By Lexi Pandell
In the last few years, there have been countless stories comparing Oakland to Brooklyn. Most recently, the New York Times ran a Sunday Style piece on Oaktown, with a title that cut right to the chase: “Oakland: Brooklyn by the Bay.”
I get the comparisons between the two up-and-coming cities. But there’s no need to get into it here. The story has been drawn out. Except there is one piece of trivia that has seemed to escape this conversation. With it, you can wow your friends with your knowledge of local history and avoid what is sure to turn into another stale conversation about hipsters, techies and gentrification. Here it is: Oakland actually was Brooklyn.
Well, not all of Oakland. But, before it was appropriated as part of Oakland, East Oakland was an entirely separate city called Brooklyn.
Back in 1846, more than 200 Mormons boarded a ship in New York. The vessel traveled down around Cape Horn and Hawaii before landing in Yerba Buena, or what’s known today as San Francisco. At that time, there were a lot of Mormons in the Bay Area and, ten years after that ship embarked, the town of Brooklyn was named in its honor. Brooklyn was formed by joining the towns of Clinton and San Antonio, which retain their names to this day as neighborhoods. Starting to the east of Lake Merritt, Brooklyn consisted of about 24,300 acres, stretching all the way to San Leandro.
Brooklyn seemed to do well for itself, too. “The population of the place is mostly American, with an admixture of foreigners from several nationalities,” according to an 1892 book entitled The Bay of San Francisco: The Metropolis of the Pacific Coast and its Suburban Cities. “There are churches of several denominations, and fraternal and benevolent societies, and the educational facilities are abundant and of the best.”
Brooklyn didn’t last long, though. It was annexed into the rest of Oakland in 1872. However, the Brooklyn Township Volunteer Fire Department wasn’t incorporated into the Oakland Fire Department for five more years. (It was particularly well-known for an eight-foot-tall fireman named Joe Sullivan, who was called the Brooklyn Giant. He was so immense that, when he died in his sleep on the second-story of the firehouse, his body had to be lowered out the window.)
Though Brooklyn is long gone, some remnants of the former city remain. There’s Brooklyn Avenue, a stretch of road in Cleveland Heights, and the town served as inspiration for the name of Old Brooklyn Bagels and Deli on College Avenue. Plus, there’s Brooklyn Basin, an area of the Oakland Estuary that is seeing huge real estate, commercial, and park development and is sure to draw more Oakland-Brooklyn comparisons.
So, the next time the dreaded Brooklyn-Oakland topic comes up in conversation, you have something to lean on… before, of course, adding that, while they are both wonderful places with some similarities, present-day Brooklyn and Oakland are also immensely different, and that it may be time we find something else to obsess over.
Image via Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley