A journey through local history is a tour of boom-and-bust economic cycles, with a perpetual housing crisis as constant as the North Star. In the last decade, rapid gentrification has affected Oakland’s trajectory and forever altered its character. One of the most visible outcomes of the region’s growing housing costs and economic disparities can be seen in homeless encampments throughout the city.
Local media outlets have documented the thousands of people living outside in makeshift shacks, vehicles, and tents across our city. In a relatively compressed time frame of less than five years, Oakland’s median home price skyrocketed to $744,000 while rents soared and our homeless population grew by 47 percent. This acute displacement compounded a longer trend of Oakland’s Black community being priced out of neighborhoods pivotal to historical African American movements since the Great Migration. The majority of Oakland’s current homeless population is Black. In 2017, a study by Alameda County found that 82% of the homeless population had been housed within the previous year, meaning that 8 out of 10 people living on the street had a traditional roof over their heads in the East Bay the year before.
Today, history repeats itself. The news images of people camped under Oakland freeway overpasses are not unlike the famous silver gelatin photographs by Dorothea Lange featuring displaced Dust Bowl migrants and Japanese Americans incarcerated in camps during WWII. Oakland has long been a home to outdoor campers living in makeshift dwellings due to disasters, both natural and manmade. Homelessness is a complex, intractable social challenge, but most modern American narratives flatten and obscure the truth about houseless members of a community. Since the Great Recession of 2009, research found 44 percent of homeless people are employed. Moreover, the term houseless is more appropriate than homeless. Our neighbors living outdoors may not have a house, but Oakland is their home. One cannot be a lover of Oakland history without also being a lover of Oakland’s houseless community.
Land Acknowledgement and the First Displacement
Prior to colonization, the region known today as Oakland was home to thousands of Indigenous Chocenyo Ohlone who lived in a collection of villages that stretched from the bay shoreline to the hills. These communities were established and maintained in balance with nature. Villagers lived in tule houses thatched to a framework of tree branches. Each village participated in trading natural stock and supplies.
In 1769, Spanish colonizers and missionaries arrived and decimated the Indigenous population through disease and genocidal practices. One component that hastened their genocide was the region’s first modern urban planning law—the relocation of the Ohlone from their villages into newly-constructed Missions.
The Gold Rush of Real Estate
By 1852, American settler colonizers founded Oakland. The region’s economic prosperity boomed due to a confluence of land speculation and Gold Rush miners flocking to the area. San Francisco had become one of the fastest growing cities in the world, creating a housing crisis of epic proportions. But tens of thousands of homeless encampments were not commonplace in Oakland until the 1906 earthquake and related fire.
Where did all the people go when ‘Frisco burned?
They all went to Oakland and never returned
–Verse from 1963 “Oakland” song by the Goodtime Washboard 3
In the three days following the earthquake, more than 150,000 people fled to Oakland, doubling its population in 72 hours. The eyewitness accounts recorded from that period describe a humanitarian response on a scale the region has not experienced since. The following account by F.H. Pratt, secretary of the Alameda Building Trades Council, describes a compassion towards the incoming homeless refugees that by today’s standards seems hard to comprehend:
As each train arrived at the Broadway station or a creek route boat landed thousands of hungry and homeless people, they were met by committees who first directed them to places where they were given hot coffee and something to stay their hunger, and then took them to other places where they were given a shakedown and a place to sleep.
With further time other shelter camps were established and greater comfort assured. Hospital camps were established for the injured and they were given all the aid possible, and now, two weeks after the disaster, every one of the homeless has been cared for.
Pipe City in Oakland, 1933
Less than 30 years after the natural disaster of the 1906 earthquake created a housing crisis in Oakland, an economic disaster created another crisis. The Great Depression spawned “Hoovervilles” all over the United States. Named after Herbert Hoover, U.S. president during the onset of the Depression, Hoovervilles were shanty towns populated by poverty-stricken masses. During this era, Oakland had a unique settlement of 200 men who repurposed surplus sewer pipes as their homes. Known as Pipe City or Miseryville, destitute men created a community using the American Concrete and Steel Pipe Company property. The Oakland Museum of California has a replica of one such pipe and the online exhibit Picture This: California Perspectives on American History states, “To qualify for a pipe, a man had to be jobless, homeless, hungry, and scruffy, but not helpless.”
