A neighborhood displaced by BART

The three square blocks called Madison Square Park was once a thriving neighborhood of apartments and even a church, until the wrecking ball of urban renewal made way for what’s now Lake Merritt BART. Reporter Lindsey Lee Keel has this story.

LINDSEY LEE KEEL: It’s paved over now, but the house where Fran Toy grew up was right here, where Madison Park is today.

FRAN TOY: I lived there from the moment I came home from the hospital until four days before my 22nd birthday when I left to get married.

Toy says it was a safe neighborhood, full of Victorian duplexes and apartment buildings.

TOY: And we didn’t even lock our front doors, our back doors.

Like Toy’s own family, most of her neighbors were working class, many of them immigrants from China. Toy says she grew up during the Depression but she and her siblings didn’t know they were poor.

TOY: And we played in the streets a lot because, after all, I was born in the 30’s, there weren’t that many cars going up and down the streets and so we just, we played. I think the guys played kick the can or something. And we saved the paper caps from the milk bottles that were delivered and we played with that. It was just a very peaceful childhood.

Peaceful, but busy.

TOY: The majority of us as children went to what we called American school in the morning and then to the early afternoon, and then we had a little breather, and then we went to Chinese school before dinner.

There was always something to do, and for Toy’s family that included spending a lot of time at the True Sunshine Episcopal Church.

TOY: My mother was a very faithful Christian, very devout. And she gave hours to the church, she volunteered herself and of course she volunteered her children. So, every Saturday she marched, my brother, my sister, and me from 8th Street, where we lived around the corner, to the church. And we’d clean the church for Sunday services. 

At that time Toy was planning to be a nurse when she grew up. And her brothers and sisters used that fact to their advantage.

TOY: I got conned by my older siblings to clean the lavatories because that would be good practice for emptying bedpans. And I think I can still remember how awful it was in the boy’s bathroom.

Cleaning toilets wasn’t her only duty at the church.

TOY: We used to go, my sister and I and about three other young ladies, we’d go around, and we would actually like the pied piper collect our Sunday school students we’d walk to the church Sunday morning and then afterwards walk them back home.

The congregation was mainly Cantonese and so was the neighborhood.

TOY: As far as I can remember, all our neighbors on either side, or across the street, were all Chinese.

But the tightly knit neighborhood of Fran Toy’s childhood would eventually face big changes. It was slated for demolition as part of the city’s plan to eliminate what it called urban blight. UC-Berkeley Geographer Richard Walker.

RICHARD WALKER: In the mid-20th Century, Victorian houses were regarded as old dogs and, completely out of fashion and clunky. So that’s the kind of mindset of the downtown business people that you would have circa 1950.

Walker says that mindset allowed for a top-down approach to redevelopment. City planners decided to level three blocks to make way for a new BART station and headquarters.

WALKER: Now, there’s also of course an unspoken or sometimes pretty straightforward racism and classism that says, ‘We wanna get rid of these unsavory people, whether they are the new African American populations that had come in during World War II or the Chinese.’

Walker says bringing BART to Oakland was a victory for the city, but at that time, it was a big surprise for most of the residents who would be displaced.

WALKER: Ordinary people would have had very little idea what was going on. A lot of this goes on behind closed doors. So people will find out, often, ordinary people, at the last minute.

Between 1964 and 1966, BART acquired all the properties on those three blocks, displacing 75 Chinese households.

TOY: And that’s how we lost our home.

Fran Toy saw her childhood community transform under the pressure of redevelopment. The lives of her family members and neighbors changed drastically.

TOY: They were all quite devastated. And it forced them to move elsewhere in Oakland.

But, that wasn’t the hardest part for Fran Toy’s family.

TOY: I didn’t lose only my family home, but, even more importantly, we lost our spiritual home because this church was right there around the corner from my home.

The loss was significant. In many ways, Toy grew up inside the church. It’s where her parents met.

TOY: In my whole lifetime I saw my mother cry twice. Once when her mother died, and the second time was when the bishop came to deconsecrate the space because it was going to be torn down and no longer a church.

The Church was demolished. The members moved to a different building, but it was miles away, up in the hills on Lincoln Avenue.

TOY: And so we lost congregation members by the droves. And I remember one Sunday going to church and the priest and I were the only two people there.

The redevelopment of the neighborhood left residents sad and angry, but Toy says they resigned themselves to the change, and didn’t protest.

TOY: It’s not part of our culture to mobilize and resist, not back in the 1960’s.

TOY: When you grow up in a culture where the people at the top have ultimate control…you don’t resist.

Later generations wouldresist and indeed transform the way redevelopment worked. In the mid sixties, Fran Toy’s family lost its home and church. But two decades later, Toy’s history would come full circle.

TOY: I was ordained the first Asian American female priest in the Episcopal Church.

The Reverend Dr. Fran Toy, her official title, is retired now. And the Episcopal Church has found a new home in the heart of Oakland’s Chinatown. It now resides on Harrison Street, near 10th. Toy still attends services there every so often, returning to her roots.

In Oakland, I’m Lindsey Lee Keel for Crosscurrents.

This story originally aired on June 14, 2010 as part of a series on Oakland's Chinatown.