Liam O’Donoghue Shares Tales of the Long Lost East Bay
He recounts East Bay lore in his podcast ‘East Bay Yesterday.’
Photo courtesy Liam O'Donoghue
After getting laid off from his journalism gig at Salon.com three years ago, Oakland resident Liam O’Donoghue was at loose ends wondering what to do next. Burned out on a news cycle where everyone’s screaming at each other all the time, O’Donoghue concluded that he wanted to do something that would have more lasting value and be more personally satisfying — a seemingly tall order. Then he realized that something he was looking for was right outside his apartment window on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland and its environs: the lore of his adopted hometown he kept hearing from old timers that he felt newcomers needed to hear. Soon he began work on what was to become the popular podcast/website East Bay Yesterday that has run stories ranging from the tale of hippies moving to Canyon behind the Oakland hills in the 1960s to the demise of Biff’s, Oakland’s beloved 24-hour coffee shop. The website also features a guide of relics called the Long Lost Oakland map. Today East Bay Yesterday is also heard on KPFA, and O’Donoghue gives presentations on local history at libraries, the California Historical Society, Nerd Nite East Bay, and other venues. Since I left my heart in Oakland, I decided to give O’Donoghue a call recently to compare notes.
Paul Kilduff: Thanks to Long Lost Oakland map I now know that Berkeley had its own species of rat, the Berkeley kangaroo rat. Tell me more.
Liam O’Donoghue: Well, one thing I know about the kangaroo rat is that one of the reasons they’re not around anymore is because all the people who moved to the East Bay who had house cats. They made pretty quick work of the kangaroo rat, unfortunately. They lived on the rocky outcroppings among the chaparral and grass of the East Bay hills. They’re cute. A lot of people have said if you do another spinoff project, you should make a beanie baby style toy of the Berkeley kangaroo rat.
PK: Did they hop around like kangaroos on their hind legs?
LO: There’s other species of kangaroo rats that are still around and they look really similar to the Berkeley kangaroo rat and they had the big ears and hop around. I think they scamper a little bit, too, I’m not sure if they’re totally kangaroo-like. I’ve never seen a video of one in action.
PK: They’re definitely pre-video. I like the plush toy idea. Maybe it’s also time to change the name of my alma mater Berkeley High’s mascot from the Yellowjackets to the Kangaroo Rats. What do you think?
LO: That would be amazing.
PK: Back in the late 1800s, a part of East Oakland was once known as Brooklyn — does it have anything to do with a comparison to Brooklyn, New York — one that is now made quite often?
LO: Well, it’s funny that you bring that up, because I do this Waterfront History Boat Tour, and the story of Brooklyn is one of the stories I talk about. There was a ship of Mormon immigrants that were coming to the East Bay from the East Coast and the ship that brought them here was called The Brooklyn. Those Mormon settlers named the little village that they started when they first got here Brooklyn after the boat that brought them here.
PK: So it has absolutely nothing to do with Oakland’s relationship to San Francisco being like Brooklyn’s relationship to Manhattan?
LO: No, but I’ve got a point on that, too. I was reading media coverage about the development of Oakland around 1907, 1908, right after the earthquake when a lot of people were moving to the East Bay from San Francisco and San Francisco was rebuilding. And these newspaper articles were predicting that Oakland was going to be the Manhattan and that San Francisco would be the Brooklyn.
PK: Well, it could still happen, I guess. Is the Tribune Tower the most prominent landmark in downtown Oakland?
LO: It’s not going to be quite as prominent for very much longer because some of the buildings going up around it are going to be taller. You used to be able see it from pretty much anywhere in the hills, and now it’s going to be blocked from certain angles.
PK: I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody in conversation refer to Oakland as “the Town.” Do people really use that in everyday conversation, or is it just a clever marketing gimmick?
LO: You know, it’s funny; I feel like that has become more prominent in regular everyday conversation over the last 10, 15 years or so. So I don’t think it’s just a marketing thing. I do feel people say the Town.” And it is a nice distinction because when you say “I’m going to the city,” everybody knows you’re talking about going to San Francisco. I think calling Oakland “the Town” is something that people in Oakland have pride about because it’s not San Francisco and it has its own identity. One thing that people in Oakland will get upset about is when you try to call Oakland a suburb of San Francisco. I’ve seen people freak out about that. “The Town” is a singular entity. It’s its own thing. We’re different than Berkeley and San Leandro. In the ’70s, one of the nicknames for Oakland was “Bump City.” There was a Tower of Power song and a book called Bump City. You never hear anyone say that anymore.
PK: Let’s bring it back.
LO: That sounds pretty awesome, actually. It bumps. It’s bumping.
Liam O’Donoghue Vital Stats
Birthplace: Cincinnati, Ohio (but I only lived there for two years)
What’s your sign, bruh?: Aquarius
Book on nightstand: Currently reading A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism, but I’m also slowly making my way through A Californian’s Guide to the Birds Among Us
If you were a pro baseball player what would your “walk up” music be? “U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer so I could show off some of my dance moves on the way to the plate.
Motto: “Know your history, but don’t live in the past.”
“Go to” sandwich: Italian beef with hot peppers, drenched in au jus
Least favorite pothole in Oakland: Whichever one I’m currently swerving to avoid.
Got an idea for The Kilduff File? E-mail Paul Kilduff at PKilduff350@gmail.com.