The Sorrows of the Oakland Waterfront

Our story begins with a photograph taken on January 17, 2020. In this photograph, Michael Bloomberg and Libby Schaaf are hunched over a map of the Oakland waterfront. Michael Bloomberg is a Wall Street billionaire (with ties to known pedophiles Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell) who funds neo-liberal organizations that not only promote private education but also work to abolish public education. Libby Schaaf is the neo-liberal mayor of Oakland who refused to support the public-teacher’s strike during the winter of 2019. Together, these two neo-liberals openly plotted the luxury gentrification of Oakland and looked over key-locations near the city’s waterfront. At the time, Michael Bloomberg was running for US president and paying people to support him on the internet, while Libby Schaaf was then widely despised for allowing a SWAT team to evict homeless black mothers from an occupied house two days before Bloomberg’s visit.

In this photograph, we can behold the truly evil nature of the reigning order, a system that despises life and values only monetary wealth. Bloomberg and Schaaf were so confident in this neo-liberal order of theirs that they carved up a map of the Oakland waterfront in front of a dozen photographers. Little did they know that their plans would soon come to a dramatic halt. Less than two months after this picture was taken, the COVID-19 lockdown brought their neo-liberal economy to a halt and pushed their plans for a luxury waterfront off into the future. It would be optimistic to believe these plans might never come to fruition, given the state of the US economy, but we still find it valuable to catalog the luxury real-estate development that has been set into motion, along with the proposed mega-projects yet to come. As we take you along the shoreline from the industrial expanse of West Oakland to the grimy armpits of the Estuary, you will also learn something about this city’s history of resistance.

Our journey begins at the Port of Oakland, the northern-most stretch of the Oakland waterfront just south of the Bay Bridge. Unless you work in the port, there really is no civilian waterfront aside from the Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, a public space surrounded on three sides by shipping containers. The closest neighborhood to the port’s Middle Harbor is West Oakland, although there’s only one real access point for someone on foot, a long stretch of 7th Street that cuts through the port and into the waterfront park. Most people from West Oakland drive or bike to this park and few ever walk along this bleak and desolate thoroughfare. For being so close to the port, West Oakland shares little with the waterfront aside from the pollution that drifts off its cargo ships, steel shredders, and big-rig tucks. Hundreds of men and women from West Oakland work in this port but their number is small relative to the local population.

Trade figures in percentage of 51.2 billion dollars, 2019

At night, many residents of West Oakland can hear the sounds of cargo ship horns as they enter and exit the harbor, nearly all of them in transit across the Pacific. Imports from China account for nearly one quarter of all the shipping containers that flow through the port (roughly 5 billion dollars worth in the first half of 2020) with the rest originating in Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia. After these containers are unloaded from the cargo ships, they are sorted by the longshoremen before being loaded onto big-rig trucks and driven across the country. At all hours of the day, residents of West Oakland can see these trucks barrel down 7th Street or along Adeline as they move these imports to their ultimate destinations. Half of the goods imported into the US come through the West Coast and the Port of Oakland accounts for around 10 percent of that volume (although it’s often less). Everything imported though the Port of Oakland is handled by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10, a union that currently maintains around 1500 jobs along the Oakland waterfront.

To understand the ILWU, we have to go all the way back to San Francisco on March 6, 1885, the day a Jewish anarchist named Sigismund Danielewicz signed up over 400 men into the brand-new Coast Seamen’s Union. This union would engage in numerous waterfront strikes over the following decade, culminating in the Great Waterfront Strike of 1901 that left San Francisco paralyzed for three months. After this, the Coast Seamen’s Union (now the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific) began to make deals with the ship-owners and broke solidarity with the longshoremen. Over the next decades, the Sailor’s Union would fight with the IWW, a growing power on the West Coast, and while the Sailor’s Union negotiated with the bosses, the IWW began to organize the longshoremen of the West Coast, culminating in the Seattle General Strike of 1919. After this historic event, fierce repression descended on the radical labor movement from all directions, forcing a series of conflicts over the next years. The end of the IWW’s influence on the West Coast was marked by the defeat of their San Pedro maritime strike in 1923, a one-month blockade of the entire port that was crushed by the LAPD and the KKK. Despite the violence unleashed on their former comrades, the Sailor’s Union didn’t support this strike, thus aiding in the ultimate defeat. This choice would haunt the sailors over the next decade.

