How West Alameda Acquired Its Character

How West Alameda Acquired Its Character


Neptune Beach, the Coney Island of the West.

It’s a tale of bogs, bridges, bathing, booze, and boxing.

Consider this: In 1870, Webster Street was just a line on a map (and called Euclid Street, then—it would not even be named Webster for another five years), while Park Street was paved, lined with gas lights, and about to build an opera house, which would join its complement of a three-story hotel, general store, public hall, and a well-trafficked train depot. It was “the smartest place in town;” it was “thoroughly modern.”

Or go back a few years earlier: In 1864, A.A. Cohen, chief attorney for the Central Pacific Railroad and founder of the first railroad system in Alameda County—the San Francisco and Oakland Railroad—built his estate in what is now the Fernside neighborhood of Alameda. The area was, at the time, the hinterlands of San Francisco, and in need of easier transport. So Cohen made sure his railroad tracks made it to the Island. The first stop was at his private estate. The second? Park Street, which then built up around the station. The district emerged from money, from civilized desires for commerce and comfort; from the moment Cohen built his railroad, Park Street was the civic and commercial center of Alameda. Webster Street? It would remain nothing but marshlands and dense forest until well into the next decade.

Webster Street was born this way—the wilds to Park Street’s civilization; the Esau to its Jacob. Webster Street has never been Alameda’s favorite son.

In 1995, Woody Minor, Alameda’s own local historian, lamented that “Webster Street remains, for the most part, undiscovered territory to local history and architecture buffs.” Minor himself did much work to correct that, through his extensive multipart exploration of this architectural history of Webster Street in the (now defunct) Island Journal and the Alameda Journal. But the fact remains that Park Street still holds the lure—still is Alameda in the imagination of most denizens of the Bay Area, including us Alamedans. It reminds me of an old joke: Northern Californians turn their noses up at Southern California. Southern Californians don’t even know there is a California north of Santa Barbara.


Which is not to say life hasn’t been exciting on the west side throughout Alameda’s history. It is precisely not to say this.

Robert Bell Tappan, recounting his childhood roaming the wilds of the West End, described, in a December 1895 edition of the Alameda Daily Argus, a hacienda at Central Avenue and Fourth Street run by “her ladyship Tule”: “She was a big, fat, straight-haired Mexican Indian, with one eye.” As children, Tappan and his comrades would sneak up to the hacienda, hide in the “thick forest” surrounding it, and spy on the festivities, sniffing curiously at the scents of frijoles and tortillas wafting their way. One can only imagine that the publication of this essay helped to solidify the idea of the west side as a feral place, at least to the primarily Anglo population gathered around Park Street.

Then, in 1871, the first bridge across the estuary was built, connecting Oakland to Alameda. But the western end of Alameda at that time was hardly more than bogs and trees. The bridge ended in a landscape that no horse-drawn anything could easily navigate. It took another year to construct an earth-fill roadway across the marsh from the bridge to the forest, to clear the ground, grade it, and pave it with crushed rock. And the street, such as it was, wouldn’t even be called Webster until 1875, taking its name from the Oakland thoroughfare across the estuary. The area that grew up around the bridge was raw and industrial, connected to maritime commerce, or left wild.

But there was development due to this new bridge, and the streetcar line that ran across it from Oakland—the Alameda, Oakland, and Piedmont Railway—which was, in fact, Alameda’s first streetcar line. This, combined with the rail lines running across the Island down Central Avenue and Lincoln, made Webster Street more accessible. But was it opera houses and theaters that were built up during this growth? No. It was the beginning of the bathing resort boom.

By the 1880s, the western end was dotted with bathing resorts, catering to vacationing San Franciscans—but apparently not the refined ones. Instead, it was to lure those who wanted to come to the wilds, to become a little bit wild. In 1895, Charles C. Volberg, a former member of Alameda’s Board of City Trustees wrote of that the bathing resort boom that “Saloons were opened everywhere; the character of the visitors changed; the hoodlum element predominated, and as the hoodlum does not bathe, but wants to drink, dance and fight, the bathing was lost sight of and fighting and carousing became the chief amusements.” In fact, Volberg recalled, “Special policemen had to be employed to keep order.” Indeed, the growing number of misbehaving visitors to the bathing resorts convinced Alameda’s trustees that the West End needed a jail. And it didn’t take long to put it to use: Its first occupant was tossed behind bars the very day the jail opened.

But not all of the fighters on Webster Street were doing so illegally. In fact, Webster Street was once famous for its professional fighters. Croll’s Gardens and Hotel at the corner of Webster and Central, now the restaurant 1400 Bar & Grill (as you probably know, thanks to the Croll’s sign that still hangs above the door), was the training quarters for some of the greatest fighters of the time. James J. Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, Jim Jefferies, and Jack Johnson all stayed and trained there. They put on demonstration bouts in an arena where McDonald’s is now. And the crowd, so caught up, one imagines, in what they were watching, sometimes continued the fights out on the street.

The largest and most popular bathing resort in the 1880s was Neptune Gardens, the predecessor to Neptune Beach. It included a bowling alley, a shooting gallery, summer rental cottages, and stables. Sideshows with Kennette, the Human Fly, and Ravella, the Human Salamander. And nonhuman animals in a menagerie: monkeys and bears and badgers and eagles. Or not always in the menagerie—Jennie the monkey escaped in 1886, wandering the West End until her recapture; the bears that chewed through their wooden bars that same year meandered down Central Avenue until returned to their (presumably repaired) cages.

