As San Francisco’s cost of living explodes (it’s currently second-highest in the nation, after Manhattan), its residents are increasingly crossing the bay to Oakland. But alongside its rapid gentrification, Oakland is known for its art, music, culture, and political activism on a nationwide scale. Here, we’ll delve into how Oakland’s modern neighborhoods got their start—and their names.
1. SAN ANTONIO
The city of Oakland began as a chunk of the 44,800-acre Rancho San Antonio, owned by Luís María Peralta. A land grant issued to him in 1820 in recognition of his military service to Spain covered present-day Oakland as well as parts of the cities of San Leandro, Berkeley, Alameda, Emeryville, and Piedmont. In 1842, Peralta split the rancho among his four sons; the area we know today as San Antonio was located on his son Antonio Maria’s property. In 1851, James Larue bought some of the land and turned it into its own town, but five years later it joined the adjacent town of Clinton to form a new city called Brooklyn—named after the ship that had brought Mormon settlers to the area in 1846. When Brooklyn was annexed by the city of Oakland in 1872, San Antonio became simply a neighborhood.
East Oakland is home to the diverse Seminary district, with its eponymous Seminary Avenue running through it. The area is mostly known for being a college neighborhood, thanks to its close proximity to Mills College, which is also the origin of its name. The college was founded as the Young Ladies’ Seminary in Benicia in 1852; in 1865 it was purchased by Susan Tolman Mills and her husband Cyrus, and soon rechristened as Mills Seminary. The college relocated to its present site in Oakland in 1871, and received its current name in 1885.
Jingletown, a vibrant arts community covered in murals and mosaics, lies adjacent to the Oakland Estuary. The name originated long ago, when there were large numbers of Portuguese immigrants living in the area, largely from the Azores in the Atlantic. The story goes that the Portuguese mill workers would stand around on the street corners in the evenings, chatting and fraternizing with one another while jingling the coins they had in their pockets. In the 1950s and '60s, the area saw an influx of families from Latin America, and it was the center of the Chicano civil rights movement of the late '60s and early '70s.
4. THE TWOMPS
The subsection of San Antonio found between 20th and 29th Avenues was once known as "The Rolling '20s" or "The Roaring '20s," but locals today frequently call it "The Twomps." The nickname arose sometime in the 1980s; Twomp is a slang word for "20."
5. BUSHROD PARK
This neighborhood in North Oakland is named after the 10.12-acre park it encompasses. The park itself got its title from Dr. Bushrod Washington James, a Philadelphia philanthropist who donated the land for the park in 1903. (James himself was ostensibly named after George Washington’s nephew, Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, who pronounced his name “buh-SHRAHD.”)
First part of the Brooklyn area of Oakland, the Frick neighborhood is named after its first school at Foothill Boulevard and 62nd Avenue. In the early 1900s, the Lockwood School District, short of funds, needed to build an elementary school for the semi-rural community, and local mining and lumber magnate Walter P. Frick stepped up with the land. The W. P. Frick School opened in 1909 with 90 students, grades 1–6, and later was converted into a junior high school. Just months after the school was built, the area was annexed into the City of Oakland.
One of the oldest parts of the city, the North Oakland neighborhood of Temescal gets its name from Temescal Creek, which runs through the area. The creek’s name, in turn, is derived from a Nahautl word, temescalli, which describes an Aztec sweathouse. When the land was part of Luís María Peralta’s Rancho San Antonio, the vaqueros—ranch hands or cowboys—working there had spotted structures along the waterway that had been built by the native Ohlone tribe and were similar to the Aztec temescalli huts they’d seen in parts of what is now Mexico.
North Oakland is home to the Longfellow district, currently seeing an economic boom and a new community of artists. It was once a thriving Italian neighborhood, beginning in the early 1900s and lasting through the 1940 and '50s, when African Americans began to establish communities in the area as well. The name Longfellow comes from the elementary school on Lusk Street, which is named after the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow Elementary closed in 2004, but the name lives on.
Gaskill is named after a pair of brothers, Rollin and DeWitt Gaskill, who bought 17 acres in North Oakland from farmer George Parsons in 1869. Many of its street names have a more complicated history, however. After DeWitt bought Rollin out in 1870, he began building roads along the northern and southern borders of Menlo and Parsons Streets, the latter named after the family that had previously owned the land. When the City of Oakland annexed Gaskill in 1897, it applied its own conventions to the street names, putting the east/west streets on the number system and changing the names of several others to avoid duplication with names elsewhere in the city. Menlo Street thus became Aileen Street, Parsons Street became 55th Street, and internal Park Street, running north/south, was renamed after D.W.C. Gaskill himself.
Although precise definitions differ, an area of Oakland near the Twomps is officially named Highland Park, but no one really uses that name anymore—the residents overwhelmingly call it Funktown. The name has nothing to do with the 1980 hit single by Lipps Inc., “Funkytown." Instead, this area was once the home base of the violent gang Funktown USA, which was notorious for cocaine and heroin trafficking. After the arrests and deaths of several key members in the late '80s and '90s, the gang fractured and Funktown quieted down quite a bit, but unlike most of Oakland, it’s still far from being gentrified.