Paramount Theatre circa 1932
Gabriel Moulin Stuidos, Habs Photo
With walkable historic downtowns and beautifully preserved buildings, the East Bay provides a perfect starting point for exploring the region’s cultural legacy. Ethnic neighborhoods where cultural traditions are celebrated and preserved abound — Chinatown’s StreetFest and Fruitvale’s Dia De Los Muertos Festival are legendary. Examining these customs can provide insights into how the past connects with the present and why the East Bay is such a glorious melting pot.
There’s a term for this type of reflection: cultural heritage tourism. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the private nonprofit organization dedicated to saving historic places and revitalizing America’s communities, describes cultural heritage tourism as “traveling to experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present.”
Hearing the recollections of the area’s second-, third- and fourth-generation residents can help East Bay citizens better understand their shared heritage and diverse cultures. In the words of Beth Bagwell, a founder of the Oakland Heritage Alliance, a nonprofit organization that serves to connect the East Bay’s past to its present and future, “The Oakland of today is the result of what Oaklanders of yesterday built or demolished, fostered or neglected. This is our inheritance. What we do with it is our choice.”
As a young girl, Tina Ramos — widely known today as “Tina Tamale” — remembers playing in the grassy fields and recreation center at Jefferson Square Park across from her family’s restaurant, La Borinqueña Mex-icatessen and Specialty Shop on Seventh Street.
Today, the once-bustling park is empty, except for the occasional game of pick-up basketball or T-ball. In the 1970s, the recreation center was deemed seismically unsafe and closed.
Now Ramos has joined forces with the nonprofit group 10,000 Steps, a community-based creative stewardship project co-founded by Sue Mark and her husband, Bruce Douglas. They hope to preserve Oakland’s green spaces, including Jefferson Square Park, a onetime major congregation area for Latinos.
By collaborating with the Friends of Oakland Parks and Recreation, the city’s Public Works department and community organizations such as Old Oakland Neighbors, 10,000 Steps is working on a self-guided walking tour that connects four downtown parks — Jefferson, Lafayette, Lincoln and Madison Square parks. These historic squares formed the border of Oakland in the mid 1800s and hold special cultural significance. Madison, for instance, long a gathering place for the Asian community, is still filled each morning with people practicing tai chi and Qi Gong.
“Forty plus years ago, this was a vibrant area,” Ramos says of the historic neighborhood of restored Victorian commercial buildings that surrounds Jefferson Square Park and dates back to the 1870s. “Growing up and hearing stories from my mom and grandma about this neighborhood and park have made me long for a similar sense of community.”
One of the goals of 10,000 Steps is to reclaim that same sense of belonging. The founders are asking community ambassadors including Ramos to solicit stories and memories. Each park will feature a historical marker with information about the history of the park and the area. Sidewalk medallions will encourage residents on a self-guided walking tour from one park to the next. 10,000 Steps is also working to spruce up the parks with community clean-ups, picnics and other activities. After being neglected for years, Jefferson Square Park is being renovated. The old recreation center is being demolished to make way for two dog parks.
“I’m happy to see the park come to life again, as it once was the central gathering place for the area’s Latino families,” says Ramos, who now operates the restaurant whose history reaches back to 1944. Her sister, Isabel, also helps.
“I love to hear the stories my mom tells of Old Oakland during the Depression Era,” Ramos says. “She describes Sunday Latinos-only dances held at the historic Sweet’s Ballroom on Broadway and the ice man who delivered chunks of ice for the icebox since refrigerators were still too expensive for many families.”
“Back in the 1940s and 1950s, everyone in Old Oakland knew their neighbors and kept their doors open. The Oakland foothills were where the cows roamed and not much else was there,” says Ramos’ mother, Natividad Ramos, 77. “When the Interstate 880 freeway and BART were constructed, Old Oakland changed, and many Latino families moved to the Fruitvale district.”
In 2001, Tina Ramos moved to Old Oakland, where she works. “A lot of people thought I was crazy to move to Old Oakland,” she says. “Now when my friends see all of the unique shops, galleries and restaurants moving into this area, they realize it’s become a pretty cool area.”
Ramos hopes to see the area embrace the familiarity of years past, a time when neighbors were extended families. As a member of Old
Oakland Neighbors, a coalition of longtime residents, neighbors and business owners, she hopes to bring back the Old Oakland that exists in her mother’s memories.
“I’m starting to see a community here where people walk around downtown, shop at the
local farmers market and even enjoy dinner at a local restaurant in the company of their neighbors,” she says. “That’s really nice to see.”
