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How to write an Oakland, CA history? This question has undoubtedly occupied many a writer’s mind who stepped up to the task. Part unruly city, part sylvan town, Oakland is as complex as an entire nation.

In 1942, authors G.A. Cummings and E.S. Pladwell put pen to paper and wrote Oakland from the ground up. They approached the city history as a multi-storied skyscraper, in an era when the wartime economy was kind to Oakland. Shipyards brimmed with supplies; 714 miles of paved streets stretched across town; and Downtown had become a cultural nexus.

The structure and voice in “Oakland…A History” reflects this kind of pro-industrial tone. The book divides into three parts of development, and the major milestones center around transportation and construction. In dry and certain terms, Cummings and Pladwell devise a mechanical history with more facts than narrative flair. City histories like “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898,” winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for History, hadn’t yet set the standard for nonfictions that read like novels. The city story that Cummings and Pladwell present reads more like a textbook. That the owner of Grant D. Miller Mortuaries, Inc. published the book seems fitting.

But it is Miller’s conclusory contribution that breathes life into the book. His memoir-like epilogue adds character to what otherwise reads like yearbook of Dead White Dudes on parchment pages. His reminiscing about “a city still in a state of adolescence” says a lot about the crossroads his city found itself at the time of publication:

“We [older residents] recall the muddy streets, many of which lacked even sidewalks; the dim and insufficient street lighting; the primitive means of transportation—clumsy, slow horse cars, and early steam strains and cable cars.

“Those were the days when a trip from Oakland to Fruitvale took us through ranches, woods and vast fields of grain; when there were miles of open country between the northern boundaries of the city and Berkeley. When the land from Market Street, west to the waterfront, was mostly marsh, and the water system was so inadequate that there were windmills and wells in many residential areas.”

Miller presents a skyline that today any Oaklander is hard pressed to imagine. Perhaps then what is most redeeming about “Oakland…A History” is the mirror the authors hold up to a city in transition. Like the new high-rise condos that reflect Lake Merritt and its necklace of lights, Cummings and Pladwell tell an Oakland story through a city they saw outside their windows: a steel-framed, car-lined metropolis in-waiting.

Take a peek into “Oakland…A History” at the main branch of the Oakland Public Library, or purchase it online at Amazon or Alibris. You may find it’s a fitting addition to your Oak-book collection.