Meanwhile, Park Street got a hotel, its opera house, city hall, a library, the Masonic Temple. There were bathers and carousers and fighters and roaming animals on Webster Street; there was commerce and government and culture on Park Street.


And as one century marched into the next, Webster continued in its distinctive nature, continued injecting its “Dickensian vitality into the otherwise staid existence of Victorian Alameda,” as Woody Minor once said.

The First World War and access to the waterways brought heavy industry to the west side, such as the Borax factory and the Bethlehem Shipyard. At one time, the West End had three airports; it had streetcars, railways, and the Alameda Mole, from whence streetcars and passengers and goods were ferried across the bay. And in 1917, Neptune Beach opened with its giant swimming pools and roller coaster and Johnny Weissmuller and Jack LaLanne. For decades, Webster Street was a booming industrial and recreational enclave, if not exactly a respectable destination.

In the 1930s, the San Francisco Bay Airdrome (where the College of Alameda is now) was a busy commercial airport out of which many airlines flew: Coastal Air Freight, Varney Air Lines, West Coast Air Transport, Western Air Express, the Transbay Air Ferries, and Boeing’s Pacific Air Transport. They held aerial extravaganzas in 1938 and 1939, attracting tens of thousands of locals to their airfield, but eventually had to shut down so as not to clog up the airspace needed by Naval Air Station Alameda, which began its operations in 1940.

But the loss of one airport didn’t slow down the West End’s growth. During World War II, “Alameda experienced the biggest boom in its history; with the NAS in commission and seven busy shipyards on the estuary, the population more than doubled between 1941 and 1945,” Woody Minor tells us. And this particular growth brought the rowdy behavior of seamen.

Even in 1983, the Webster Street that Minor described was not much varied in spirit from what it had apparently been a hundred years earlier: He wrote of a street of “sailors on leave, tattoo parlors, hustlers and hookers, gas stations and fast-food places.” Measured against Park Street, it was a place “more boisterous,” with a “quicker rhythm.” It had a “freer, looser spirit,” and a “rowdy, blue-collar nature.”

Only a decade or so ago, Webster Street was still trouble. I met a former Alameda resident the other day while in Point Reyes; we swapped stories about the Island, replete with mutual admiration for all its pleasures. Then I mentioned I lived in the West End. Oh, man, he said, Webster Street is trouble. He told me how in the late 1990s he’d go with his friends after an Alameda Hornets game to grab a burger at Nation’s—there was always a fight, he said. The street was full of fights.


Alameda has, in some senses, always been a tale of two cities, and the Webster Street side has generally been found wanting next to the Park Street side: less respectable, less adorable, less desirable. From the rowdy bathing resort culture of the 19th century to the sketchy Navy tattoo parlors of the NAS Alameda era to the “kitschy” stretch of chain restaurants and gas stations that Herb Caen derided, Webster’s sketchy reputation has never held up very well against the small-town charm of Park Street.

And yet today, I am at WesCafé, typing this out on a polished granite tabletop, sitting amid the happy chattering of brunching families and other folks, like me, tapping away on their laptops. Down the street are markets—the Bosnian market, Aria; the Arab market, Jazeera—and cookie bars, high-end boutiques for ladies and babies, sushi and dim sum and ice cream. A pinball museum! A comic book shop! Even some of the tattoo parlors nestled amid the other establishments attract arty hipsters rather than drunken sailors. And, yes, there is still a sour-smelling bar here and there, and an absence of Peet’s, but these are barely noticed by the families enjoying their family-friendly fare.

Maybe Webster Street isn’t looking so shabby after all. In fact, a recent Alameda Patch article declared, “Webster Street. The best thing happening in Alameda right now.” And Alameda rated second on Men’s Journal’s list of “Island Getaways from Major Cities,” but there was barely a reference to the east side—just a glancing reference to Alameda Theatre (not even mentioned by name). Instead, the piece focused almost exclusively on the far West End, on the Alameda Base—Mythbusters and the wineries, the industrial appeal of the working docks and abandoned roads.

This change didn’t happen by accident—the efforts of the West Alameda Business Association; state, municipal, and federal funding for street beautification and building rehab and renovation; the vision and tenacity of business owners like Monica Trejo of WesCafé; the willingness of Alamedans (and others) to come to the West Side and stay awhile and spend their money at local businesses—all this (and more) came together to make it happen. These were local efforts to create a place for local community—a community of business owners, a community of families and coffee drinkers and comic book readers and pho eaters. Webster Street would still be fast food and gas stations, burgers and fights, if it weren’t for all these forces coming together.

Often, on Friday nights, my family and I opt for Webster Street over Park Street. Recently, we stopped in for an early dinner at Café Jolie—I can’t turn down a good steak frites—where we were regaled by jazz and enjoyed nice wine and Wikki Sticks; then we walked down to the new WesCafé Creamery. We had a pleasant chat with Monica, who invited us to come watch a movie on her patio; we ran into several friends, and Ed, our plumber. We enjoyed the balmy air while watching a martial arts class at the International Chi Institute. We admired the wall murals—small and large—along the street by Michael McDonald. There were no fights, no wild animals, no hoodlums: It was the epitome of a family-friendly, small town–USA evening.

So there is change in the air, out here in the not-so-wild west. Webster Street is evolving, and has more room to grow. The question now is the future: What will Alameda Point and a buildup of the former Alameda base mean to a Webster Street just coming into its own? Will it draw the life away from Webster Street, or add to it? One can only hope that it adds to the life of Webster, building on its vibrancy and its unique character rather than burying Webster’s history or drawing energy away from the lively street.

This article appears in the October 2014 issue of Alameda Magazine
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