Caltrans never saw it coming.
In the days after the Cypress Structure buckled and collapsed in the Oct. 17, 1989, Loma Prieta earthquake, ultimately killing 42 people trapped between its pancaked double-decker roadway, state transportation planners mobilized their forces and quickly prepared to rebuild the monster in the same place.
But something amazing happened when the freeway fell and the crumbled concrete, twisted rebar and squashed cars were cleared away. Shafts of sunlight streamed through. The dank shadows were gone. Silence replaced the constant roar of traffic. Views of homes and neighbors replaced the garbage and trucks that had been tucked into every available cranny under the elevated viaduct.
The West Oakland community couldn't marshal the clout to fight a Cypress freeway the first time around.
They were armed and ready this time.
"In 1989, we were at the height of our intellectual and personal powers and we had friends and relatives in power," said Bill Love, professor emeritus at Merritt College who along with Oakland Post Publisher Paul Cobb, the late Ralph Williams and the late Jack Atkin formed the Citizens Emergency Relief Team, commonly known as CERT, to organize community opposition to rebuilding a new freeway on the same route through West Oakland. "Lionel (Wilson) was mayor, Warren Widener was a county supervisor, plus we were real clear about what we wanted and what we wanted was no Cypress
The section of the Nimitz Freeway known as the Cypress Structure was the state's first double-decker freeway. It may have been an engineering marvel when it opened in 1957, but the tall, imposing concrete highway sliced through several of Oakland's oldest neighborhoods, effectively cutting them off from the rest of the city.
It wasn't the first or last time Oakland's black communities had suffered, and Love and Cobb had a first-row seat to the injustices. And they learned to fight from the best.
Battle's deep roots
Love's mother, Lillian Love — civic leader, activist, and the unofficial "Mayor of West Oakland" — led the fight against the wholesale demolition of homes for urban renewal, and saved Victorian houses in what is now the Oak Center Historic District in West Oakland. She and Cobb's father, Roosevelt Cobb, fought a losing battle against the original freeway over Cypress Street, and the construction of the Grove-Shafter (Interstate 980) freeway, both of which wiped out wide swaths of homes.
Cobb watched as his grandfather's home and grocery store were demolished to make way for BART. This, along with construction of the U.S. postal facility, destroyed the Seventh Street commercial district. Love's father's home at 18th and Linden streets was demolished for so-called blight abatement. The lot is still vacant today.
"Part of the genesis — the attitude, posture and our willingness to fight the freeway — came from this history of anger and abuse (at the hands of) Caltrans and city officials," Paul Cobb said.
It helped that by 1989 the political and cultural landscape had changed. Many of Oakland's elected leaders, including Mayor Wilson, were African-Americans and knew the history of West Oakland. Wilson had been a lawyer for the NAACP with an office on Adeline Street in the 1950s and had met with Cobb's father to try to block the Cypress Structure.
While the freeway recovery effort went on outside their doors, CERT quickly proposed a different route for a new freeway farther west, away from residences and closer to the Port of Oakland. Cobb, Williams and Love lit up a phone tree to rally residents and politicians to block the use of Cypress Street. Within 24 hours they had held their first meeting around Cobb's dining room table. Within a week or two of the earthquake, CERT representatives had already flown to Washington, D.C., to talk to then-Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta about a new freeway alignment. They pitched it as an improved route that would better serve businesses, the Port of Oakland and the region, and they gained support well beyond the black community.
When their proposed alignment over the Port of Oakland and the Oakland Army Base had to be adjusted because of opposition from those entities, CERT pushed for what it could get and never gave up.
"Looking back on it, we set the agenda," Cobb said. "We posted minutes and had engineers come and talk to us. "... We went to every City Council of every (East Bay) city "... "
"And every City Council from every city approved our plan," Love added, finishing Cobb's sentence. "So Caltrans had nowhere to go."
Jim Drago was the Caltrans spokesman at the time. He said that the amount of public feedback and scrutiny given to large public works projects had increased with the birth of the environmental movement in the 1970s. Even so, the level of community involvement in the Cypress Structure replacement project was unprecedented, Drago said.
Caltrans directors quickly figured out that they would not be able to rebuild a freeway without the support of the community and local elected leaders. Adding weight to that was the belated realization that the freeway had so negatively affected West Oakland neighborhoods by cutting them off from downtown, he said.
"In the 1940s and '50s if you wanted to build something, you just did it," Drago said. "In the case of Oakland it was clear that there was a considerable segment of the population that did not want the Cypress going back on the same alignment."
By November 1989, Caltrans had agreed to look at other routes but it was still pushing to use Cypress Street for a temporary six-lane expressway until the permanent replacement was built, a solution the community refused to endorse. Opposition to the expressway also united many local business owners with the community because their buildings would have been bulldozed, said George Burtt, a business owner who served as chairman of a state-local coalition for the freeway replacement.
In mid-December, then-Gov. George Deukmejian said he supported an alternate route. That same month the Oakland City Council took a stand against rebuilding a permanent or temporary route on Cypress Street.
Even a third of the people who responded to an Oakland Tribune/Gallup Poll said they thought the freeway should be rerouted out of the heart of West Oakland.
But it would take months before Caltrans completely dropped its plans. In between, the community never let down its guard, vowing to put their bodies in front of bulldozers if Caltrans tried to use Cypress Street.
"We said we had made a decision and it wasn't going back," said Ellen Wyrick Parkinson, a West Oakland resident who fought the freeway. "If they had tried to rebuild it we would have all been out there and they would have had to mow us down."
In November 1990, a little more than a year after the earthquake, Caltrans invited public comment on three alternatives to the collapsed Cypress Structure: widening the Interstate 980 freeway through Oakland to handle more traffic; building a new underground freeway beneath Cypress Street; or building a new eight-lane freeway farther west that was aligned with the Southern Pacific railroad tracks. The Oakland City Council formally backed the last option.
On Feb. 28, 1991, 16 months after the collapse, Caltrans announced that it would build a $695 million freeway on the western route, finally putting to rest fears that it would rebuild on the Cypress Street corridor.
Future of the freeway
The decision did not please everyone. Some downtown businesses wanted the freeway rebuilt as quickly as possible along the same route. Chappell Hayes, a West Oakland activist and the late husband of Oakland Councilmember Nancy Nadel, headed a group that vigorously resisted the construction of any freeway through West Oakland because of health concerns. The city of Emeryville sued, over the final alignment, as did the Sierra Club.
Residents in the South Prescott and Phoenix neighborhoods affected by the new freeway alignment felt betrayed by CERT and tried unsuccessfully to block the new freeway.
Then-Assemblyman Elihu Harris said the alignment, though not perfect, was a solid compromise, given the constant threat that Caltrans would scrap the negotiations and do whatever it wanted.
He recalled that Cobb and Love countered every argument for putting the freeway back on Cypress Street, which would have been the quickest and cheapest option for the state. And in this case, Harris said, money and speed were not the deciding factors.
"The West Oakland community, Paul Cobb, Bill Love and the businesses, were very militant, very clear. They held a lot of meetings, they were very energized and the community was very organized and they let the politicians know what they expected," Harris said. "The elected officials in Oakland and Sacramento and Washington responded to those demands, and I think it was a good thing. I think everybody should take pride that they stood by the community."
Reach Cecily Burt at 510-208-6441. Check out her blog at www.ibabuzz.com/westside.