Monumental Virus

In Oakland, California, where I spent the first eighteen years of my life, I was aware of several major landmarks. All of these are within a mile of the downtown and city hall, and but one of them I visited frequently in my youth. My list does not include the city hall itself, a Beaux-arts building that at 320 feet was the first high-rise government building in the United States when it was built in 1914. Its fourteen floors are in two tiers, like a massive wedding cake, a comparison that is completed by the largely decorative clock tower on the top. The fact is, although I passed it frequently, city hall was not a meaningful presence in my early life.

A few blocks away there was the central facility of the Oakland Tribune, which had some of its offices in an oversized clock tower that made it one of the tallest buildings in the city (no longer even close). The addition of the tower in 1923 raised it to twenty-two stories and 306 feet, slightly shorter than the existing city hall. My mother worked on one of the lower floors for more then twenty years. My mental image of that building serves as a reminder that at one time city newspapers were both popular and very profitable (no longer true). I distinctly remember the bottom twenty feet of the building, which housed the printing press and an oversized tunnel. At about five on most mornings, for my first two years of college, I would drive a 15-foot box truck into that tunnel to pick up bundles of newspapers to be delivered to many of the hundreds of small storefronts, scattered throughout the east bay area, where paperboys would pick up the news they would deliver to customers on their routes. That entire delivery network has been gone for more than two decades, collapsing well before the Tribune devolved into a weekly in 2010. The Tribune building, however, still stands.

Another significant building was the Oakland Civic Auditorium, a traditional rectangular arena with seven massive arches over the entrances on the northeast side, facing Lake Merritt. It is now the Kaiser Convention Center. Inside, the arena floor is more than large enough for a full-size basketball court and is surrounded by enough seats for almost 5,500 people, an interior space uncluttered by vertical supporting beams. This means, of course, that it is about half the size of any modern multi-purpose arena, but that also meant that people in the cheap seats at the highest reaches of the auditorium could see the floor action clearly without the interposition of a jumbotron screen. When it was built in 1914 it was one of the largest of its type. I was there for performances by the Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey Circus and the Harlem Globetrotters. My high school graduation was held there. The Grateful Dead performed there 57 times. Like the Tribune building, it is also still in place and still an impressive sight, although it has remained mostly unused for the past fifteen years.

Next among Oakland landmarks is Lake Merritt itself, originally a salt-water lagoon and center of a thousand-acre wetland. In the second half of the nineteenth century, after it became a noxious settling pond for the city’s sewage, it was reduced in size by border bulwarks and a dam, both to clean it up and to reduce tidal flooding. The current lake now has a rough triangular shape about ten city blocks (3,000 feet) on each side. The California State legislature voted to make it a wildlife sanctuary in 1870, the first official such designation in north America. On the shores of the lake I remember Children’s Fairyland, a walking park with statues of characters from traditional tales, and the Camron-Stanford House, a large Italianate Victorian, built in 1868 by then-mayor Dr. Samuel Merritt. It served as the Oakland Museum until 1967. Every year on July 4th the lake hosted daytime boat races and a fireworks display.

A final significant landmark in my mind is the main public library building, an imposing five-story stone edifice, a massive rectangular box with thick white columns framing 30-foot tall window openings on every side above the first two floors. First opened in 1951, it still fully occupies an oversized city block about a thousand feet west of the Civic Auditorium. While I was in high school I spent most of my library time in the small Laurel branch of the Oakland library system, a storefront on MacArthur Boulevard, but the offerings at the main branch were significantly larger and were a mere four miles from home, a distance I often covered by bicycle.

There were other significant locations and buildings in Oakland and there are more now, but these were the ones most meaningful to me at the time. Two of them have resurfaced in my memory through a visual connection to the current worldwide pandemic. When Covid-19 first came into public consciousness as a serious threat this March it brought up a couple of visits I had made, as a high school student, to the Oakland History rooms of the main library building. On the walls at that time there were pictures taken during the peak of the misnamed 1918 “Spanish” influenza, one of them showing the interior of the Oakland Civic Auditorium.

I already was aware of the size of the auditorium and the broad wood surface at its center. In the 1918 pictures that wide floor is there, but it is covered by a large number of plain metal-frame single beds, set six to eight feet apart, with a few nurses and supply tables scattered among them. In the grayscale picture the white bedding and nurses’ uniforms contrast sharply with the dark flooring, enhancing the sense that the beds and caregivers were an aberration. The thought of the familiar auditorium, a place of sports and entertainment, converted into a makeshift hospital seemed the perfect symbol of the global devastation caused by that previous pandemic. None of the photographs or the written accounts of the 1918 flu that I have seen since then have affected me as much as that image, and none have stuck with me as long.

That is why when I heard the first news reports about Covid-19 the image of the Civic Auditorium came back to me. I have since seen similar images used in retrospective photo collections of the 1918 flu, including a Wikipedia entry that shows the auditorium after tall partitions were added to divide up the space. There are many similarities between the two pandemics; in 1918, like today, businesses were closed, large gatherings were banned, and face masks were required in public places. And there were deniers and resisters, including prominent politicians, who refused masks and promoted and participated in large public events. The influenza came in three waves; a small one beginning in July of 1918, a rebound lasting from September to December that was five times as deadly, and another less lethal bump the following Spring. In the United States approximately 28 percent of the 105 million population became infected and the death toll took at least a half million. The crisis only ended because the virus mutated into less virulent forms, some of which are still around. With today’s virus, in 2020, we may see a rebound by Covid-19; the initial attack has not yet subsided.

I continue to hope that the 2020 pandemic, already serious and still growing, will not duplicate the level of human destruction that occurred a century earlier. However, as with the 1918 influenza, there is no vaccine or effective Covid treatment available as I write this, and a large proportion of our population is not taking the pandemic seriously. In fact, one of the phrases used by people who dismiss our efforts to reduce the Covid-19 spread is that the disease is “no worse than the flu.” Looking back at our experience in 1918, that line is hardly reassuring.

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