Imagining a Past Future

On any given workday in downtown Oakland, thousands of commuters enter and exit the 12th Street City Center station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, rushing past a large bronze bust of John B. Williams. The statue, like many memorials, fails to meet its mission: to remind Oakland’s residents who John B. Williams was and what role he played in the city that named its downtown plaza and part of its intercity highway for him. The charismatic director of the Oakland Redevelopment Agency from 1964 to 1976, Williams was once called the most “powerful and effective Black man in city government.” Lionel Wilson, Oakland’s first Black mayor, has noted that before his own election in 1977, Williams had been considered a potential mayoral candidate. He is now difficult to locate in the public record and in the public imagination. But like the bust at City Center Plaza, his legacies hide in plain sight. Williams’s story is central to the history not only of this particular place but also of many communities upended by the urban renewal programs of the mid-20th century.

John B. Williams, the charismatic director of the Oakland Redevelopment Agency, was once called the most ‘powerful and effective Black man in city government.’

In 1949, the federal government passed the Housing Act, making funds for urban renewal projects available to many American city governments. Oakland undertook a program of aggressive redevelopment, redlining vulnerable working-class communities to make way for new infrastructure and industry. The city’s African-American community, which had tripled in population in the decades before and after World War II, was disproportionately affected.  Racialized housing restrictions confined the majority of this growing community to overcrowded West Oakland — just west of downtown — where the housing stock was increasingly becoming derelict.

A postwar housing crisis brought on by the influx of migrants and loss of wartime jobs resulted in deeply segregated residential neighborhoods across the East Bay.  Traditionally multi-ethnic communities (including Mexican, Asian, Portuguese, and Irish families) were transformed as white Oaklanders took advantage of federal loan and mortgage programs — subsidized by the Federal Housing Administration and the Veteran’s Administration — to purchase new homes in the suburbs. Meanwhile, due to discriminatory lending practices, racist zoning laws that restricted African Americans to neighborhoods west of Oakland’s Adeline Street, and low owner-occupancy rates, homes in and around downtown fell into disrepair. This devaluation of property — specifically in West Oakland — coupled with the decline of the city’s commercial district, created anxiety for local officials, who felt especially threatened by the commercial pull of San Francisco following the completion of the Bay Bridge in 1936. In 1959, a sweeping redevelopment plan for West Oakland was unanimously approved by the city council.

KTVU News footage featuring an interview with Oakland’s Mayor John Reading and Oakland Redevelopment Agency director John B. Williams, 1966. [Courtesy Bay Area TV Archive, San Francisco State University]

Phase I of Oakland’s program, The General Neighborhood Renewal Plan, or GNRP, called for “extensive renewal” in the Acorn neighborhood. The area had been home to an estimated 500 primarily low-income families (78 percent African American, 20 percent Mexican American, and 2 percent White) living in some 600 dwellings.  According to a report by the redevelopment agency, 80 percent of Acorn’s 4,300 residents were housed in substandard conditions. In 1962, despite protest from residents, the entire 34-acre neighborhood was bulldozed. Then, for more than five years, the site sat empty, overgrown with weeds. 7

Oakland undertook a program of aggressive redevelopment, and residents organized to oppose the razing of their community. Then Williams arrived.

“City Arjan Polhuijsistrators spoke as if renewal and redevelopment were synonymous,” writes Robert Self in American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland . “But local residents knew the difference between low-interest loans and bulldozers: the former meant restoration and community improvement, the latter symbolized what became widely known nationwide as ‘Negro Removal.’”  With Acorn being demolished just blocks away, residents of nearby Oak Center, which was slated for Phase II of the GNRP, organized to oppose the destruction of their community. A 50-block area north of Acorn, Oak Center had more middle-class homeowners than Acorn, and less degraded housing stock than the adjacent neighborhood.  It also had Lillian Q. Love, a long-time West Oaklander whose father had unsuccessfully fought his family’s displacement in the 1930s, during the construction of the Peralta Villa public housing complex. In 1963, Love co-founded the Oak Center Neighborhood Association, a homeowners’ organization that lobbied the city to fund housing rehabilitation rather than demolition and redevelopment; in 1966 she was named a commissioner of the Oakland Redevelopment Agency. Meanwhile the neighborhood association accused the first director of the Redevelopment Agency, Thomas Bell, of purposely misleading Oak Center residents regarding the agency’s plans, and Bell resigned under pressure from the federal Urban Renewal Administration. It was in these heated political circumstances, in the devastating aftermath of Acorn’s destruction, that John B. Williams arrived in Oakland.

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