OAKLAND TRIBUNE: November 27, 2010
“Oakland America’s healthiest city” — this is one headline you probably never expected to see, but in the decades between the Civil War and the Great 1906 earthquake this is how Oakland was advertised.
“Open space, good weather, and, later, commercially run parks all made the East Bay a desirable location for outdoor sports and recreation,” notes Deane Lamont in his new book, “America’s ‘Healthiest’ City: A History of Early Oakland, California.”
Lamont is a professor of kinesiology at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, and his scholarly interests include the history of sport in America and his native England. But he’s also an expert on unhealthy urban environments, where the poor can feel trapped in their own homes. He tells his students the story about living with his wife near Oakland’s East 14th Street in the early 1990s.
“I would go out for a run,” he recalls, “and in the 18 months or two years or whatever it was we lived there, I saw one other runner. It was an African-American woman — she was probably in her mid-40s — she was running along, and it was dark. She was carrying a baseball bat. And she wasn’t running to her softball or baseball game. It was for self-defense.”
This story illustrates, Lamont says, just how much Oakland has changed. In the mid-19th century, this area was known as a pastoral paradise, especially for San Franciscans who traveled by ferry to escape the unhealthy conditions in their own urban environment.
“San Francisco’s better-off seem to have made the act of getting away to Oakland into something of a fashion,” he notes in his book. Lamont cites an article from the Oakland Transcript newspaper in 1868 that states “The prevalent mania among us at the present — and by the way a very healthy one — is a desire to get outside the city limits, breathe pure air and walk on grass.”
Oakland had an abundance of both. The climate was warm but not too warm,” says Lamont, and there was a lot of open space along the waterfront. Farther east, the thick expanse of old redwoods was legendary, and “the bounty for hunters was well known,” says Lamont. Hunters set up camps and spent whole winters in Oakland.
In addition, the temperate climate yielded an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables. Lamont quotes a letter from a visitor in the mid-1800s, who was writing to relatives. “There is not a day since I have been in Oakland that I have not seen every vegetable that I know anything about. Cabbages, tomatoes, Irish and sweet potatoes, green peas, snap-beans and radishes “…”
Meanwhile, spas were springing up in Oakland, to promote the city as a center of wellness. One of the biggest was the Piedmont Springs Company, which bought 60 acres of land in the hills in 1876. Soon after, they discovered natural sulfur springs on the site and a two-story hotel was built. “That was a big thing in the 19th century,” says Lamont, “not just on the West Coast, but residents of cities like New York and Boston, if they could afford it, would take day trips — or longer — out of the city.”
Piedmont Springs, it seems, was also at the forefront of the nation’s Slow Food Movement. “The healthful, rustic atmosphere,” Lamont quotes from an article about the property, “was enhanced by the hotel’s kitchen’s use of fresh fruit and vegetables from nearby gardens and orchards.” He says the grounds also featured elaborate stables, which made it “the resort of choice” for Bay Area equestrians.
The hotel burned down in 1892, and by this time, things were changing rapidly in Oakland. The redwoods were all but gone, and Oakland was then a bustling city and the terminus for the Transcontinental Railroad.
Fast forward to today and Oakland is one of the West Coast’s major cities. But its reputation and appearance are markedly different from what they were a century ago.
“Most of the city’s outdoor pleasure parks have disappeared,” says Lamont, “and Oakland is now known for its urban pathology rather than any rural charm.”
It’s food for thought as we move cautiously into the second decade of a new century.