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Alan Tobey: Present-day EmeryvilleEmeryville Unplugged | Emeryville is like the Bay Area’s middle child—searching for identity, overshadowed by its siblings to the North and South (and West), acting out for attention, adapting to change, finding its niche in the family. | By Mike Rosen-Molina

Many Oaklanders or Berkeleyans simply see this city as home to Pixar and Ikea, a nonstop square mile of shopping malls and restaurants, but few seem to know how it came to be this way. From a meat-packing district to a gambling hotspot, from a heavy industrial jungle to a biotech boomtown, Emeryville is a city that over the years has managed to continuously redefine itself to suit the times.

Relics of these old Emeryvilles are still on display throughout the city. Semifreddi’s bakery on Hollis resides in what used to be an old Nabisco warehouse, while animation giant Pixar stands on what used to be a Del Monte fruit-canning plant. Streets are lined with brick warehouses and cement plants, architecture in the brutal East German style that recalls Emeryville’s past as the Bay’s manufacturing center—but there are trees and parks here now, too. This tiny city of 9,000 on the very western rim of the East Bay has worked hard to make itself into something more.

Forty-five percent of the city is white, many of them old-timers, while 20 percent is black and 25 percent Asian, mostly younger folks, with a growing population of Indian and Pakistani families. The city sees both wealth and poverty—its median income is $40,000, but 13 percent of residents still live below the poverty line.

Emeryville’s skyscrapers are so jarring next to the rest of the East Bay’s typically ground-hugging architecture that they’ve given rise to urban legends that the city is locked into a Faustian bargain with the federal government, that it can receive earthquake restoration funds in perpetuity as long as it keeps building up, up, up—like a municipal Winchester Mystery House.

“There’s absolutely no truth to that one,” laughed City Councilwoman Nora Davis, speaking at her office in City Hall. “A lot of people are asking the same question: How did Emeryville do this? This is a city that’s had fairly stable political leadership with a long-term vision, but it’s also been lucky to attract some of the finest city staff around, and with our small size, you have to be responsive to fixing problems. In a town this small, there’s no place to hide. People here recognize you, they can catch you as you walk down the street.”

Part of the city’s resilience comes from its prime location, a hub between Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco that always attracts eager new entrepreneurs, but it’s also due to a concerted effort by hundreds of involved community members, business leaders, civic officials and city staff.

“Emeryville has a complicated history,” said Donald Hausler of the Emeryville Historical Society. “Going back to the 19th century, this is a town that’s almost completely redefined itself time and again.”


The city first started to fill out in the heady days of the California Gold Rush, when ranchers driving cattle south from Oregon and west from Denver found the perfect stopping place in Emeryville’s sprawling mudflats. The small town sandwiched between bustling cities on either side of the Bay was named for Joseph Emery, the gold prospector who originally owned most of the swampland, but by the turn of the century, Bay Area residents knew it better as “Butchertown”—famous for its slaughterhouses, butcher shops and the foul stench of cattle carcasses left to rot in the swamp.

Emeryville drew the dreamers, the swindlers and the regular folk who flocked here for one thing: gambling.

Few would recognize today’s Emeryville as the same town once dubbed “a modern-day Gomorrah” by the Oakland Observer in 1925. In the earliest years of the century, the tiny burg was a rough-and-tumble frontier town, with a reputation for corrupt city government, a dog race track (the first to use a mechanical rabbit to make greyhound racing around a circular track possible), brothels, saloons and shady gambling joints. Adding to its reputation for debauchery, the city was packed with speakeasies and bootlegger barns by the ’20s, but didn’t build its first church until the 1960s.

At the corner of San Pablo and Park avenues, the Oaks Card Room is the last of the card rooms that once made the city a Mecca for California gamblers. The Oaks has been a staple of life in the city since the beginning, opening its doors for the first time one year before Emeryville’s incorporation in 1896.

The Tibbetts family has run the Oaks for three generations, ever since Harry Tibbetts came to the city to manage a string of racehorses running at the city’s track and eventually fell into the card room business. Current owner John Tibbetts, Harry’s grandson, grew up with the Oaks.

