Twenty Years After the Quake, a Neighborhood Reborn

West Oakland, once sundered by a freeway, now sprouts lofts and businesses


After the Second World War, freeways stood for progress. But twenty years ago, the Loma Prieta earthquake shook up our views of what cities should look like.

For Bay Area residents like Louise King, local freeways were part of the fabric of family life. When she was 7 years old, King sat daily on a West Oakland corner near her house and waited for her father to come home.

"I used to sit right over there and wait for his lunch pail," said King, now in her sixties. "I heard the horn go off 3 o'clock and just sit there."

King's father was a construction worker on the Cypress Viaduct, part of the Nimitz Freeway. The 1.6 mile freeway cut through West Oakland, giving drivers a direct route into San Francisco.

"When I was 7 my father helped build this thing," she said, gesturing to the road where the Cypress once stood.

The Cypress Viaduct opened in 1957, at a time when the building of urban freeways was considered progress.

The car was king and double-decker freeways popped-up across the Bay Area to quickly carry people to their destinations. But even though the Cypress was designed to ease neighborhood traffic, it ended up severing West Oakland in two.

"It cut right through the center of a community and divided that community into the poor half and the poorer half," said Jim Chappell, an urban-development expert.

King remembers the easy trip from Oakland to the Bay Bridge. "It was convenient but it was really drab -- really drab," she said. "It was kind of a division from this end to that end of town."

In the images of the devastation from the '89 quake, the pancaked roadways of the Cypress Viaduct are among the most chilling.

Forty-two people died when the seismically-compromised freeway buckled and collapsed in the saturated ground. Drivers were crushed between the massive slabs of tumbling freeway. Residents of West Oakland turned out with ladders to try and free the living.

"People came to their aid," remembered King."They stopped everything they was doing and they really helped out. That was really something for the Bay Area to suffer through."

The ruins of the freeway left a wide band of destruction through the West Oakland. In its place stood a mountain-sized debate as the people of West Oakland considered the future of their neighborhood. Caltrans initially wanted to rebuild the freeway where it had stood.

But neighborhood activists saw a chance to reunite the fragmented neighborhood. The state relented and the freeway was rerouted through the industrial areas at the Port of Oakland. The new freeway opened in 1997 at a cost of $1.25 billion.

Where the Cypress had crumbled, a new boulevard took shape. The new Mandela parkway took its name from South African leader Nelson Mandela. A landscaped median with trees and park benches stands in the place of concrete and steel. Lofts, new businesses and artist spaces straddle the parkway where King's father once toiled.

"This is beautiful, she said walking along the sidewalk."What they've put in its place is really a tribute to the people who lost their lives."

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