West Oakland's rebirth after 89 quake



"I [saw] the freeway collapse right in front of me," Robert Walker remembers. "It was an extraordinary scene."

West Oakland residents experienced Loma Prieta in a way more powerful way than most. The Cypress Freeway ran right through the middle of their neighborhood. The collapse of the structure jolted the community.

"The noise factor, the pollution, the eyesore and what we called 'The Berlin Wall' had been removed," Paul Cobb says.

Cobb was one of the West Oakland residents who immediately decided once the quake-damaged Cypress was torn down, it would stay down. There were numerous meetings with Caltrans which wanted to rebuild on the same spot.

"Just say no," Cobb told listeners at a hearing in 1990. "We all were hearing the voice of the community," he recalls.

Wilson Riles was a city councilman at the time. He made a dramatic pledge.

"We're willing to stand in front and lay down in front of those bulldozers to stop this thing from happening," he said.

Finally, Caltrans agreed to reroute the freeway. The transportation agency also worked with the City of Oakland and helped create the Cypress Mandela Training Center which still operates today. Its original mission was to prepare low-income residents for construction jobs on the replacement freeway.

Twenty years years later many are disappointed. They say that overall, too few local jobs were generated by the massive public works project that took nine years to complete.

Riles reiterates that disappointment, saying "Absolutely. There's a lot of bitterness about the job situation."

The rebirth of West Oakland following Loma Prieta is a work in progress. The most visible sign is what has replaced the freeway.

What will go down in history is not only that the Cypress Freeway collapsed, but the unprecedented show of citizen activism that transformed the tragedy into something positive for the neighborhood.

It took 16 years after the earthquake to get there, but now instead of the concrete barrier dividing neighbor from neighbor, there is a lovely 1.3-mile stretch of green known as Mandela Parkway.

Near the parkway is a quake memorial where a sculpture honors those living nearby who grabbed ladders from their homes to try to rescue the Cypress victims. Townhouses have replaced an old storage shed and the community has a lively hang out, a restaurant called the Brown Sugar Kitchen that opened in January.

"If I had opened in any other location, I would not have received the gratification that I have here. People come up to me on a regular basis and thank me for being here," says Tanya Holland of Brown Sugar Kitchen.

Finally, after all these years there is a co-op grocery store.

"We're so happy to be able to buy organic produce a block from our house. You couldn't buy a quart of milk here a couple of years ago," says one resident.

West Oakland has gentrified and property values increased. Shari Hughes has lived there all her life and she likes the change.

"Actually having the earthquake that had the changes to some of the buildings, it's nice around here now," she says.

Things are "nice." But, some are longing for more.

"We reminisce about how much could have been done and should have been done. Even though, it's much more beautiful and there's some improvements. It could have been more," says Riles.

Web exclusive content commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. Includes extended interviews with reporters who covered the quake, as well as city officials and first responders who lived through it all.

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