In September of last year, before Omicron added an extra layer of anxiety to all gatherings, I found myself on a small fishing boat docked in Emeryville surrounded by a group of masked strangers.
This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
For five years, O’Donoghue has talked to longtime residents and dug deep into archives to tell stories of Oakland, Berkeley, and other nearby cities that otherwise might have been footnotes or forgotten entirely. A recent example: the story of C.L. Dellums, an Oakland organizer who advocated on behalf of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in the early part of the 20th century. Dellum’s story helps set the stage for the civil rights movement and connects to the Black Lives Matter and union movements of today.
Other stories are smaller in nature, like the one O’Donoghue told using a cache of love letters between Ginny Stewart, an Oakland switchboard operator, and her beau, Ray Hertz, who was living in a ranger’s station in Modoc County, where he served as a firefighter. The letters, written between 1949 and 1951, reveal what an ordinary life was like in the Bay Area at that time. Stories like Ginny’s and Ray’s would probably go untold were it not for O’Donoghue’s curiosity, making East Bay Yesterday a kind of public record of private thoughts, not unlike the popular StoryCorps project.
The stories O’Donoghue preserves feel even more important when you consider how much the Bay Area has changed in the past decade. With so many longtime residents displaced by gentrification and newer residents now moving away to raise the cost of housing in so-called Zoom towns, the stories of the East Bay are at risk of being forgotten.
“A lot of the problems that we are facing as a society right now result from people not learning the lessons of history or understanding the patterns of the same mistakes being made over and over again,” O’Donoghue explains during a phone interview.
“It’s not only the fact that people are moving away—even the media that captured these stories is disappearing. You can’t find old archives of the Bay Guardian or the East Bay Express online beyond a few years ago. A lot of the years of the Oakland Tribune aren’t online or accessible at all.”
O’Donoghue says he’s not shy about approaching people and asking them if they have stories to tell. “One of my tricks is, whenever I’m lingering around in a public space and I see old people there, I’ll just kind of start chatting them up. A lot of people who’ve been here a long time have seen it all. They’ve lived the history.”
Keeping his ears open for good stories is how O’Donoghue came to recount the amazing experiences of Raven Roberts, an Oakland resident who helped rescue people during the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. (That 2018 episode was produced in collaboration with Snap Judgment.) “I met him just walking around West Oakland,” O’Donoghue recalls. “He was standing in his front yard.”
To ensure that he does right by people’s stories, O’Donoghue says he checks back in with his subjects after the episodes have been posted. “People are really grateful,” he says. “Some of the people I’ve interviewed have become good friends at this point.”
Back on the boat, after helping the crew run through some basic safety protocols, O’Donoghue assumed a spot next to the captain. As we set off, he began to run through a lightly scripted monologue over the PA system that lasted for most of the leisurely three-hour sunset ride.
We cruised by remains of the Berkeley Pier, which, O’Donoghue explained, once extended several miles into the bay, allowing drivers to park their automobiles on ferries bound for San Francisco in the days before the Bay Bridge. As we approached that bridge, O’Donoghue urged us all to look up to see the “cormorant condos,” a multimillion-dollar augmentation to the 8.4-mile span that houses a colony of birds nearly displaced when the original Bay Bridge was demolished.
O’Donoghue’s patter was sprinkled with bits of trivia (who knew Tom Hanks once lived on a houseboat docked in Alameda?), and he did his best to answer any questions posed to him. Throughout the cruise, O’Donoghue was clearly enjoying the role of tour guide. For an attendee, it almost felt like being inside a best-of episode of the podcast, but with a lot more sea spray. Cruising with East Bay residents who shared an interest in history, it was clear that O’Donoghue has tapped into a community able to match his curiosity with its own.
“I don’t think Oakland is the type of city most people fall in love with at first sight,” O’Donoghue tells me later. “I think Oakland takes a little while to grow on you because you really have to get to know the people who live here, because that’s what makes it so special.”•