May Sundsted, 12, burned with coffee, mother killed by KKK, San Pedro, 1923

The 1920s were a time of intense counter-insurgency that saw all labor unions suffer, including the Sailor’s Union. The waterfront militants of the West Coast made their way back to San Francisco and spent the next years organizing through the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA). By the year 1934, every waterfront union was fed up with the employer’s associations controlling the wharves, even the Sailor’s Union, and for the first time since 1901, every maritime union agreed to stop work on the same day in what became the San Francisco General Strike of 1934. After two months of blockades and riots, the strike was broken by the employer’s associations, the final blow in a long list of defeats. The various maritime unions went their separate ways after the General Strike but the San Francisco local of the ILA remained extremely militant, eventually splitting from the organization in 1937 and forming the ILWU. In short, while the ILA gained a reputation of being controlled by the East Coast mafia, the ILWU gained a reputation of being the most radical in the US, a reputation it still holds today.

ILWU march, San Francisco, Labor Day, 1939

Despite this legacy, the ILWU is mostly restricted to symbolic shut-downs of the Port of Oakland and hasn’t shut down the West Coast for more than few days, at least not since the Great Strike of 1971, a conflict that lasted over four months in the midst of the Vietnam War. At the height of the strike, the mob-controlled ILA shut down the entire East Coast for four days, and since then, the state has done everything in its power to make sure that never happens again. While the ILWU has been able to block some goods bound for apartheid South Africa and contemporary Israel, their power against capitalism and the state has continued to wain. Nevertheless, ILWU Local 10 remains an anti-racist organization with a solid core of black members. After the fall of the IWW, the ILWU became the largest anti-racist union within the US and its Oakland local still remains true to this tradition. Today, ILWU Local 10 is fighting to stop the luxury development of the entire waterfront, but we’ll get to that later. When we see the photograph of Libby Schaaf and Michael Bloomberg hovering over a map of this waterfront, a major kink in their plans is the ILWU.

The section of the Port of Oakland that is still a working waterfront stretches from the Outer Harbor, just south of the Bay Bridge toll plaza, all the way to the Howard Terminal along the Inner Harbor. When people use the term working waterfront, they usually mean properties that provide access to the water and serve as recreational and commercial hubs for water-dependent activities. If you continue further south past the Howard Terminal, this working waterfront transitions from the containerized port to the upscale luxury of Jack London Square. Along this stretch of shoreline, the only working waterfront consists of a ferry terminal, private marinas, and a few restaurants with docks. Everything past the shoreline is now expensive real-estate with apartments that range from 2,500 to 10,000 dollars a month, along with a new assortment of tourist attractions. Before the gentrification of Downtown Oakland could begin, the first step was to gentrify Jack London Square.

Downtown Oakland (north) and Jack London Square (south), 2020

Starting in the early 2000s, various developers began acquiring property near Jack London Square and by 2006 the first luxury condo buildings were looming over the waterfront. The completion of this new development coincided with the first major gentrification of West Oakland, a 1000 unit project centered around the long-abandoned 16th Street train station, a major symbol of black militancy. According to the development plans, this former trans-continental train terminus would be revitalized and turned into a performance venue that would benefit all residents of West Oakland. It was from this building that the first all black union was established, the Brotherhood of Sleeping-Car Porters. It was here that the gentrification began when massive housing developments were built for wealthy commuters with high-paying jobs, not working-class locals. By the year 2012, it was clear that a massive insult had been hurled at West Oakland. While all of the condos, townhouses, and luxury apartments have been completed for almost a decade, the 16th Street Station remains empty to this day. Rather than being open to public, the station is now used either as a movie set or rented out for private events. All the money generated at the station goes directly to the BRIDGE Housing Corporation, not to West Oakland locals.

