There’s a whole lot of history steeped inside West Oakland’s 16th Street train station at 16th and Wood streets. Between 1912, when the Southern Pacific financed its construction, and 1989, when damage caused by the Loma Prieta earthquake effectively shut its doors, it served at various times as a bustling terminus for transcontinental trains, a workplace for the legendary Pullman porters, and even as a space for burgeoning jazz musicians to develop their chops before hitting the stages of the city’s early jazz clubs.
And while the transit-induced bustle that defined the station’s early days has long since faded, the historic site saw a brief resurgence in activity last July during one of the largest community events to be staged there in decades. Around 1,500 people reportedly visited the station for the “All Aboard! Community Celebration,” a primarily outdoor gathering with music and food that afforded attendees a rare opportunity to tour the usually shuttered building and take in towering forty-foot ceilings, huge rounded windows, and other elements of its antiquated interior. Those who were around during the station’s active days recorded memories of past visits in an oral-history booth.
For Gregory Hodge, chairman of the nonprofit group RAILS (Restoration Association for Improving the Landmark Sixteenth Street Station), formed in 2008 to help restore the space to community use, it was the first time he felt the old building return to life. “There’s a sort of energy that’s latent in it, this historical presence that something really important happened here,” he said. “And the more people that came in, the more you could kind of feel the hustle and bustle of the people coming in on the train, asking directions to get to the trolley car.”
And that’s just the kind of sentiment that Hodge hopes will sustain public interest in the West Oakland landmark while his organization works with station owner BUILD, a subsidiary of BRIDGE Housing, to secure additional funding and finalize plans for the station’s future use. There are talks of turning the main hall into an event and performance space, installing a community kitchen in the former baggage area, and planting an urban garden in the plaza, while retaining the Beaux arts-style decor so rooted in the building’s character. It’s an ambitious work-in-progress that organizers say is still years from completion. In the interim, sustained public and political support is crucial, Hodge said.
That’s why RAILS and its partners are hosting a second, slightly scaled-back celebration on Sunday, November 13, when the public will get another chance to step inside the station. Organizers have dubbed the second All Aboard! iteration “Bites and Blues,” since the actual party will be held outdoors among a plethora of food trucks and live music provided by the Bay Area Blues Society. The Rock Paper Scissors Collective will coordinate children’s activities and bicycle valets will park vistors’ two-wheeled rides.
As the 16th Street Station nears its centennial, Hodge hopes to make such events a regular affair — not only to help people appreciate the building’s connection to the past, but also to discourage taggers from using its freeway-facing exterior as a canvas (though he said he’d like to commission graffiti artists for legitimate mural projects in the future). “I think we’re sending a message that this building has not been abandoned, that it represents a community treasure,” Hodge said. “It’s like an old brass lamp. We’re shining it until a genie pops out.” 1-4 p.m., free. IndieGoGo.com/16thstreetstation