I attended my first City of Oakland public meeting Monday, February 6th, to hear appeals by proprietors and regulars of The Kingfish Pub and Cafe seeking Landmark status before the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board.
In what can only be described as rare for an Oakland story about a dive, The San Francisco Chronicle actually did a cover piece on the place and this attempt to achieve Landmark status back in October (Which was amended by a piece on C-1 of The Chron, by same author, February 12).
This discussion yields an opportunity to address local art, architecture and gentrification, and historical and archival significance of the culture of North Oakland.
We are a decade deep into the digital generation and there are new, complicated reasons to carefully consider how we archive the past. Things have long begun to look more the same and with less character. Huge mega stores and strip malls replace local businesses, and much of what has existed has been erased and destroyed casually because of a lack of concern for the vernacular value of place.
The Landmarks Board has little power in the face of the Planning Commission or the City Council, which are dominated by lobbyists, mostly for vested developers’ interests, but the Landmarks Board exists for a reason and it is imperative we sharply define exactly how much power regular people have to protest rampant development solely for personal profit.
There are serious questions as to whether our City government is sophisticated enough to appreciate and protect what constitutes a Landmark in a specific neighborhood. Though, in fairness, this cannot be said of Valerie Garry, Vice-Chair of the Landmarks Board, who is a preservationist and showed architectural, artistic and cultural sensitivity to the petitioners’ request.
The Board as a whole heard the petitioners, were thoughtful faced by so many in the gallery, and yielded time for public comment, asking relevant questions.
Board Members Daniel Schulman and John Goines III were particularly vocal, and both voted against the upgrade of the validation request. Indeed both seemed moved, but cynical.
Goines was like a reluctant father trying to help supporters of the pub to get over losing it. Schulman declared he had been to the pub over the years, and recently as well, but argued huffily that a stronger case could be made for The White Horse in the neighborhood – the voice of political reason breaking the hearts of pub regulars. This led to a discussion about the matter and many great, old Oakland bars were brought up.
Staff reminded Schulman that The White Horse, Geo Kayes and others mentioned are storefronts in a building of another purpose, and not a free-standing, crazy-gorgeous, little wooden building built over decades.
It was inarguable that The Kingfish was in the company of all of the very old bars the Board discussed, but that among them all, the Kingfish, as a structure, is wholly unique.
Listening to these two gentlemen try to let folks down easy was one of the things that makes this discussion interesting to me: the suggestion that the petitioners are idealists asking for the moon from a Landmark Board Member who knows political reality.
I don’t know any of the Board Members, but I’ve thought deeply about the matter and inspected the Kingfish’s structure. I have interviewed regulars, owners and new customers and interacted with its extremely diverse clientele. A broad age and race demographic frequents the establishment – many of whom I know to be local residents.
In response to a direct request from the Chair of the Landmarks Board, Anna Naruta, for more oral histories on the Kingfish, I am beginning with this blog entry.
Many new residents of North Oakland are younger, wealthier and work in San Francisco. Some new homeowners are the product of the very last and most successful of the “house-flippers”.
These new owners join a flood of new renters from San Francisco and elsewhere. Rents are astronomically high. It’s hard to get a reasonable rent and dozens of high-rent apartments built during the fantasy boom stand empty, unrented. Greed has governed decision-making far more than culture.
Condos on the spot are economically and culturally unnecessary in this neighborhood and far more so if it requires removing the Kingfish, which is a remarkable structure filled with collage art and made from materials culturally syncretic to vernacular building in the area in the early 1900’s.
The first thing I told the Landmarks Board was that I am not a regular of the Kingfish Pub and Cafe , nor a friend of the owner/management petitioners. I stood before them as a local resident and urged the board to vote unanimously on behalf of the petitioners for Landmark eligibility status, because The Kingfish is a totally unique structure and a living collage of materials.
Management and regulars related that the Kingfish was begun as a bait shop in the early 1920’s, when it was built by a single individual from vernacular materials contemporary to its era, mostly wood planks.
Its location is excellent for fisherfolk because of very easy access to roads leading to many different parts of the Delta from Telegraph and Claremont. But also, for decades the Temescal Creek ran through here – until it was aquaducted so it now runs under here – and people fished it, too. The Kingfish Bait Shop must’ve been the hub for fisherfolk here.