While all this was happening in West Oakland, the development of Jack London Square continued, with dozens of real-estate agents now referring to it as the Loft District. Along the shoreline of this up and coming district are two semi-residential marinas where dozens of people legally reside as live-aboards and dozens of others clandestinely reside as illegal sneak-aboards and constantly risk eviction. The first is the marina attached directly to Jack London Square, a series of three gated docks officially known as Oakland Marinas. This marina is administered by a Southern California real-estate giant named Almar, an entity that owns three other marinas in the Bay Area. In addition to owning the three gated docks along Jack London Square, Almar also owns the Central Basin, North Basin, and Union Point marinas, giving it the largest share of boat slips along the Oakland waterfront. Jack London is the most expensive of these marinas, given it’s closer to all the development and tourism, while Union Point is the least expensive, given that its parking lot is currently a homeless encampment. But we’ll get to that later.

The luxury development of Jack London Square comes to an end near KTVU headquarters, the local Fox news station famous for letting Oscar Grant’s killer talk for an hour on television. Past this infamous institution is Eve’s Waterfront, a formerly abandoned restaurant called the Rusty Scupper. With all the recent development, this building is now open for business with its own private guest dock for patrons. Just down the shoreline from this restaurant is the Portobello Marina, the smallest private marina on the Oakland waterfront and recently refurbished to cash in on the new development. If you keep walking past this marina, you’ll arrive at Estuary Park and the Jack London Aquatic Center, the place where a small army of high school and college row-crew teams launch themselves into the water with an obnoxious coach following behind in a motor-boat. From here, you can turn around and gaze back at Jack London Square. If you try hard enough, you might be able to imagine all that luxury development somehow getting worse. If you find this difficult, please keep reading.

Proposed ballpark and luxury development at Howard Terminal

In 2019, the owners of the Oakland A’s baseball franchise decided to leave their Coliseum of East Oakland and build a brand new stadium in Jack London Square on the port’s Howard Terminal. Soon after this announcement, a coalition quickly formed to thwart this development, including the ILWU. At the time of this writing, Alameda County and the Port of Oakland have done everything in their power to speed along the new stadium, while the City of Oakland now holds the final cards. On June 19, 2020, the ILWU staged a massive demonstration at the Port of Oakland in the middle of a national uprising against the police. After shutting down the entire port in honor of Juneteenth (as well as the entire West Coast), tens of thousands of people marched to downtown Oakland and demonstrated the amount of support the ILWU carries in the hearts of the public. With the Mayor and City of Oakland now on the defense after the uprising, its seems possible this development scheme might be thwarted.

However, in a kind of devil’s bargain, the ILWU has partnered with Schnitzer Steel in their grand coalition, a group that also includes SSA Marine, a terminal owner that controls both coasts of the US (and is also major a recipient of Blackrock funding). In the case of Schnitzer Steel, this metal-shredding company has polluted West Oakland for decades as it sold off its steel scrap to Chinese recyclers, even going so far as to bribe Communist Party officials. In their efforts to push through the ballpark, the owners of the A’s are now suing the California Department of Toxic Substances Control for failing to regulate Schnitzer’s toxic pollution and the high levels of cancer in West Oakland. In other words, now that the A’s owners want to build a luxury ballpark, pollution is bad. When it was mostly black people being poisoned with heavy metals, pollution was fine. Capping it all off for you, the majority-owner of the Oakland A’s is John Fisher, the arch-cretin who owns The Gap department store chain. To defeat this banal monster, the ILWU has also partnered with monsters, and this cannot be denied.

Schnitzer Steel (w. Howard Terminal in background)

If this ballpark is defeated, it won’t be the first time an Oakland coalition has stopped a maritime mega-project. Most recently, the wet-dream of local scumbag Phil Tagami was thwarted when road-block after road-block was thrown up against his proposed coal export terminal near the port’s Outer Harbor. Thanks to the tireless work of thousands of people (in both California and Utah), Phil Tagami’s deal to pollute the waterfront is all but collapsed, forcing the millionaire to hide in his stupid downtown yoga studio while rioters smashed out its windows during the George Floyd uprising. With the amount of public support the ILWU has, it’s likely they’ll succeed in stopping the ballpark, but at a great cost. If the project is defeated, Schnitzer Steel will still be polluting West Oakland. This is exactly what we mean by the sorrows of the Oakland waterfront.

