Hey Area is where we find answers to questions you ask. This one comes from New York staff writer Jelani Cobb. He asks, “How did there get to be an entirely separate city inside of Oakland?”
Ever since I looked for my first apartment in Oakland, I’ve had the same question. Why is Piedmont its own city? It’s this small 1.7 square mile municipal island in the middle of Oakland. The border is based on an old sewer line, so you can’t see it. But sometimes you can feel it, like Leon Sykes does in the Morcom Rose Garden. Leon is a 35 year old black man, local radio host, and self-described Oakland town representer. He grew up and still lives by the rose garden.
“This is kind of split into two sides. To the right of us is the Piedmont side on the left side is the Oakland side,” Leon points out.
But in his three decades living on the Oakland-Piedmont border, Leon has visited Piedmont only a handful of times. Leon says he had a sense that he wasn’t necessarily wanted. Growing up, Leon says, “I knew that on the Piedmont side, don't be over there after 10 o'clock, but on the Oakland side, they're not really going to trip as much.”
The city of Piedmont is mostly just large homes. There’s a gas station, a few banks, a market, and city hall. For most needs, Piedmont residents rely on services in Oakland.
City administrator John Tulloch explains that Piedmont was founded in the late 1800s essentially as a resort community for weekend trips for wealthy San Franciscans.
But when the 1906 earthquake happened, thousands of newly unhoused San Franciscans flooded into Oakland. and the city began rapidly expanding. That’s when a group of Piedmont residents who were nervous that they would be swallowed up by Oakland organized a vote for Piedmont to become its own city. The vote passed by a very narrow margin and Piedmont has been its own city ever since.
Oakland grew and now surrounds the City of Piedmont and today, is one of the most diverse cities in the country. The population of white and black residents is almost equal. But in Piedmont, out of eleven thousand residents, less than two hundred are black.
I meet with Eli Moore, a researcher at UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute (Formely named the Haas Institute at the time of reporting). He and his colleagues recently published a paper on the Bay Area’s history of housing discrimation.
“I think a lot of times when people ask the question, ‘how did Piedmont get to be its own city?’, what they really mean is, ‘how did Piedmont stay so white?’” says Eli.
He says that places like Piedmont are the result of strategies to keep neighborhoods white and hold onto wealth. In the early part of the century, this was done through violence and intimidation.
Sidney Dearing, his wife, and children were the first black family to buy a home in Piedmont. They were not welcomed in. In fact, five hundred people gathered outside their home to protest. And the Dearings’ home was firebombed three times. And the police refused to provide protection for him.
Sadly that’s not too surprising, since Piedmont’s Chief of Police was also a local leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The city government offered to buy the Dearings’ home at 80% of what they paid for it. Sidney refused and held out as long as he could. But the city then tried to condemn their house, claiming they needed to build a road through it.
I don’t know what happened to Sidney Dearing or his children after they were forced out of Piedmont. But I went to 67 Wildwood Ave and the house Sidney Dearing once bought for his family is still there. Looking at an old picture from a newspaper, it seems like it hasn’t changed at all on the outside.
Perhaps it's the legacy of this dark time that accounts for Leon’s feeling unwanted in Piedmont. But he recognizes that Piedmont residents today on the whole are more sensitive about matters of race. In 2017, the Mayor of Piedmont was ousted for racist and inflammatory posts. “So they're showing some growth and they are showing that diversity is starting to become important. And I would just love to see even more of that,” says Leon.
After reporting on this story, I started to wonder if maybe the story of Piedmont is also the story of America—our struggle in making our principles into reality, and the healing that we have yet to do, for the wrongs of the past.