Some of George Ong’s earliest memories of Oakland’s Chinatown revolve around the historic building at Seventh and Franklin once owned by his parents.
From his law offices on Franklin Street, Ong can gaze upon the iconic landmark, now Legendary Palace, with its decorative tile roof, red lanterns and green-and-red neon stripes gracing the building’s exterior.
“In the 1940s, the building was used to house Chinese immigrants,” Ong says. “Later, my parents operated it for many years as the Shangri-La restaurant and nightclub. Sammy Davis Jr. even performed there.”
Growing up, his Chinatown looked much different. The area covered four blocks between Eighth and Webster and quartered purveyors of Chinese medicine, grocery stores and barbershops.
“We only had one bank at the time, the Bank of America on Broadway, and approximately four or five Chinese restaurants,” Ong says. “Today we have more than 10 banks and over 50 restaurants.”
Oakland’s Chinatown now encompasses 16 square blocks, is a pan-Asian community and the fourth largest Asian-American shopping district in the United States.
A lifelong Oakland resident, Ong, now 74, lived with his family in a home at Seventh and Jackson and remembers a sheltered childhood. “The Chinese were restricted to areas where they could live and buy a home,” Ong says. “After the 1882 passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which ended further immigration, federal law allowed cities to dictate where Chinese people could live.”
Until the Act was repealed in 1943, people of Chinese ancestry were only allowed to purchase property below Ninth Street in Oakland, from Broadway to Lake Merritt. A child at the time, Ong never questioned why everyone in his world looked like him.
Once forced to live in Chinatown, Ong chose to return there to practice law. His wife, Jennie, serves as the executive director of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, and the couple raised three children near Lake Merritt.
Some original architecture remains, but many once-abandoned storefronts now contain new restaurants and shopping venues. An Asian Health Services building and a childcare and senior center are new, too, as is the Scramble System crosswalk. It debuted in 2002 at Eighth and Webster as an all-directional crossing system and now includes four intersections, all marked by colorful Ching dynasty–era patterns — a modern tribute to Chinatown’s cultural identity.
Yet despite this modernization, traces of the past linger.
“There are certain buildings where you can see glimpses of the underground tunnels that ran through Chinatown and housed secret gambling,” says Ong, mentioning the basement of his law firm contains a cashier’s office dating back to gambling days.
“I was about 12 when I first saw one of the area’s gambling dens,” Ong says. “Pool was very popular back then, and some friends and I heard that one of the gambling areas had a pool table that we could play on. The gambling dens are a side of Chinatown’s history most people haven’t seen.”
For longtime Oakland residents Andrew and Mary Mousalimas, the Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption holds many
“The first Greek Orthodox church was built in San Francisco in 1905, and my parents and other families had to take the ferry to attend services,” Mousalimas says. “Oakland didn’t have a Greek Orthodox church until 1921 when the Church of the Assumption was built with donations obtained from the East Bay’s early Greek immigrants.”
Andrew and Mary Mousalimas were married there, and their four children were baptized there. In 1955, at the age of 30, Andrew Mousalimas was named president of the church’s board of trustees, the youngest church member to hold that position.
The Church of the Assumption was used until the 1960s when the growing congregation moved to the Oakland Hills. In the mid 1970s, the Mousalimas family was disheartened to learn the Church of the Assumption was slated for demolition to make room for Interstate 980.
“I couldn’t just stand by and watch this beautiful church be bulldozed,” Mary Mousalimas says. “It wasn’t just a part of our family’s history, but also the city’s history and a legacy to all of the Greek immigrants who had established the Hellenic community of Oakland and its vicinity.”
With the support of state Sen. Nicholas C. Petris, Mary Mousalimas headed a committee of three, including her daughter Eugenia, to save it. The church escaped demolition, was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and was moved in 1979. (Call the Greek Cathedral at 510-531-3400 for tours.)
“People refer to the Church of the Assumption as the church that Mary saved,” says Andrew Mousalimas, 84, who has his own vivid memories of his former place of worship. “On Sunday, December 7, 1941, one day after my 17th birthday, I was in the choir loft of the old cathedral with my childhood friends, Perry and Alex Phillips, when we heard rumors that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.”
Soon after, Mousalimas remembers watching as all of the electric and neon signs on the Pacific Coast were shut down. “It was called a brownout, and only a few streetlights were allowed to burn in downtown Oakland at the time,” he says. “The downtown was absolutely beautiful, particularly the areas around Franklin, Broadway, Telegraph, San Pablo and Washington and Clay streets, where you could view the Paramount and Fox theaters and department stores such as the I. Magnin building.”