Moving on from Jack London Square and environs, if you continue south along the waterfront, you’ll pass the before-mentioned Estuary Park and Aquatic Center. If it’s a good day, there might be a few anchor-outs (boat squatters) in the tiny little cove just off-shore of the park. Most people are chased off by the sheriffs in less than a week, and the spot has been blown-up multiple times when a few pirates brought derelict boats to Estuary Park’s one public dock and sunk them in late 2019. In addition to this, pirates often anchor in the cove, row a canoe to shore, and abandon their old boats rather than pay for someone to dispose of them. Recently, the county hauled these boats out of the water and destroyed them in the parking lot, an event that horrified event the most conservative sailors (who viewed it as a complete waste). Estuary Park is still pretty wild, with a fluctuating homeless encampment and a loyal crew of patient fishermen who all help keep the row-crew bros in line.

Abandoned boats seized by law enforcement, Estuary Cove, 2019

If you keep walking past this semi-lawless area, you’ll cross the bridge over the Lake Merritt Channel (all that’s left of this natural waterway that connects the lake to the bay), and enter a dusty, barren wasteland cleared for future development. Unlike the other luxury projects listed above, this Brooklyn Basin development was spearheaded by Jean Quan, the former mayor, and a Chinese investment group called Zarsion Holdings Group Co. In the chaos leading up to this project’s approval, dozens of boat squatters were evicted from the two coves near Estuary Park. Between these two coves is a tiny spit of land known as the 5th Avenue Point, and running through the middle of this is a strip of property that was never sold off to the developers of Brooklyn Basin. For the past decades, the western end of 5th Avenue has hosted a wild community of artists, rebels, sailors, and (mostly) pirates who live together on both sea and land. The marina attached to this land is the most ramshackle and chaotic along the Oakland waterfront, a last refuge for free spirits of all stripes. According to the Brooklyn Basin plans, either side of this sanctuary will be flanked with luxury apartment buildings, the coves will be cleansed of squatters, and shiny new marinas will be built for the thousands of rich people expected to move in. At the time of this writing, the Brooklyn Basin project is still in Phase 1 and the entire project wont be completed until 2027 according to the official timeline.

5th Avenue Marina at far left (developer’s rendering)

If you keep walking past 5th Avenue, you will clearly see what all this development is meant to do: create a luxury corridor that stretches from West Oakland to East Oakland, using the waterfront as its vehicle. If the Brooklyn Basin is ever completed, they will be one step closer to actualizing their vision. At the time of this writing, the waterfront stretching south from the Brooklyn Basin to the Union Point Marina is owned by the Port of Oakland. Currently, this stretch is filled with several hotels, the three marinas owned by Almar, several warehouses, a few maritime businesses, and the infamous Motel 6 at the foot of the 16th Avenue bridge over I-880. Just a short walk from the track (International Blvd), this motel has been the site of numerous prostitution busts, just as all the waterfront hotels are frequented by sex-workers who work both the street and the internet. Cops have used empty boats to spy on this motel and use waterfront parking lots to publicly round up and shame captured women. To put it simply, this is a stretch of waterfront the Port of Oakland will have no qualms in selling to the highest bidder, especially if the completed Brooklyn Basin lures the investors in like moths. For the moment, everything between 5th Avenue and Union Point is still grimy-as-fuck.

The infamous Motel 6 of the Oakland waterfront

For example, several Oakland Police Department officers have boats in the North Basin marinas, just as their undercover informants are known to hide out there. Some people in this marina are given special privileges on the waterfront, while others are evicted for the slightest reason. White men who bring sex-workers off the street are just fine, but black men who do the same are busted. Just ashore from North Basin Marina is a certain special Starbucks where you can always find cops (and other law enforcement officers) drinking coffee in large groups, and if you listen carefully you can hear many valuable things. For some reason, this is also where Chinese and Vietnamese big-wigs chain-smoke and drink coffee all morning. To be clear, not only are undercover informants often in this area, there’s literally a secret Navy installation disguised as a warehouse at the southern end of the North Basin marina (at 1249 Embarcadero), and who knows what the fuck is going on in there (currently listed as ‘Exempt Public Agency’).

