Once upon a time in Emeryville, San Pablo Avenue in the vicinity of Park Street was lined with poker parlors with names like the Key Club, King Midas, Bank Club, Sands Card Room, the Social Club, and the Avalon Card Room in the Hotel Ritz. Before that, there was a horseracing track near the corner of San Pablo and Park and a greyhound track on Park nearer to the bay. Emeryville also had speakeasies, a Chinese lottery, and a reputation as an "easy" waterfront town, so much so that California Attorney General Earl Warren once called it "the rottenest city on the Pacific coast" -- just before he led a crackdown on gambling.
All that is hard to believe looking at today's Emeryville, where negotiating your way through crowds of retail shoppers is now the biggest challenge in town. But an exhibit at the Oakland Public Library, "A History of Gambling in Emeryville," brings that flavorful period into focus. Scattered through two floors of the main library is a collection of photos, clippings, and memorabilia from E'ville's bygone wild days -- poker chips, cards, portraits of jockeys like Alonzo Clayton and "Long Shot" Cooley, scenes of races between autos and planes at the Emeryville Horse Track, handy tips for dog players, and pictures of some of the 25 card rooms that opened and closed over the decades (only the Oaks Club, est. 1895, is left).
The artifacts were compiled by the Emeryville Historical Society with contributions by amateur historians Larry Odoms, Nancy Smith, and Don Hausler, who grew up there. "If you go back to the 19th century," Hausler says, "Emeryville functioned as the entertainment center of the East Bay. Later, during prohibition, people wanted to clean up society. Card-room gambling was considered a lowbrow activity. Now, people's attitudes have completely changed." Meaning IKEA and Pottery Barn have taken the place of Texas Hold 'Em and Lo Ball? Don't bet on it. "A History of Gambling in Emeryville" runs through October 4 at the Oakland Public Library's main branch, 125 14th St. 510-238-3222.
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