Almost two years after the Pearl Harbor attack, Mousalimas and the Phillips brothers were shipped overseas and drafted into World War II where they joined the Office of Strategic Services, the Central Intelligence Agency predecessor.
“We all served in the covert Greek/American United States Operational Group, a unit of commandos who fought in Greece during WWII and parachuted behind enemy lines into occupied Greece,” Mousalimas says. “We joined the Greek Guerrillas and disrupted the Nazi’s withdrawal from Greece.”
After the war, the Oakland native made his own mark on the city when he opened the Kings X Sports Bar on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland in 1968 and held the first Fantasy Football draft in the country there in 1969.
“By 1974, the X had over six divisions and 200 participants in Fantasy Football,” says Mousalimas, who sold the bar in 1991. “When some of my customers who frequented the X mentioned that their grandparents knew me, I decided it was time to sell.”
Elizabeth Gilmore remembers moving to East Oakland with her husband, Carter Gilmore, in 1951. Three years later, the civil rights movement began, and by the early 1960s, the movement exploded onto the national scene and in the Bay Area.
About that time, her husband began his years of service to civil rights and community issues, including as a member of the Alameda branch of the NAACP, and, later, the chapter’s Northern California president. That activism would pave Carter Gilmore’s way to Oakland City Hall.
Gilmore became the first African-American elected to the Oakland City Council, where he served from 1977 to 1990 and was vice mayor. As a councilman, he created the city’s anti-blight ordinance, helped organize the citizen police review board and encouraged business development.
Gilmore died in 2006, but his legacy lives on.
The Gilmores raised six children in Oakland. The oldest son, Carl, owns Gilmore Enterprises, an Oakland-based finance company; Clifford serves as the executive director of the Oakland Coalition of Congregations; Donald is the executive director of the Community Housing Development of North Richmond; daughter Carol works for Bed, Bath and Beyond; son Rodney is a lawyer and sports analyst for ESPN, and his wife, Marie, serves on the Alameda City Council; Janet, the youngest, works in media relations at UC Berkeley.
Clifford Gilmore remembers his childhood home off 62nd Avenue where he and his siblings played outside freely without worrying about violence.
“It was a good place to grow up,” he says of East Oakland. “We had a bowling alley at Seminary and Bancroft, a skating rink at 73rd and E. 14th Street and parks, including Arroyo Viejo Community Park on Krause Avenue.”
Their back-to-school shopping trips meant heading to Eastmont Mall, the mall built in 1970. “My dad was instrumental in helping to bring many businesses into the mall including Mervyns, JC Penney and Bank of America,” Clifford Gilmore says of the shopping center that declined in the 1990s, changed its name to Eastmont Town Center and now houses a health clinic, police station and other county offices.
The family’s proximity to today’s Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum and their love of sports made them diehard fans of the city’s baseball and football teams, and later basketball.
“My dad used to take us to Frank Youell Field to see the Raiders play football in the early 1960s,” Clifford Gilmore says. “The field was located on what is now Laney College and was a temporary home for the team before the coliseum was completed.”
Once the Raiders transitioned to their coliseum home, the Gilmores followed.
“They didn’t have the big nets in the coliseum that they have now,” Gilmore says. “We used to sit right behind the goalposts, and one year my dad caught a touchdown, which was a huge moment for all of us.”
In addition to being a sports fan, Carter Gilmore coached many of his sons’ sports teams and instilled a love of baseball in his children. Shortly before his death,Greenman Field at 66th Avenue and International Boulevard was renamed the Carter Gilmore Sports Complex.
“The park has a special significance to our family,” Clifford Gilmore says. “Not only did we spend time playing on the field, but it was also a place where we regularly held Sunday picnics with our aunts, uncles and cousins.”
In the end, Clifford Gilmore says, “We all try to live by my dad’s philosophy, which was, ‘What can I do to make this a better place than I found it?’ ”
Gretel Gates has called Alameda home for more than 50 years.
After arriving in 1952, she married Gunther Gates, the rabbi at Temple Israel, Alameda’s synagogue, originally at Alameda Avenue and Oak Street. She witnessed the evolution of the synagogue, built in 1920, to include a social hall and classrooms to serve a growing congregation. She watched her husband serve as rabbi for 34 years until his death in 1981. His legacy lives on with the Rabbi Gunther G. Gates Social Hall and an annual memorial concert; an olive tree with a stone plaque stands on the temple property as a tribute to Gretel Gates and her community service.
