While San Francisco hosted its 118th annual Oktoberfest last week, Oakland celebrated its German heritage with its first-ever Oktoberfest in the Dimond district, centered at MacArthur Boulevard and Fruitvale Avenue.
The Oct. 4th event showcased local bands and breweries, community businesses, Dimond history, German food and dance, traditional “oompah” music and an open-air beer garden reminiscent of the many German American social clubs and entertainment halls that lined MacArthur Boulevard from the 1890s until mid-century.
Although the Dimond is known now for its diverse Asian and Latino influences it was once the center of the East Bay’s German American community. By the turn of the century, the Dimond and much of Fruitvale had a reputation as an area of German beer gardens, fruit orchards, dairy farms and parks, according to the Oakland Heritage Alliance’s newsletter.
In 1895 Charles Tepper, a German army captain, bought land along Hopkins Street, now MacArthur Boulevard, just west of Fruitvale Avenue and built a two-story hotel, a dance hall, and garden surrounding these that shaded a picnic area. Nearby Tepper’s Gardens was Neckhaus Gardens, Bauerhofer’s Gardens and the Hermitage, which was famous for its “French dinners and dancing girls,” according to a Sept. 16, 1962 article of the Oakland Tribune.
While this may be the Dimond’s first Oktoberfest, Jean Langmuir, a librarian in the Oakland history room of the Oakland Public Library, also found a 1963 program for “Deutscher Tag,” or German Day, held on Oct. 13 by the United German American Society of the East Bay. The society, which still exists today, celebrated German American heritage with German big bands and patriotic songs on East 14th Street – International Boulevard.
Tepper’s was eventually closed by the enforcement of Prohibition. The Dimond Improvement Association, which sponsored last Saturday’s festival, pored over city archives to pinpoint precisely where Tepper’s beer garden stood in order to build the Oktoberfest garden in the same spot, according to librarian Kathleen DiGiovanni.
There, said the 1962 Tribune article, “gay merrymakers” ate bratwurst and spaetzle, danced German polka and sipped beers from Brooklyn Brewery on East 14th Street. Horse-drawn coaches and double-decker, mohair-upholstered streetcars of the Highland Park and Fruitvale lines delivered loads of revelers to the gardens’ gates and to the many German American businesses along now-MacArthur Boulevard.
Daniel Swafford, who is on the board of the DIA, said the association had been thinking of bringing back the beer hall tradition to the area for many years. After the success of the street festival celebrating the building of Farmer Joe’s on Fruitvale Avenue a few years ago, which he estimated 5,000 people attended, the association decided that an Oktoberfest celebration was a natural fit for the history of the area.
He remembered his grandmother, who had lived in the district since the 1930s, telling him stories of the glory days of the area, when it was an entertainment and shopping hotspot. The building that is now Farmer Joe’s was a vaudeville theater in the ’20s, later a movie theater, and the Dimond also featured an ice skating rink and bowling alley.
The building that was Tepper’s hotel still stands just behind the 2 Star Market on MacArthur Boulevard, which along with the German elderly home Altenheim, established in 1893, are the only surviving landmarks of the old German community of the Dimond and Upper Fruitvale. But with the revival of the neighborhood’s past social and cultural heritage, residents of the Dimond district are strengthening new communities in the area by bringing them together to socialize and celebrate.