcus Johnson, a PR strategist by day, has become the station’s security manager. Johnson, who grew up in the Prescott neighborhood, was recruited by BRIDGE to help monitor the property in 2008. He has found a group of 50 people shooting a music video at the station, he said, and a photographer once broke through the ceiling to get a picture inside the station. Most trespassers aren’t teenagers as many assume, Johnson said, but photographers and people looking to use the space for an event.
Johnson has developed a network of people—from Oakland Police Department and California Highway Patrol officers to the local UPS guy—who help him spot break-ins at the building. “I’m trying to get everyone involved,” he said.
Still, graffiti appeared on the front of the 16th Street Station for the first time recently. Johnson has worked with law enforcement to prosecute trespassers. “I need to send a strong message that this needs to stop,” he said.
Despite the slow progress and setbacks, there are signs that the station is attracting attention again. In 2011, HBO rented the building for the filming of the TV movie Hemingway & Gellhorn. The network invested $200,000 to paint the main hall, add window treatments, and build a set of faux elevators and a dummy staircase.
After HBO left, the station was opened to the public last June for the first time in many years. This event, and another last November, attracted around 2,000 people to the station, according to a BRIDGE press release. Whitman said the decision to open the building last year was linked to HBO’s improvements and reflected a desire to share the space with the community. “It’s been shut off for 20 years,” she said. “There are people who’ve grown up in West Oakland who have never been able to get inside.”
Marcus Johnson is among those who want see the station become a focal point for the community again. “It was a playground for us as kids,” he said. “We walked the tracks. We knew if we followed the rails we’d end up back here.”