“As a teenager, I worked outside, sweeping the sidewalk or parking cars,” he said. “It was only after I turned 21 that I was allowed inside, to work as a cashier.”

At its height, the city boasted 10 card rooms that sprang up around the dog racetrack which once stood near Shellmound Park so that gamblers could have something else to occupy their hands between races. At the same time, Chinese immigrants, arriving with the railroad, ran popular lottery operations out of garages, workshops and restaurant kitchens—a game especially popular, according to the Emeryville Historical Society, with the city’s police force.

In the ’20s, Emeryville’s notorious gambling houses and speakeasies prompted then-Alameda County District Attorney Earl Warren to dub it “the rottenest city on the coast.” Warren waged a decade-long battle to clean up Emeryville, but met with little success. Gambling and bootlegging were too profitable (rumor has it that Emeryville first decided to incorporate when neighboring Oakland threatened to absorb the area to get a cut of those gambling profits). City Hall resisted Warren’s cleanup attempts, and the local police were even rumored to be in on the action. In 1932, a sheriff’s raid uncovered 565 gallons of illegal alcohol in a garage used by the city police department.

The Townhouse Bar and Grill on Doyle Street opened in 1926 as a speakeasy, where fireman Frank “Blackie” Mesnickow served illegal hooch in a concrete block, famous for its lack of windows—the better to hide from prying eyes. That privacy was so alluring that the bar virtually became the de facto city hall for years, the place where the city bosses met to work out backroom deals. Throughout the ’70s, long-time Emeryville Police Chief John LaCoste was a Townhouse fixture, preferring to run the city from his bar stool rather than his office.

“Back in those days, a lot of city officials held meetings in the grill’s backroom,” said current co-owner Ellen Rosenberg, who has helped to reimagine the greasy dive as an upscale bar and grill specializing in hearty California cuisine. “Emeryville was basically pretty corrupt back then.”

Today, attitudes have changed. Alcohol and cards aren’t considered the scandalous vices they once were, what with Indian gaming proliferating nationwide and Las Vegas becoming the new family vacation destination. The smaller card rooms have been forced out of business by nearby Indian casinos, but the Oaks’ larger size lets it compete and thrive in the changing cityscape.


Twenty years ago, Semifreddi’s bakery on Hollis was opening just as the rest of the city was shutting down, lured to the dying town by cheap, available space in the abandoned warehouses.

Here, bakers start mixing the dough at dawn every day, preparing fresh baguettes and sourdoughs before the sun rises. By 6 a.m. at the bakery, the air is thick with the smells of flour and cinnamon. The last trucks leave for delivery by 10 a.m., bringing the bakery’s wares to homes and stores in San Francisco, Marin and the East Bay. Out front, some of the city’s 21,000 daily commuters amble in for a morning cup of coffee at Semifreddi’s storefront cafe.

“When we first opened up, Del Monte next door was shutting down, just crushing all their cans into scrap,” said co-owner Mike Rose (the bakery’s self-proclaimed chief “mad scientist” who has worked in Emeryville nearly 20 years). “The area was much more blighted, just empty warehouses and big cracked walls left over from the 1989 earthquake. And City Hall was all shuttered up.”

Rose points to Emeryville’s City Hall, just a block from the bakery. Today, it’s a freshly painted terra-cotta rotunda. The Hall’s new annex next door is a gleaming clean house of glass.

Semifreddi’s was only the first of the new businesses to come to Emeryville in the wake of its industrial decline when officials began to see the old warehouses not as a hindrance to redevelopment, but as a possible boon.

The first new tenants to arrive were artists and sculptors looking for cheap studios; many warehouses became loft-living for artist communes, like the 45th Street Artists’ Cooperative. The city still boasts the highest concentration of artists in the state. In days past, artists and locals would gather flotsam that washed up onto the mudflats to construct impromptu junk sculptures, like the giant scrap metal eagle built by the congregation of the Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church in 1980. (Some driftwood creations even achieved a modicum of fame after being featured in the film Harold and Maude.) The mudflats are off-limits today, designated as a protected wetland, but the city’s artists still make their presence known through a city program that puts public art in the plazas and parks.

