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Column: The Lost Tribe of Albany

Albany Patch welcomes guest columns and letters to the editor via email at albany@patch.com.

In a previous op-ed on Albany Patch, I referred to running along San Pablo Avenue, and I suggested that “perceived disamenities,” like cell towers and (the never approved) , tend to be located there and not in the more affluent predominantly white neighborhoods to the east.

Some commenters suggested . I replied that a good place to start to resolve this question was the 1950 Census, and that I would do some research. I did find an online searchable 1950s U.S. Census with the help of UC Berkeley’s reference librarians. You can search it too, using this link.

Because Albany was located in a metropolitan area, it was “tracted,” or divided into smaller census regions, at least back to the 1940 Census. With help from the UCB reference librarians, I performed searches of the 1940, 1950 and 1960 censuses. The results are posted in the attached spreadsheet, along with a description of the boundaries of the census tracts. I’ve also included a scanned map of East Bay census tracts from the 1950s Census.

In 1950, Albany had 1,778 black residents. All but seven lived in census tract five, which is the region west of San Pablo Avenue. That’s the region I had identified as being in my original op-ed. I could stop here and just say “I told you so,” but, especially for someone who lived in University Village, the story is more complex, and ultimately more sad.

The obvious reality that emerges from studying the census data is how white Albany was in the mid-20th century. In 1940, the city was more than 99 percent white. In 1950, the city was more than 99 percent white east of San Pablo Avenue, and about two-thirds white west of San Pablo Ave. In 1960, the city was still more than 97 percent white, and there were 302 people classified as “other races” and only 75 classified as “Negro.”

The temporary demographic blip in the 1950 Census was due to the Codornices Housing Project, one of the many federal housing projects in the Bay Area built during World War II to house shipyard and other war-related workers. The original project was bounded by Buchanan Avenue on the north, and spread all the way to Camelia Street in Berkeley, just south of where REI is located now. The western border was San Pablo Avenue, and the eastern border the railroad tracks near what is now the I-80 freeway. The Korean War prolonged the life of these housing projects, but they were eventually sold or dismantled during the 1950s.

The Codornices project was a remarkable social experiment for its time. It was strictly integrated, with a population about half black and half white. Together, children of both races attended the old Codornices school, located near where the Ocean View Elementary School exists today. The black workers often faced brutal working conditions in the shipyards, where they were assigned the most menial tasks and racism was still accepted. By comparison, Codornices must have seemed like an oasis.

When I lived in University Village in the 1990s, my apartment was in “Section B,” which was built in the early 1960s for university students. But many of the original Codornices apartments were still in use. I walked the same streets, and dropped my son off at the same pre-school used by these WWII shipyard workers.

Imagine a scenario like this: A family is living in the early 1940s in the deep south. They are sharecroppers, southern tenant farmers, living in a shack with no plumbing, working the fields in the summer heat. They hear about opportunities in California, and decide to move so the parents can work in the shipyards. The family finds itself living in a clean modern apartment in Albany, with white neighbors and a good school for the children. The weather is cool and moderate. Can you imagine how strange it must have seemed?

Sadly, the Codornices project didn’t last. Local historians Warren and Catherine Lee wrote about the project in their book, “A selective history of the Codornices-University Village, the City of Albany & Environs.” They relate the story of Herman Schein, a former economist for the Federal Housing Authority, who argued against the demolition of Codornices project (by then also occupied by WWII veterans).

He stressed the possibility that the tenants who were occupying the apartments would have considerable difficulty in finding equitable housing. He noted that the situation was made more desperate by the fact that around 50 percent of these low income residents were black and, hence, an immediate search for another residence in the Bay Area or a relocation to another place would be more than many of these people could endure. He emphasized the point that there was a good possibility that some of these families would be relegated to a state of homelessness.

But by the end of 1955, the eviction notices had been served, and the destruction of the Codornices project had begun. At that point, UC stepped in, and saved many of the buildings for married student housing.

As I looked at the census data, those black residents of the Codornices project (many of whom lived in Albany for up to 10 years) seem like some sort of lost tribe. Thousands of people came and went in less than a decade. Who were they? Where did they come from and where did they go?

Some clues are provided here, by a student of the famous UC Berkeley civil rights historian Leon Litwack.

The end of World War II brought a halt to war-related shipbuilding and large-scale cutbacks in the shipyard work force. Shipbuilding employment fell from 1,033,900 jobs in 1945 to 155,000 in 1950 (Shipbuilders Council, 1960), and black workers were the hardest hit. In the East Bay by 1950 unemployment among nonwhites had soared to 29 percent, compared to 13 percent unemployment among whites. Unemployment among black women was even higher at 39 percent (Lemke-Santangelo, 1996, 108-109). While whites were able to find other work in newly developing service sectors of the economy, and move to new homes in the burgeoning suburbs, blacks competed for a dwindling supply of manufacturing jobs and could afford only the cheap housing found in deteriorated sections of the East Bay. 

I think Albany’s lost tribe would be a great research project for an AUSD high school class. I’ll leave it to others to update the census information for Albany. The land where the Codornices project was located is still controversial several decades later. Witness the debate about the Whole Foods mixed-use project, to be located precisely where the last remaining Codornices apartments were torn down just a few years ago. 

I also think the legacy of Albany’s only colored neighborhood still lives on in the debates about where to put cell towers and .

Albany Patch welcomes guest columns and letters to the editor via email at albany@patch.com.

Paul O'Curry August 04, 2012 at 09:50 PM
My understanding is that the first African American family that BOUGHT a house in Albany were the Chambers. They lived on Evelyn Avenue just south of Washington and purchased their home after WWII.
Michael Barnes August 04, 2012 at 11:08 PM
Karen, I believe Key Route is the former rail line, and it is also the boundary between the other census tracks, so we could look at how demographics varied on the right side and the wrong side of the tracks.
Karen Sorensen August 05, 2012 at 05:28 PM
Michael, It's a common misunderstanding in Albany that the Key Route trains ran here (and for good reason, given Key Route Blvd.). I'm not a train expert, but my understanding of the Key Route is that they wanted to extend their line through Albany to Richmond, and went as far as establishing Key Route Blvd. before financial difficulties forced them to abandon the idea. The Key System did have a line that extended to and ended at Westbrae. (The primary electric train cars we had in Albany were the Southern Pacific "Red Trains" which ran down Solano Ave.) So I believe that the community "line" of the tracks that longtime residents refer to is associated with the tracks of the former Santa Fe train that ran along Masonic (following today's BART tracks).
Peggy McQuaid August 05, 2012 at 07:29 PM
I believe the Key System also ran the buses before AC Transit was formed. Both the trains and busses were painted yellow. After the busses were taken out of service, 31 trains spent 12 years of surban service in Buenos Aires, Argentina. They were finally retired in 1974.
Michael Barnes August 06, 2012 at 06:28 AM
Karen, I looked at the scanned census map again. As far as I can tell, the dividing line is marked A.T. and S.F. R.R, which most likely refers to Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. If so, it sounds like Masonic is the more likely boundary, as you suggest. Thanks!

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