Russell City: where the beat went on…and on

No one knows just how many lost cities there are on the shores of San Francisco Bay.
Countless Ohlone settlements are gone.
Drawbridge is a ghost town and hardly anyone can tell you where Brooklyn and San Antonio were.
And how about Little Copenhagen, Germantown and Russell City?
Now, on this one I can raise my hand.
Little Copenhagen, Germantown and Russell City were the same place at different times.
Today they are but memories buried under the steel and concrete of Hayward’s industrial west side.
Only Russell City’s spirit lives because it was one of the hot spots in California for the resurgence of what became known as the ”West Coast Blues.”
Russell City lives on in the annual Hayward/Russell City Blues Festival, held the first weekend in July. In some form, the festival has been held almost every year since 1964 when Russell City was bulldozed and the land was annexed to Hayward.
Although Russell City is remembered mostly for its African-American population and its blues clubs, it was always a diverse community of whites, Latinos and African-Americans.
The community, which was never an official city, owes its origins to the first American settler on the land, Joel Russell, who came from Maine in 1850 to find gold. But, as they say, he found his fortune in another field — the salt flats of today’s Hayward.
Russell was actually a squatter on the land which he thought was public land. Instead it belonged to the Soto family which acquired it through Mexican land grants.
So Russell bought the land in 1853 with money he earned as a farmhand at the John Horner-Elias Beard ranch in nearby Mission San Jose. Russell bought 1,000 acres from the Soto family and then sold off parcels to Danish and German immigrants who developed the salt ponds, wharves and established dairies.
They prospered, and the area grew. It was known locally as Little Copenhagen and Germantown.
After the earthquake of 1906, Russell named his remaining land after himself and took out ads in East Coast newspapers proclaiming ”Russell City, the new city on San Francisco Bay, the best investment in California today.” He sold lots for $200.
Not all the lots sold and during the Depression, his heirs sold off the lots for $10 to $35.
The low prices attracted Mexican-Americans from Southern California, whites from the Dust Bowl and African-Americans after World War II.
The residents of Russell City worked mostly in the shipyards and the construction industry, but the community’s greatest claim to fame was hosting the up-and-coming blues greats in Russell City clubs like the Front, Mrs. Alves, Pitman’s Rendezvous and the Country Club.
The writer New Oralean Trotter Stone, who grew up in Russell City, described the scene: ”During the 1940s, blues musicians finishing engagements at 2 a.m. in San Francisco, Oakland and Richmond would pile into cars and head for Russell City . . . There, musicians would unwind and jam until dust particles could be seen dancing in the beams of early morning sunlight squeezing through cracks in the walls of the smoke-filled ‘juke joints.’ The unpolished, dirt-covered, wood floors turned into a great big drum as the dancing and the tapping feet worked like drum sticks, pulsating in time to the sound of the blues.”
Among the blues stars who played Russell City were Big Mama Thornton, Lowell Fulson, T-Bone Walker, Pee Wee Brown, Cool Papa Sadler, Dottie Ivory and Jimmy Witherspoon.
But, as with all things, Russell City grew old and dilapidated and the powers that be saw it as ”deplorable and a disgrace,” ”the shame of Alameda County” and a way to make a buck as a redevelopment zone.
So, after the last 205 families and 33 single residents were sent packing, Russell City was bulldozed to make room for an industrial park like any other industrial park.
Except for the memories.
As I drove along the streets filled with silent warehouses and roaring trucks, I could hear the voice of Big Mama Thornton belting out her rendition of naughty ”Little Red Rooster.”
”Got a little red rooster,
And that rooster is laying…,” she thundered.
Because I had the CD player on full blast.


About drockstroh

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