By: Erin Schmitz
A Brief History of Oakland Chinatown
Madison Park is located in the neighborhood known as Chinatown in Oakland, CA. Akin to the Chinatown in San Francisco, which is the biggest Chinatown on the continent, Oakland’s Chinatown has been a cultural center for Asian immigrants for generations. In the middle of the 1800 there was a large influx of southern Chinese immigrants, most hoping to strike rich as a part of the gold rush in northern California. After arriving in the United States, however, many realized they would face a new obstacle: racism. Chinese Americans soon faced oppression and exclusion at the hands of bigoted city leaders, and even in their new home, were relegated to working dangerous and physically taxing jobs, including building California’s railway system. All of this oppression culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese citizens from holding jobs. Many people were forced out of their homes and lived in abject poverty. Despite the challenges, the community became a culturally vibrant and tight-knit place with a multitude of shops, businesses, schools, and houses.
Madison Square Park
Madison Square Park has been at the Center of Oakland’s Chinatown since the late 1800’s and has served as community center for all its residents. For much of the last 150 years, public spaces like Madison Square Park provided a grounding center for many of the residents who may have been dipped or find themselves in hardship. In 1964, however, the City of Oakland sold the park to Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) for the construction of their headquarters. The actual headquarters was built adjacent to the park however, so the land has remained untouched for a long time. The park seems to never have been a priority in the eyes of the government, and even today there is very little attention paid to financing and upkeep of the park. As a result, it has become quite dilapidated and bare. I contacted a member of the Parks and Recreation Department in Oakland to ask a little bit about who oversees the park, and I got a surprising response: the representative told me that there was no money, not one bill, allocated to the upkeep of Madison Square park in the new budget. She told me that since there was no money to be spent for that location, there was no-one overseeing the park. I was shocked and saddened. This park, which has been a park of the Oakland Chinese community for centuries longer than many of the buildings in the city, has been completely abandoned. I felt compelled to design a new park, one that would honor and respect the cultural background of the neighborhood and once again offer a place of gathering and play.
My Personal Interest
During my sophomore year of high school I studied abroad in Beijing, China. I had the time of my life, and while there I became more and more interested in traditional Chinese Culture and its reflections in modern Chinese communities around the world. Although I was in northern China and not Hong Kong, where many Chinese American immigrants came from, my experience led me to be more aware of the local Oakland Chinese communities and their history.
The current Madison Square Park has not seen much love in the past few years, and there is detritus strewn all over. Only a few years ago, many people would go to the park to do TaiChi, skateboard, or play Chinese chess. It is rare that to see people go to the park anymore though, and the park seems uninviting for the casual passerby.
Inspiration for Redesign
I decided to focus on (re)designing two components of the park: the playground and TaiChi area. As was mentioned briefly above, in the past the park was often used as a place to do group TaiChi in the mornings. There was no dedicated space for their activities however, and there was no place to shelter people from the morning sun (most people do TaiChi in the mornings). There are also lots of skateboarders who use the park area to practice tricks and shoot skate videos, so I wanted to accommodate them in the space as well. In addition, the playground is severely lacking in amenities, and so I was looking to make a more engaging play structure that maintains a hint of Chinese culture.
I went about the design process by making sketches, a floor plan, a site plan, and finally, a SketchUp model.
Floor Plan and Site Plan
Final SketchUp Models
TaiChi and Skateboarding Stage
This area would be situated in the northern corner of the park (there is a picture of this part of the park in the site analysis section).
- “Downtown Oakland Preliminary Draft Plan .” Planning & Building Department Planning Bureau; Strategic Planning Unit, 16 Jan. 2019.2
- BART Board of Directors. “Lake Merritt Transit- Oriented Development Award of Exclusive Negotiating Agreement.” BART, 11 Sept. 2018.
- “Lake Merritt Plaza & Transit Operations Facility.” Bay Area Rapid Transit, 2018, www.bart.gov/about/planning/lakemerritt.
- Lazard, Dorothy. “From the Main Library.” A Brief History of Oakland’s Madison Square | Oakland Public Library, 24 Oct. 2018, oaklandlibrary.org/blogs/from-main-library/brief-history-oaklands-madison-square.
- “Oakland Chinatown History.” Oakland, WYGK, oakland-chinatown.info/chinatown-history/.