Artists weren’t the only new faces in town. Today, former factories also house companies like biotech leader Novartis or animation studio Pixar.

Through the ’30s and ’40s, the same men who ate lunch at the Oaks were the men who kept the city running: machinists and laborers, blue-collar workers who worked hard at the Judson Steel factory, Del Monte cannery, Pepsi-Co bottling plant, Shell, Chevron and myriad factories that produced automobiles, pesticides, pigments, petrochemicals and transformers. Older residents still remember those days, but the city’s newer workers are a different breed: Increasingly, the city is being populated by young white-collar workers, earning a median income of $45,000 a year at high-tech and professional jobs. During the day, the city’s population rises from 9,000 to 30,000, as additional workers stream in from Berkeley, Oakland and other corners of the Bay Area.

Even after the decline of the local meat industry after World War I, the city was infamous for smells of a different sort. Longtime resident Sharon Wilchar, a textile artist who moved to the city in 1980 to join the Artists’ Co-op on 45th Street, recalled that when she first moved in, her parents warned her about the noxious odors released by the city’s steel mills, chemical plants and truck yards.

“My dad lived in San Francisco but used to commute to boarding school in Benicia, and whenever the train pulled through this area, all the kids would say, ‘Hold your nose, here comes Emeryville!’” she said.

But just as World War I killed Emeryville’s meat industry, the end of World War II signaled a long slow decline for its heavy manufacturing industry as many plants moved overseas in search of cheaper labor. When the factories closed, they left a little something behind.

For decades, lingering concerns about contaminated groundwater and industrial poisons scared companies away. Outsiders dubbed the city “Emptyville” for its vacant lots and abandoned warehouses. Many citizens were frustrated with a city government that still seemed mired in Emeryville’s shady past and unwilling to address the problems.

“For a long time, Emeryville had a reputation for corruption,” said Donald Hausler of the historical society, where archives tell of a 1980s scandal involving a new building development that was supposed to provide housing for low-income residents, but instead sold many of the units to political cronies at below market price. This led to the old city bosses getting kicked out of office. “Once that happened,” Hausler said, “things began to change real fast.”


In 1986, the All Emeryville Alliance, a new reform slate dedicated to cleaning up the city’s crooked reputation, swept into office. Many of those newcomers, including Nora Davis and now-Mayor Ken Bukowski, still sit on the council today. Under the direction of new City Manager John Flores, the city crafted a new plan to fix things quick.

The fresh, do-gooder politicians investigated and began cleaning up the old industrial wastelands, or “brownfields” in Environmental Protection Agency vernacular, an effort that spanned years and involved taking a lot of the old polluters to task for their left-behinds. The city worked with the EPA to fund cleanup projects and instigated some of the state’s first Polanco Redevelopment Act lawsuits, seeking to force the old pesticide and paint companies to help pay for the cleanup.

Nora Davis attributes the rebirth of the city to the end of the brownfields: Once the poisons were gone, businesses saw the potential of the city so centrally located in the high-priced Bay Area.

The first signs of change came soon after, when Amtrak wanted to add a new East Bay station in Emeryville. “Amtrak came to the city and wanted to put in a new stop with a trailer,” said Davis, “We said ‘No, we’ll build you a station.” That was right on the cusp of the Amtrak revival. We saw that Amtrak would create a nucleus.”

The Amtrak station that went up in 1993 was the first new station built in the state in 50 years. It’s the end of the train’s cross-country service, and residents like to point out that if you buy a ticket in Pittsburgh to come out to the Bay Area, it will list Emeryville as its final destination.

In 2001, national real estate company Madison Marquette began developing Bay Street, one of the city’s new shopping districts based on a mixed-use European model, with housing upstairs and shops downstairs. It was only a matter of time before Emeryville became the go-to place for East Bay retail—with places like Apple, Banana Republic, Barnes & Noble, Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma.

“We really had location, location, location,” said Davis, “But for the longest time it was all brownfield, so it didn’t do us any good.”

