There's something peculiar about the area bordered by Shattuck and Telegraph avenues between 56th and 58th streets in North Oakland. Throughout these humble residential blocks you'll find roads paved with concrete, rather than the typical asphalt; sidewalks largely lacking in above-ground utility poles but lined with charming streetlamps; and whimsical, storybook-style homes. The atypical architecture — which includes cottage-like houses with defiantly sloped roofs and rounded doors that look to be straight from the pages of Hansel and Gretel — has been turning heads since the first homes were built in the late 1920s. But perhaps even more interesting is what stood there before them — including, among other things, a roller coaster, a skating rink, an archery range, and even captive grizzly bears and ostriches.
From 1904 to 1929, the neighborhood was known as Idora Park, a full-scale "trolley park" that, in addition to the above attractions, boasted a theater, a large bandstand, a merry-go-round, and all the other trappings of a traditional amusement park. And if the idea of a grizzly-bear pit and an ostrich farm stationed in what's now a quiet North Oakland neighborhood seems unfathomable, there's more: Idora Park was just one of three amusement parks that operated in the East Bay between 1876 and 1939.
Not far away was Emeryville's Shell Mound Park, built partially atop a massive shellmound built by Native Americans near what's now an Ikea and outdoor shopping mall. From 1876 until its closure in 1924, the sixteen-acre park boasted bars, a carousel, two dance pavilions, and a popular shooting range. A 1999 archaeological dig at the site turned up heaps of discarded whiskey bottles and rifle casings that were no doubt the result of many a booze-fueled shooting party. And from 1917 to 1939, Alameda was home to Neptune Beach, a popular swimming hole and amusement park at the site of today's Crown Memorial State Beach.
"There aren't many people around who know about them, aside from the historians who study the East Bay," said Emeryville Historical Society President Don Hausler. "If you study the Temescal neighborhood, it's shocking to discover that there was this huge amusement park right there off Telegraph Avenue." That's why Hausler — who since 1988 has curated annual historical exhibits in the History Room at the main branch of the Oakland Public Library (125 14th St., Oakland) — opted this year to spotlight the history of the area's former amusement parks. Lost Amusement Parks of the East Bay, which opened in April and runs through Saturday, July 7, chronicles the birth, life, and death of each of the turn-of-the-century parks, through postcards, newspaper clippings, rare photographs, and other ephemera that paint a picture of a time when the East Bay was awash in flashy recreational respites.
To be sure, it's a modest exhibit. Housed in three old display cases (one for each park), it's the kind of static display of antiquity that passersby could easily overlook as an ancillary part of the library's decor. But for anyone who appreciates or has ever wondered about the former built landscape of today's East Bay, the exhibit is a treasure trove of historical morsels. "There's something nostalgic about the idea of those parks," Hausler said wistfully. "There's an innocence about that time that has disappeared."