North Basin Marina, as seen from first completed luxury building

If you leave this sketchy shit behind and keeping walking along the waterfront, you’ll encounter a long stretch of road built directly along the shoreline, and it’s here that RV campers often form camps until too many complaints bring on an OPD eviction. Past this stretch, you can find more hotels, a taco truck, the Motel 6, the Central Basin Marina, the ILWU Walking Bosses headquarters (Local 91), and a restaurant called Quinn’s Lighthouse. Standing in front of this establishment is a tiny Statue of Liberty, and it’s here in this Lighthouse that you can hear old sailors sing sea-shanties every week. Connected to Quinn’s is a private marina known by the same name, a place where people generally don’t give two fucks, and next to that is the one boat haul-out service on the Oakland waterfront. In case the Statue of Liberty outside Quinn’s didn’t make it obvious, the boat world is mostly conservative, including both the fascist and libertarian varieties, along with everything in between. In the mix are artists, anarchists, what have you, but it’s still mostly conservative. Sometimes the libertarian element is useful with their “live and let live” mentality, especially when it comes to homeless encampments, because if you keep walking south past the Lighthouse you’ll see naked poverty on every corner.

Central Basin Marina and Quinn’s Lighthouse (Union Point Marina at top center)

On this final strip of Oakland’s waterfront, the side-streets are home to dozens of car-campers, van-campers, and RV campers. Some people have built shacks at the water’s edge, while others have made a camp at the northern edge of the Union Point Marina. This encampment once encompassed all of Union Point Park until it was forced to the northern end in late 2019. For most of its existence, the camp has gotten its water directly from the municipal pipelines, at zero cost, and at various points during the camp’s existence, people have squatted the massive two story wooden structure next to the Coast Guard Island bridge, the former Cryer & Sons Boatyard. Along the shore outside this building, residents of the camp beach their dingies and motor-boats after a day out on the water, paying zero dollars in slip-fees. All of this is right next to the entrance to the Union Point Marina and its Almar owners have done everything in their power to get rid of the encampment. At their backs is a large government entity known as the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (or BCDC), and it’s not the first time they’ve helped evict not only homeless camps, but boat-squatters.

Shack and tent outside abandoned Cryer and Sons Boatyard, Union Point

BCDC is the reason that all marinas in the Bay Area can only legally have 10% of their slips rented as live-aboard slips, allowing the renter to legally reside there. Even if a private marina were to build five hundred slips somewhere, BCDC caps the amount of live-aboards to 36 slips. Private marinas cannot exceed this number, nor are they legally bound to provide their full 10% as live-aboard slips. Not only is BCDC causing this restriction on cheap housing, they are kicking the homeless people off the water one city at a time. BCDC was responsible for evicting the encampment at the Albany Bulb in 2014, just as they are currently trying to evict the boat-squatters in Sausalito. For the moment, BCDC has been forced into a stalemate with the Union Point encampment, especially now with the COVID crisis, but they’re still awaiting their chance to make homeless people’s lives worse. To make matters perfectly clear, the current chair of BCDC is a capitalist arch-swine named Zach Wasserman who just so happens to be chair of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce. If that’s not enough, this second-rate Indiana Jones villain is also a lawyer representing the A’s in their bid for the Howard Terminal stadium. Okay? If you want to open up housing on the waterfront and protect the homeless encampments, go after these institutions (and Wasserman in particular).

