One of the last vestiges of Emeryville's former, saucier era when it was dubbed the "Rottenest City on the Pacific Coast" is the Oaks Card Club, and its owner hopes it can live on amid a city that looks far different than it did half a century ago.
Now better known as the home of Pixar, IKEA, and the busy Bay Street shopping district, Emeryville was once an infamous haven for gamblers, mobsters, and vice. The Wikipedia page for the town of 12,905 residents will tell you that founder Joseph Stickney Emery decided to incorporate his tract of land in 1896, but it neglects to mention one of the main reasons to incorporate the town — owners of a racetrack in town were tired of answering to the Alameda County sheriff.
The East Bay Times has a new piece that mentions this detail as well as some others, while profiling the Oaks Card Club — a card room that has stood at the corner of San Pablo Avenue and 41st Street since 1898, two years after the town was founded. Along with the Bank Club Cafe up the street, the Oaks Card Club represents the origin story of a town that Sports Illustrated in 1985 referred to as "a seedy little city tucked among mud flats."
As Emeryville Mayor John Bauters tells the East Bay Times, "The card club may sit in contrast to retail outlets and new biotech companies. But it was here first. It’s a really important part of our cultural history."
Still in the ownership of the same family that opened it 125 years ago, the Oaks Card Club isn't going for flash, but that may mean younger gamblers pass it by.
"I’ve never run this club trying to be the biggest, fastest, newest, never been one that wants to make a lot of changes,” says Cole Tibbets, the latest generation of his family to run the place, speaking to the East Bay Times. “I have this historical club with a time-tested business model.”
The Oaks Card Club isn't a casino, and players bet against each other, and not the house, in games like blackjack and three-card poker with $5 and $10 minimum bets. The club makes its money from seat fees and drink sales — and they were once also known for a funky hofbrau, Oaks Corner, that served carved meats as well as Chinese and Vietnamese food, but it's been sadly closed since the start of the pandemic.
The era in which the Oaks Card Club came to be also gave birth to businesses like the Blue Star Amusement Park and the El Rey Burlesque Theatre, as well as a number of saloons, jazz clubs, and illegal bookmaking operations. The East Bay Times also suggests that it was "founded as a sanctuary for exiled gamblers from other Bay Area cities."
This history site notes that Emeryville once also had horse and dog tracks, slot machines in the backs of restaurants, and "poker was played in private rooms and clubs licensed by the city." It was essentially the adult "entertainment capital of the East Bay."
The card club isn't in any immediate danger — despite Emeryville now attracting plenty of retail business in and around Bay Street, the Oaks reportedly still generates 80% of the city's tax revenue. The East Bay Times does note that the card club's business remains down about 20% since before the pandemic.
As Anna Nikitaras, owner of the Bank Club, tells the paper, "If that goes, what’s next?"
SFist once delved into why San Francisco was never much of a mafia town in the way of Chicago or New York, and part of the reason was that the Cosa Nostra instead had their stronghold across the Bay, with their very own harbor for "imports." And word has it that Prohibition was even less enforced in Emeryville than it was in SF.
Maybe somebody needs to open a bar or some other sttraction that pays homage to Emeryville's former underbelly? In any event, check out the Oaks Card Club, if you're of the gambling sort.
Photo courtesy of Oaks Card Club