Pipe City was located at the foot of 19th Avenue and stretched along the estuary shoreline to 23rd Avenue. Founded by “Mayor” Dutch Jansen, the short-lived shanty town existed from January to April of 1933. An article in the March 15 Oakland Tribune described Pipe City as “a curious and striking combination of extreme individualism and effective organization.” Jansen selected 18 captains to oversee an assigned residential area of about 10 pipes. Captains were responsible for keeping their assigned sections in order and residents well-behaved. The pipes were 8 feet long by 4 feet wide. Residents usually placed a mattress and blankets inside, then covered the pipe openings with found materials such as tarred paper for weatherproofing. The American Concrete and Steel Pipe Company allowed men to take shelter and even provided running water irrigation through the grounds for occupants’ nourishment and sanitation, as reported in the February 24 Dunsmuir News that year.
Pipe City received international media attention while individuals and charitable organizations offered to help. “But Jansen says they want jobs first, food second, and clothing third,” reported the Dunsmuir News. Such a stance reflects the era’s sentimentality with flattering depictions of these houseless men as hard-working and industrious. Reports in 1933 did not acknowledge that Pipe City was most likely located on or near an Ohlone shellmound, a sacred Indigenous burial and ceremonial ground. But one of the following excerpts from the Dunsmuir News mentions abalone shells for sale:
Not all of them live in pipes as some have built little shacks out of whatever material they may be able to find. One man has his “quarters” made of an old boat turned on its side, and then an addition built on out of scraps. The walls were papered with newspapers and he had some linoleum on the floor. He was scrubbing the day we were there, and it was as clean as could be. He had a cot in his place and it was made up nice and neat.
One man took a piece of flexible metal tubing and put an end through the top of a large can, filled the can with water, set it on his “stove” at the front of his “pipe.” When it got hot the steam filled the pipe and he had steam heat.
One man has a little store where he had ashtrays made out of abalone shells and different things of wire. They were all marked “Souvenir of Pipe City.” His cabin was an old shack and clean as could be.
Pipe City Today
Almost 100 years later, large encampments of houseless East Oaklanders exist very near the earlier location of Pipe City. Across town, at the shared borders of North and West Oakland—the most gentrified portions of our city—one can’t unsee the stark contrast of white gentrifiers living in newly rehabbed homes juxtaposed to the predominantly African American houseless communities clustered along traffic corridors near Mosswood Park. The majority of Oakland residents are renters, making them vulnerable to a predatory economic crisis, teetering on the edge of losing their housing. And houseless Oaklanders contribute to our economy, cultural fabric, and political history.
We are witnessing history in how this shapes local political movements such as Moms 4 Housing, which included community organizer and recently-elected Oakland Councilmember Carroll Fife. Garnering international media attention, the strategic act of civil disobedience of Moms 4 Housing highlighted the injustice of the region’s latest housing crisis. Working mothers and their children peacefully occupied a vacant house purchased by one of the largest real estate speculators in the country, Wedgewood Properties. The campaign for a more just and fair housing alternative was a success. Wedgewood agreed to sell the home to the Oakland Community Land Trust and provide the Trust with the first right of purchase for the 200 other properties Wedgewood owns in Oakland. Plus, new local and state laws have been enacted to protect tenants in the future. With slogans like “housing is a human right” and “the rent is too damn high,” Oakland’s houseless activists demonstrated that once again this city is home to pivotal flashpoints in American history.
An earlier version of this story was published by the Oakland Heritage Alliance, a nonprofit membership organization which advocates the protection, preservation, and revitalization of Oakland’s architectural, historic, cultural and natural resources through publications, education, and direct action. The article gives a background on the history of homeless encampments in Oakland, including displaced San Francisco residents following the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, to the Great Depression and “Pipe City,” which was located where current houseless members of society currently reside.