At my work, in West Oakland, Esther's Orbit Room is the running joke around the office. The management always says that they're going to take clients out to eat at what looks from the outside like the king of all dive bars.
It's hard to believe that 50 years ago, Esther's played host to Aretha Franklin, BB King, Al Green, and every other black superstar of the era. It's even harder to believe that 7th Street was once the liveliest part of Oakland. As one article puts it, "Esther's Orbit Room bar and restaurant is the only business left from the days when Seventh Street was a bustling, 24-hour, commercial hub crowded cheek by jowl with jazz and blues clubs, restaurants, stores and rooming houses that served a thriving blue-collar clientele of railroad, shipyard and military workers."
So what happened? This article from 2006 does a great job of breaking it down:
The slow decline of the area began in the late '50s, when the Cypress Structure part of the freeway was completed. It was built along what is currently Mandela Parkway, and it cut the section of West Oakland off from downtown.
Then in the mid-'60s, the West Oakland BART station was installed on Seventh Street. To save money, the line was built overhead -- unlike the underground lines in Berkeley and downtown Oakland -- right down the middle of Seventh. The noise created by the trains made it difficult for musical acts to play.
...But the biggest blow to the region came in 1960, when the Postal Service announced that it would demolish 12 city blocks full of residential Victorians to install a state-of-the-art postal distribution facility...The demolition occurred in 1960, but construction didn't begin until 1966 and wasn't completed until 1969. So for almost a decade, much of the neighborhood sat empty.Freeways, noisy BART lines, and a Post Office megacenter--three massive government projects in one place that completely decimated everything else in their path. Seventh Street is now pretty much a no-man's land.
If there's a ray of hope in this story, it's that such megaprojects were much more popular in the 50s and 60s than they are today. Agencies now have to contend with community organizations, environmental impact reports, and a half-century of damning evidence before they start tearing down houses and putting up monolithic structures.
Then again, maybe I'm being too optimistic. The article ends by noting plans for another "transit village" at the West Oakland BART station. We can only hope it's as successful as Fruitvale Village, the good-in-theory Transit Village I wrote about recently. The government destroys a thriving community, then spends another grip of money trying to put the pieces back together, badly. It's enough to turn a lefty progressive type into an anti-government conservative.