The city’s transformation has been so successful, in fact, that one of the first businesses to help Emeryville’s renaiassance 20 years ago—Semifreddi’s—has to move out of Emeryville in search of cheaper land. Movie giant Pixar, Semifreddi’s landlord, wants to expand into the bakery’s space in a few years and the cost of Emeryville warehouse space is now too steep for the bakery.

“A business like ours will not be able to be in Emeryville anymore,” says co-owner Rose. “There’s nowhere to go.”


If you want to go smaller, the transformation of the Emeryville schools serves as a microcosm for the city.

Emeryville is not a town for children. Mike Rose laments the lack of green space for kids to play or ride bikes. Realtor Jason Crouch notes that much of the city’s new housing is now occupied by “dinks”—dual income, no kids—young professionals who started filing in after the city’s biotech boom. But even though Emeryville schools serve just 800 kids, they’re a point of civic pride.

It wasn’t always like that. Not long ago, fixing the city’s school system didn’t appear on the to-do list of the reformers and the city’s schools were, in short, a mess. Things came to a head in 2001, when the Emeryville school district was nearly $2 million in debt after a seven-year legacy of mismanagement. Without enough funds to pay its staff and teachers to finish out the school year, the Emeryville schools were headed for a state takeover.

Emeryville schools had more problems than just finances when the state moved in. “There were no real serious academics then,” says Mark Davis, an Emery High teacher and head of the school’s history department, who remembers when he first stepped foot on the campus 11 years ago. “It was chaos. Most of your job was just lassoing kids in the hallways.”

The school’s library was closed because there was no money to pay a librarian. The computer labs were locked down tight because the administration was afraid students might break the computers. It was, Davis said, a top-down problem, where the administration had little time to consider the input of teachers and staff. At one point, the district cycled through three different administrations in one year. In all, the district had 10 heads.

“There was a joke going around back then,” Davis said, “If you run into a stranger in the hallways, say ‘hi’ because they’re probably the new principal. There was a constant turnover in staff and administrators.”

State officials quickly worked out an emergency bill seeking a state loan to keep the three-school district running. When it was done, Emeryville had become the fourth school district taken over by the state, after West Contra Costa, Coachella and Compton.

Two years later, the district was back in the black—the fastest recovery in the state.

“The takeover was really a wake-up call,” said John Gooding, head of the consultation firm, Quadric Group, and leader of the Emery Ed Fund. “We really didn’t know what to do, and someone suggested that, since we’re so small, maybe we should just fold our students over into an adjoining school district. But then [former city manager] John Flores said something that really resonated with us all: Without a school system we’re not a community.”

The city moved quickly to help out as well, hammering out a deal with the school to allow the city recreation department to lease the school gym, pool and playing fields during off-hours to pump some funds into the cash-strapped district.

Residents here fondly remember Henry Der, the no-nonsense tactician and state-appointed superintendent whom many credit with starting the turnaround of Emeryville’s struggling schools. After the takeover ended, Der was followed by Tony Smith, a former NFL athlete-turned educator who surprised the community by cutting the schools’ football program to concentrate on academics, and most recently by Stephen Wesley, a Jesuit-trained educator with over 30 years of experience working in some of the nation’s toughest school districts.

It wasn’t just the people at the top that pulled the schools away from the brink, though; it was the mostly young, child-free couples and older residents who voted, with 76 percent support, to increase the city’s parcel tax to fund schools. “It’s amazing when you realize that, because the school district is so small and the number of kids is low, that means a lot of us people without young kids voted to tax ourselves,” said resident Elizabeth Altieri, who moved to Emeryville’s Watergate condominium complex from Hayward in 2004 to be closer to her work at a local bank. “This is far from an apathetic community.”

The Emery Ed Fund’s people thought Gooding was crazy to propose a parcel tax increase to the Chamber of Commerce because businesses would be paying 80 percent of that tax. “But Emeryville is different—we’re a small community, so everyone gets involved,” says Gooding.