Zach Wasserman, arch-swine, chair of BCDC and Oakland COC

Anyway, if you keep walking south past the Union Point Marina, you’ll eventually run into a giant wheat silo and will be forced to walk inland. This business, the Miller Milling Company, has a grain silo big enough to hold one million bushels of wheat. To put that in perspective, one bushel of wheat can produce either 40 pounds of white flour or 60 pounds of whole wheat flour. In other words, it would take you around seventy weeks of eating pasta three times a day to go though the flour from one bushel (although pasta does require egg, admittedly). In case it wasn’t obvious, this silo is perhaps the most useful thing on the Oakland waterfront, and if global capitalism were to suddenly suffer some cataclysm, it should be one of the first things we seize (along with every commodity in the Port of Oakland). Without exaggeration, this silo could feed Oakland for two years before it was emptied. After that, we’d have to sow our own wheat fields, keeping in mind that not only does it take one acre to grow a single bushel of wheat, a single bushel can provide up to sixty pounds of flour. This might seem over-the-top to think about, be we assure you, it’s not.

If you stand at the gates of this wheat silo and look west, you can see the sprawling Alameda Marina complex on the other side of the estuary channel. Just across the water from the Union Point homeless camp, the Alameda Marina is now a dusty expanse of demolished buildings. Just like the Oakland waterfront, the Alameda waterfront is being subjected to luxury gentrification, and the first project is Alameda Marina. At the time of this writing, the humble, all-volunteer Island Yacht Club was evicted from its clubhouse and cast to the wind. This small, two story building and its bar was once bound up with the Svendson’s Boat Works warehouse, given that boat’s were hauled-out in front of the Island Yacht Club and taken in for servicing, making it part of an actual working waterfront. This famous warehouse was once owned by the late Svend Svendsen, a man born in Denmark in 1936 who delivered messages for the anti-fascist resistance when he was a child. Now his boat-works and the Island Yacht Club are gone, soon to be replaced with luxury development.

Make no mistake, this battle along the waterfront is central to the future of Oakland. We hope this article has revealed how these waterfront developments are linked together, along with the players involved. We have years before the Brooklyn Basin project is completed, but once it is, the rest of the waterfront is in danger, especially for those trying to house themselves on boats. According to the neo-liberal ghouls behind this luxury development, only the rich people who move into waterfront condos should be allowed to dock their luxury yachts in the marinas, especially because they don’t need to live in them. There are tens of thousands of boat slips in the Bay Area, just as there are over thirty thousand people sleeping out on the street. Local police and sheriffs departments only have a few boats (if any), and if a massive boat-squatting wave over-took the bay, most law enforcement would be overwhelmed. It is entirely possible to end local homelessness by simply taking over the waterfronts and disregarding the barbaric laws we live under. There are currently boats for sale that cost less than a single month of rent (and are often free), so if you’re down on your luck housing-wise, simply buy a cheap boat, cast off, and go anchor in one of dozens of legal spots where you don’t have to spend a dime. If enough people did this, we’d eventually all link up and begin our invasion of the waterfront. Until then, we hope you use this information to your advantage.

2 thoughts on “The Sorrows of the Oakland Waterfront

  1. Thank you for this history and laying out the continued white supremacy greed of Oakland ruling class. The Bloomberg-Schaaf alliance is presented as “sustainability” and even “equity” to address rising sea levels. The politicians and bureaucrats love Bloomberg because he promises $$$.

    People need to know about Bloomberg’s past, like when he was mayor of NYC. His “stop & frisk” policies had the NYPD intentionally target brown and black young 17-25 year olds –
    over 600,000 people in 2011 alone.

    In addition to COVID-19 messing with their plans, now the activists, youth and regular people have been in the streets taking on state violence, to defend black lives.

    Thanks again for the article. I love learning the history of resistance in Oakland. Stand up – Fight back!


  2. We the 99% must stick together to fight these greedy selfish corporations with their gentrifications agendas with Mayor Libby of Oakland, she smiles in our face all the long she is a backstabbing hypocrite, pretending to care for the working class ppl but yet ignore the homeless, those suppose to be jobs the A’s are purposing can’t support anyone living in the Bay Area, my two young adult kids stay with me because they can’t afford housing & I’m a Longshoreman, we have given countless CAREERS to the Bay Area residents & l’m one of them.


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