“Before this church was founded, Jewish families had to travel to Oakland to attend services,” says Gates, 86. “In 1977, it was a bittersweet time when we had to sell the synagogue to the Alameda school district and move to a new location on Mecartney Road.”
Over the decades, Gates has seen Alameda undergo many changes and remembers when Otis Avenue was the sea wall, before the landfill projects brought in new housing and a shopping center, today’s Towne Centre.
But while much has changed, Gates says much remains the same. The onetime busy housewife, mother and volunteer with the PTA, Girls Inc. and the Boy Scouts says
Alameda remains a great place for child rearing and cites Crown Memorial State Beach and Alamedans’ affinity for water sports and aquatics as proof. As an octogenarian, Gates continues to enjoy the water with regular aqua aerobics classes at Harbor Bay Club and credits them with keeping her youthful.
In her younger years, Gates enjoyed strolling Alameda. “When we first moved to Alameda, we lived in West Alameda and would take walks near the Maritime Officers School,” Gates says.
In 2004, the East Bay Regional Park District opened the Crab Cove Visitor Center in the building that once housed the former officers’ school, and it now serves as an important community resource that fosters better understanding of the environmental importance of San Francisco Bay.
Gates and her husband got to know many Alameda families through the years: her husband was a part-time teacher at Alameda High School, and she worked at The Factory Bookstore, an independent bookseller on Blanding Avenue in the 1970s.
“The bookstore was built in an old mattress factory and housed a restaurant and an art studio where people could take stained glass, ceramic and pottery classes,” Gates says. “It was a real gathering spot for the community.”
In the 1990s, military stations throughout the country were scaled back, and Alameda’s Naval Air Station closed. Two historic tributes to the city’s military past remain with the Alameda Naval Air Museum at Alameda Point and the USS Hornet, berthed at Pier 3 in Alameda since 1997.
Like many locals, Gates has toured and attended events on the historic ship that served in two wars and as the official recovery ship for the Apollo 11 and 12 moon missions. The ship was designated a historic landmark in 1991.
“My husband was asked to conduct services aboard the Hornet when it was an active military ship,” Gates says. “I think it provides our community with an important tribute to Alameda’s military legacy.”
The Oakland Tours Program holds free guided downtown walking tours with eight itineraries May–October. (510) 238-3234, www.oaklandnet.com/walkingtours.
The Oakland Heritage Alliance offers walking tours of historic landmarks for a nominal fee. (510) 763-9218, www.oaklandheritage.org.
Black Panther Tours provides a bus tour of Oakland sites significant to the Black Panther party, the civil rights movement and U.S. history. (707) 644-2730, www.blackpanthertours.com.
Oakland Museum of California docents lead free Oakland bike tours on the third Sunday of the month May–October. (510) 238-3514, www.museumca.org.
The USS Hornet holds tours and overnight stays. 707 W. Hornet Ave., Alameda, (510) 521-8448, www.uss-hornet.org.
The Alameda Parks and Recreation District sponsors free monthly walking tours of Alameda architectural sites and venues on the first three Saturdays of each month. (510) 747-7529, www.ci.alameda.ca.us/community/alameda_walks.html.
The Peralta Hacienda Historical Park has free events on the second Saturday of each month, including docent-led tours of the 1870 Antonio Peralta House and outdoor exhibits. 2465 34th Ave., Oakland, (510) 532-9142, www.peraltahacienda.org.
The Alameda Museum offers permanent displays of Alameda history, souvenirs, books and videos about the city’s history plus occasional guided walks and talks
about the historic architecture. 2324 Alameda Ave., (510) 521-1233, www.alamedamuseum.org.
The Alameda Architectural Preservation Society schedules informative programs about the Island’s history. (510) 986-9232, www.alameda-preservation.org.
The National Register of Historic Places, the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation, lists properties in Alameda and Oakland, www.nps.gov/nr/.
The National Historic Landmarks lists buildings and places designated by the Secretary of the Interior as being cultural resources worthy of preservation, www.nps.gov/nhl/.
The California Office of Historic Preservation has a list of historical landmarks in Oakland, Alameda and throughout Alameda County, www.ohp.parks.ca.gov/.
The Historic Sites Act of 1935 established this designation,which honors only treasures of obvious national importance. Oakland has five landmarks on this list.
The Joaquin Miller Abbey building, added Dec. 29, 1962.
The Lake Merritt Wild Duck Refuge, added May 23, 1968.
The Lightship Relief WAL-605, Ship, added Dec. 20, 1989
The Potomac Presidential Yacht, added Dec. 14, 1990.
The Paramount Theatre Building, added May 5, 1977.