History of San Lorenzo, California

Origins of San Lorenzo Village

From The Second Gold Rush: Oakland and the East Bay in Word War II,
Marilynn Johnson, University of California Press, 1993, pages 90-92

The cultural and class differences between natives and [migrant war industry workers] served to hamper the war guest program in many East Bay neighborhoods. The program was most successful in ethnic and blue-collar areas in Oakland and Richmond, where the number of lodgers increased far more rapidly than in surrounding suburbs. The proximity of city neighborhoods to shipyards and other war industries and the abundance of older housing stock resulted in the subdivision of many large Victorian houses. In Oakland, where thousands of new housing units were created during the war, the number of dwellings with seven rooms or more actually declined by some fourteen hundred units, a shift that reflected the increase of subdivision and boarding. [19]

War Housing Center programs, however, were at best stop gap measures. Families with children, especially, continued to have great difficulty finding housing. In 1944, Alameda County War Housing Centers received thousands of applications but were able to place only one family in six. Housing officials in San Francisco, Portland, Detroit, and other defense centers faced similar shortages. [20]

To help remedy the situation, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) introduced a special wartime construction program to serve the East Bay and other critical production areas. Funded by Congress in 1941, the FHA's Title 6 program guaranteed loans for private housing construction. Although federal underwriting of suburban subdivisions dates back to the New Deal, the wartime FHA program established prcedents in construction techniques and business management that would influence the postwar housing boom in East Bay suburbs.

As Kenneth Jackson has pointed out, the loan program for defense housing aided the ascendance of big business construction firms that would dominate the postwar housing market. Like William Levitt back East, D.D. Bohannon, R.H. Chamberlain, Ellie Stoneman, and other major Bay Area contractors got their start in wartime projects where they experimented with new materials and mass production. Using plywood, particleboard, plasterboard, and concrete slab foundations, these contractors applied prefabrication and preassembly to home building, much as Kaiser had done in shipbuilding. [21] War migrants, then, encountered mass production not only on the job but in their homes and neighborhoods as well.

With inspiring names like "Victory Homes" and "MacArthur Villa," defense subdivisions sprang up along the East Bay urban fringe. Developers worked directly with shipyard managers in designing homes to meet the needs of defense worker families. Catering to Kaiser workers in Richmond, D.D. Bohannon and R.H. Chamberlain unveiled a seven-hundred-unit development in San Pablo in 1943. The subdivision, known as Rollingwood, featured three-bedroom houses with separate guest-room entrances to accomodate the extra family members and boarders common in war worker families. Rollingwood also provided bus service to the shipyards, a planned shopping center, and a realty office located conveniently across from the Kaiser hiring hall. For those unsure of their postwar plans, Rollingwood offered a wartime leasing arrangement with an option to buy. [22]

Albert Bernhardt and the Stoneon Brothers developed an even larger subdivision in East Oakland. Containing more than twelve hundred homes, Brookfield Village hearkened back to the garden suburbs of the early twentieth century. Located in the flatlands near the San Leandro border, the development featured winding, contoured streets lined with shade trees. Its creators advertised it as "a model village on the Pacific Coast," imitating more expensive subdivisions. Homes sold for four thousand dollars each (well below prices in most East Bay neighborhoods) and attracted large numbers of Moore and Kaiser workers. Not to be outdone, Bohannon and Chamberlain began construction a few miles south on the 1,329-unit San Lorenzo Village, the nation's largest Title 6 program at the time. Because of wartime restrictions on building materials, most of these defense subdivisions were built outside city limits to circumvent municipal building codes. Unincorporated areas like San Pablo and San Leandro were particularly popular sites. [23]

In those outlying areas, developers created "model" white migrant communities, ensuring a sanitized suburban atmosphere through written covenants among homeowners. Since its founding in 1934, the FHA had shown a strong preference for funding all-white suburban housing. That tendency continued during the war, when the FHA channeled funds into subdivisions for defense workers that restricted residence to anyone "not wholly of the Caucasian race." In addition, covenants also sought to preclude the aspects of migrant living that natives found distasteful. In Rollingwood, for example, covenants specified: "No trailer, basement, tent, shack, garage, barn or other outbuilding in the tract shall at any time be used as a residence temporarily or permanently." They also forbade the keeping of roosters or "any animal of cloven hoof." [24] Defense subdivisions became migrant enclaves, but their occupancy and appearance were carefully controlled to conform with modern suburban ideals. ...

The history of defense worker subdivisions in the East Bay highlights the importance of World War II in shaping twentieth-century suburban development. ... The new suburbanites were not urban refugees but mainly white defense migrants from small cities and rural areas in the nation's interior. ... The defense subdivisions were thus the prototypes for working-class suburbs that would proliferate throughout postwar California.


[19] U.S. Bureau of the Census, Population, ser. CA-3, Characteristics of the Population, Labor Force, Families, and Housing, no. 3, "San Francisco Bay Congested Production Area, April 1944" [Washington D.C.: Bureau of the Census], 8, 20.

[20] Oakland Tribune, Jan. 7, 1944.

[21] Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, New York: Oxford University Press, 233.

[22] Oakland Tribune, July 4, 1943.

[23] Oakland Tribune, Feb. 19, Oct. 18, 1942; April 14, 1944; Oakland Post-Enquirer, Feb. 20, 1942.

[24] Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, 233; John F. Bauman, Public Housing, Race, and Renewal, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 70, 95; Declaration of Establishment of Protective Restrictions, and Covenants, Affecting the Real Property Known as Rollingwood, sec. 8, 11, 12 (July 1, 1943; property of George Eldredge, who graciously shared his personal files with me).