A Brief History

Emeryville’s past is as colorful and exciting as its present.

In 1859, Joseph S. Emery, a stonecutter from New England and a prominent Bay Area builder, purchased a 185-acre tract north of Oakland. A small, prosperous community emerged along with a flourishing residential area known for its ornate Victorian houses. In another part of town, along the shore of San Francisco Bay was the Butchertown District where slaughterhouses and meat packing plants dominated the landscape.

By 1896, Emery had decided that after long-running battles with Alameda County over land taxes and with Oakland over its failure to provide municipal services, to incorporate his 185 acres. A slate of founding fathers served as the trustees of the new town and included Emery, W.H. Christie, J.T. Doyle, W. Fieldwich and F.J. Stoer. (You may recognize the origin of some of Emeryville’s street names from this list). Christie was appointed mayor, a position he held for over three decades.

For seven years city business was conducted in two small rooms of the Commercial Union Hotel at the foot of Park Avenue. When they outgrew the building, City Fathers decided that Park Avenue should be the “civic center” of Emeryville. For almost 70 years the ornate, classic building at 1333 Park Avenue served the city as its City Hall. It was closed in December of 1991 for repairs and earthquake retrofitting and has served as the home of the City Council and staff since its expansion and reopening in June, 2001.

During the first half of the 20th Century, Emeryville gained a reputation for its variety of entertainment in the form of the Oakland Trotting Park and Aviation Show. The famed Oakland Oaks baseball team, one of the original franchises in the old Pacific Coast League, called Emeryville home, with Oaks Park located near the intersection of Park and San Pablo Avenues partially on the location of the current Pixar Animation Studios campus. The El Rey Burlesque Theatre, auto racing, jazz clubs and, of course, saloons and speakeasies during the Prohibition era also flourished during this time. In 1920, a greyhound racetrack known as the Blue Star Amusement Park opened on Park Avenue and bookmaking joints called bucket shops opened as well. These off-track betting parlors operated illegally in the back rooms of hotels and saloons, so that handicappers could bet on horse races outside the state. In addition to horse and dog tracks in Emeryville, poker was played in private rooms and clubs licensed by the city. Slot machines installed in back rooms of restaurants attracted customers who wanted action and believed in Lady Luck. In short, Emeryville functioned as the entertainment capital of the East Bay. The Oaks Card Club, still operating very successfully on San Pablo Avenue, is now the sole remaining business of Emeryville’s once-booming gambling past.

In the summer of 2001, the classic old City Hall Building was reopened after an extensive refurbishing and modernizing. Emeryville municipal government moved back into the original building and the new, glass-walled 17,500-square-foot structure built adjacent and connected to it. Emeryville’s center of city government holds on to its past with the preservation of its first city hall and looks to the future with its contemporary and stylish city offices.

Once a town of heavy industry, Emeryville today continues to evolve and grow into a modern, 21st Century urban community with burgeoning retail, office, hospitality and biotechnology, nanotechnology, biofuels research and other advanced scientific sectors. Modern, urban-style housing is another of Emeryville’s new growth sectors, with over 3,900 new housing units completed, planned, or under construction since 2001.