The California Hotel

Welcome to the California Hotel

Amit Cohen

As cities develop, shiny skyscrapers and boutique coffee shops can take over older buildings and neighborhoods, displacing residents and erasing history. While neighborhoods are not static, maintaining an area’s historical and cultural character can help create a sense of place. Such is the case with the California Hotel in West Oakland–recent renovations have maintained the building’s historic exterior while giving it a new role in its community.

The five-story California Hotel was constructed in 1929, containing 150 rooms and an entertainment space. The hotel was only open to white guests through World War II before it began to allow Black musicians to stay overnight after their performances. New ownership ended the discrimination policy in 1953, and the hotel became a cornerstone of Oakland’s vibrant Black music scene, inviting artists such as BB King, Big Mama Thornton, and Ray Charles to perform at the Zanzibar, the hotel’s restaurant and performance space.

In the 1950s, new infrastructure projects such as the Interstate Highway System and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) cut through West Oakland, breaking up the community and displacing residents. With business declining, the hotel was eventually converted into affordable housing by Oakland Community Housing, Inc. in 1987. The organization went defunct in 2007, and the hotel entered foreclosure.

In 2009, only a few residents remained in the building, which once housed more than a hundred people. Fortunately, the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC) purchased the property and began renovations in 2012 to preserve the building’s affordable housing legacy. The $43 million development to create 137 affordable units—with 34 specifically for those with special needs—was planned to avoid displacing longtime tenants. EBALDC has also turned the old entertainment space into a hub for community events and resources. While no longer a bustling entertainment venue, the California Hotel looks to continue its role as a community anchor.

Cover image credit: East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC)

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