It became popular and grew into a pub and restaurant in the 1930’s, and by the 1950’s had at least two generations of fathers, sons, mothers and daughters that had spent time buying bait, and then eventually sandwiches and beer, in what had grown into the ramshackle form it still takes.
My son and I fish. It’s clear we can get to many different fishing spots in the Bay easily from here. We notice less parents fishing these days. As computer games, digital culture and home entertainment dominate our society, less parents and children learn to fish and about the management of water-dwelling life. Less families spend time near the water.
The Kingfish is attached to a long vernacular history of people who cherish fishing here, leading up to ourselves. As a pub, because of this history, the ‘Fish attracts contemporary fisherfolk who maintain vernacular knowledge of climate, tides and environmental quality. It collects locals of a fading culture.
In the 1950’s and on into the 1970’s a second unique clientele began enjoying the ‘Fish. The pub lay just beyond the one-mile dry radius from the University of California. The Kingfish and many other local pubs became a hangout for college-aged students and, in the Kingfish Pub’s case, particularly for student athletes.
Cal players, coaches and managers as well as those from professional teams in the area, like the A’s, have long made the Kingfish a center of sports talk and culture. Its low-key, egalitarian atmosphere allows the most well-known or empowered athlete or manager to be able to co-mingle with younger athletes and students without the formalism of civic space.
The walls speak to years of this kind of activity, as sports memorabilia applied throughout the establishment exhibit the significance of The Kingfish as a Sportsperson’s Place. It’s clear that as with local fishing lore, a second, vernacular history is collected and archived by regulars of the ‘Fish, that of local sports.
The materials used and indeed the very “look” of the place are what attract me to this argument about its status as a Landmark of North Oakland. Many features of the Kingfish conjoin to demand consideration as cultural artifact of the region it inhabits, with powerful archival elements, protected solely by the managers and regulars of the pub – the petitioners.
The uniqueness of the application of the sports memorabilia is that while they are affixed in a seemingly uncurated and random manner, each comes with a story, and often regulars relate stories of how they came to be where they are on the walls. In fact, while some are quite valuable I am sure, no one would ever remove or move any of them.
Secondly, the Kingfish lets in very little light and has a low wooden ceiling. These are almost perfect conditions for archiving the materials in question! Through an oddity of its vernacular design, the culturally sensitive material affixed to the walls cannot be removed and are perfectly preserved over decades. Philosophically, from an arts and architecture standpoint, there is much to be considered here.
Representatives of the owner/developer are objecting to Landmark status and have claimed a vested interest and state-driven right to develop the land; that they had plans to do so and had those plans approved in 2007. Thus, in reality, what the Landmarks Board would have to do to support the petitioners would be relatively extreme.
The fact is, the developer’s plan was made in another universe – exactly at the peak of speculation in 2007. The immense and global crash that has occurred since 2008 still dominates the economic environment. No numbers generated for projects then could possibly make sense now.
The Kingfish has a diverse clientele in age and cultural background, attracting new generation residents like myself and 30- and 40-year customers. It feels welcoming while being historically connected – which in my experience is unique.
I told the Board my investigations made me realize lots of local parents and their children go and have gone to the Kingfish over decades, and lead me to approve of my son dropping in to the Kingfish when he turns 21, if the bar still stands in what would be its 99th year.
As an artist living in North Oakland electing not to own a car, and traveling weekly by bicycle and on foot between Peralta Elementary (with history to the late 1800’s) where my son has been a student, and the rock ridge for which the neighborhood is named, my son and I observe and photograph changes to public space and discuss them with others.
In these past five years we have documented:
— seismic retrofit of BART
— revivification of Frog Park and the creek pathway
— removal of the eucalyptus trees at the DMV by external interests
— repaving of Claremont to the freeway entrance (likely on behalf of Safeway’s expansion)
— closing of Long’s/CVS, and many older businesses
and the arrival of dozens of new businesses, salons, cafes, restaurants, bars and pubs between 2007 and 2012, including the closure and re-opening of the Kingfish.
The re-opening of the Kingfish by current management was met with enthusiasm locally in this time of revival here. The current petition to maintain the place via Landmark status is an extraordinary result of the most contemporary incarnation of the pub merging with intense cultural connection with its past.