Superintendent Wesley credits the parcel tax for giving Emeryville schools a boost denied to those in many other cities—the extra funds have allowed the schools to improve their technology workshops and keep a thriving art program. He also points to another unique aspect of education in Emeryville—the continuing involvement of the city’s local businesses. Amyris Biotechnologies donates to help students get tutoring in math and science, and Pixar runs a program to let fifth-grade students every year make their own short animated film—an experience that has helped some kids go on to study animation professionally.

“We’re able to keep businesses focused on helping the schools because they can see inside,” said Wesley. “A lot of schools are not as accessible or transparent as they should be. They’ve been inside and they see kids. They can see the good that they’re doing.”

In many ways, Semifreddi’s Rose pioneered this “give back” mentality. In a business where the rising cost of flour is a constant worry, he’d rather talk about how it affects third-world poverty than his own bottom line. But if there’s one subject that he’s passionate about, it’s schools. When a science teacher at the city’s elementary school mentioned that she wanted to use bread-making to show chemical reactions, Rose leaped at the chance to help out—donating supplies, an oven, and even volunteering to instruct the kids in bread-making himself. In March, Rose led almost a tour a day of schoolchildren through the bustling bakery.

“Schools are saddled with all our social problems and told to solve them,” said Rose. “But the resources that they have to do that are so meager. We do what we can to help; education makes opportunities for everyone.”


Emeryville has always been a city focused on work—from meat packing to gambling to manufacturing and finally to computers and biotech. And outsiders know it more for its businesses than its community. But that’s something residents hope to change.

Wesley is overseeing the most radical transformation yet of Emeryville schools, into community centers open to everyone—not just kids—all day, every day.

“We look at the school as a place that can serve people from birth to age 199,” said Wesley, “When you think about it, schools are already the center of the community. We want to make schools a place that stay alive in afternoons and weekends.”

Unlike many cities, Emeryville doesn’t have a single downtown area, where locals might run into one another while shopping or strolling; its mega-malls and retail halls are spread across the city and attract more outsiders than locals.

Today, the schools serve as the real centers of Emeryville community. Many city recreation services are already held on school grounds. Youth activities, community conferences, prenatal services, and even private weddings and bar mitzvahs can be found happening at the schools on any given weekend.

“It’s like that old saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’” said Wanda Stewart, district spokeswoman. “Emeryville is a city that’s been changing so much that it’s important to have a place where all these disparate people can come together. We’ve got a population with a lot of older white people, a lot of young black and Asian kids. Normally, their paths might not cross. Schools have to become a place where they can come together. We’re a template in a microcosm. If we can do it with 800 students in a city of 8,000, think of what could be done in bigger cities!”


Emeryville has been able to attract big business and retail by savvy redevelopment of what were once polluted, abandoned industrial wastelands—mostly through the efforts of dedicated city and community leaders.

Contrary to urban legend, the city doesn’t build highrises to get earthquake relief, but it does work hard to leverage what federal funds it gets to supplement its own budget. In February, the city sent a delegation of top business, school and city officials, including Wesley and Gooding, to Washington, DC, hoping to convince politicians to earmark some federal funds for future school and city projects, including a bike bridge to span Interstate 80 and a school science center. But what impressed federal officials was the group’s commitment to working together.

“When we go to Washington or Barbara Lee or Nancy Pelosi, they tell us that cities come to them every day asking for funds,” said Gooding, who represented the city’s business community in the delegation. “‘But you’re different,’ they say. We stand out, first, because businesses usually lobby for their industry but we lobby for our community. We’ve still got a long way to go, but it’s wonderful that our elected officials see what we’re doing.”

The city has attracted attention by showing that it’s willing to work hard and make sacrifices to start changes, changes that residents hope will make people finally recognize the city as more than a place to shop.

Attitudes here are already different, say residents.

Watergate resident Altieri had just returned from a recent trip to Washington, DC, where her daughter will be attending Georgetown University.

“Washington is very impressive but you can’t just walk into a congressman’s office,” said Altieri. “In Emeryville, you can call the mayor and he’ll answer your call. It really does make you feel that you’re part of a community, that the leaders are responsive to your worries. That’s something you won’t find in Washington.”


Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and frequent contributor to The Monthly, whose city has always smelled of patchouli.



Municipal metamorphosis: Present-day Emeryville squares off with San Francisco across the Bay. Photo by Alan Tobey. Click on photo to view the original photo.


Cows graze at the Emery Station in 1905, in an Emeryville then dubbed “Butchertown.” Photo Courtesy The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Click on photo to see larger version.




At the track: In his Curtiss biplane, pilot Lincoln Beachey challenges Barney Oldfield in his Simplex race car in the “Speed Championship of the World” on Jan. 10, 1914 in Emeryville. The race ended when Beachey’s plane nosedived into the track. Photo courtesy Oakland History Room/Oakland Public Library. Click on photo to see larger version.



The rail stop for Shellmound Park around 1900—part of the park’s dance pavilion is visible in the upper right. Photo courtesy Oakland History Room/Oakland Public Library. Click on photo to see larger version.



1902 photo of the Emeryville Shellmound with the historic shellmound park dance pavilion built on top. The shoreline of the San Francisco Bay reached to along the base of the shellmound at this time. Photo courtesy University Press.



California Trotting Park, Emeryville: view from the Southern Pacific Railroad Tracks showing Steam Locomotive, circa 1905-1907. Click on photo to see larger version.




Emeryville stockyards in 1915. Photo courtesy Oakland History Room/Oakland Public Library. Click on photo to see larger version.




Know when to hold ’em: The Oaks Card Room, a living legacy of Emeryville’s gambling past, photographed circa 1939. Photo courtesy Oaks Card Room. Click on photo to see larger version.




Clean sweep: Emeryville Police Marshal Ed Carey (center) became a leading target of Earl Warren’s efforts to clean up corruption. Click on photo to see full photo.



Art cars: One in a series of Dorothea Lange photographs of an Emeryville car junkyard in 1955. ©The Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland. Gift of Paul S. Taylor. Click on photo to see larger version.



Early artist digs: Between Halleck and Hubbard streets next to Park Avenue, this warehouse—now replaced by new buildings—was one of the original artists’ warehouses in Emeryville, once filled with musicians, sculptors and potters, many now priced out of the developing city. Photo by Hamish Reid. Click on photo to see larger version.
More of Hamish Reid’s Emeryville photos can be seen by clicking here.





Before: A lonely tree and a track to nowhere near undeveloped Hubbard Street in the 1980s, now the East Bay Bridge Shopping Center, location of Home Depot and other big box stores. After: Emeryville’s rebirth is evident in these condos built just off Hubbard Street, close to the spot where the large tree appears in the photograph on the left. Before photo by Hamish Reid. Click on either photo to see larger version. More of Hamish Reid’s Emeryville photos can be seen by clicking here. (More of Hamish Reid’s Emeryville photos can be seen by clicking here.) After photo by SpiralA Photography.




Emeryville City Hall in 2008. Photo by SpiralA Photography. Click here to see Hamish Reid’s photo of the building in the 1980s.





Mudflat fog: Once home to impromptu metal and driftwood sculptures, the mudflats alongside Highway 80 are now the 103.5-acre Emeryville Crescent State Marine Reserve. Photo by Seaklaus. Click on photo to see larger version.





Pedestrian art: Emeryville’s distinctive public art appears throughout the city, including on utility boxes painted as part of a project by artist Seyed Alavi. Photo by SpiralA Photography. See more of Alavi.’s Emeryville utilty art by clicking here.






Pixar, the nation’s animation giant, moved its headquarters from Richmond to Emeryville more than seven years ago. Photo by SpiralA Photography.



Emeryville resources

City of Emeryville

Hamish Reid’s photos and impressions of the industrial Emeryville of the 1980s

City of Emeryville South Bayfront Project

Excavation of the Emeryville Shellmound

Emeryville Celebtration of the Arts

Emeryville Public Art

Seyed Alavi’s Emeryville utility box art

History of the Oaks Card Club

History of the Townhouse

More Emeryville history