Activating legal protections for archaeological remains of historic Chinatown sites: lessons learned from Oakland, California.

Author:Naruta, Anna
Position:2C Paper

(Original title: Rediscovering Oakland's San Pablo Avenue Chinatown)

While state law protects archaeological resources, a major redevelopment project planned for the site one of Oakland's earliest Chinatowns showed community members they had to struggle to get the developer to meet their legal obligations. This paper discusses a few of the lessons learned in activating legal protections for unique and significant archaeological sites.


The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) not only protects historic buildings and landscapes, it protects unique and significant archaeological remains. (1) City Planning departmental reviews of whether a development project will adversely impact the environment are therefore legally required to assess potential "impacts" to historic buildings and potential archaeological remains. If the project will impact a resource, and the impact cannot be avoided, the project is required to "mitigate" the impact in a manner that compensates for the damage to or loss of an irreplaceable cultural resource. In designing mitigations, the guiding principal is that after the project is complete, the mitigated resource should be at least equal to the resource that was destroyed. For a potentially unique and significant archaeological site, if a project cannot be designed to avoid impacting the site, the site must be studied and excavated by a qualified archaeological team, an extensive report published, and the archaeological documents and artifacts curated in a permanent repository accessible to researchers.

That's the theory, anyway But when a national development corporation started the Environmental Impact Review process for a project that would redevelop the site of one of Oakland's earliest Chinatowns, we found there's nothing automatic about the process of assessing and mitigating a project's impacts. It's up to community members to activate the legal protections for significant cultural resources.

In our case, the site was what long-time Oaklander Edward Chew records as the site of the "'official' Chinatown" of the late 1860s and 1870s, created along San Pablo Avenue near today's 20th Street. Chew writes that this Chinatown was established after city authorities refused to allow the rebuilding of the first "'official' Chinatown" on Telegraph near today's 17th Street, after it was destroyed in a fire. The next year, the City extended its main street, Broadway, northward through the former Chinatown site. The dislocations continued; residents of the San Pablo Avenue Chinatown were "consigned" to live at the City's industrial south shore, and the Charter Avenue Chinatown site (today's Grand Avenue) resulted from an 1880s redevelopment of the San Pablo Avenue Chinatown site. Very little is known of these historic Chinatown sites, although their existence is well established through a few mentions in historic newspapers and the federal census. The paucity of information about the Chinatowns underscores the legal significance of any potential archaeological remains.2

While the draft Environmental Impact Report for the project acknowledged that the project area had a high likelihood of containing archaeological remains of the historic Chinatown, it initially made no provision for archaeological study Instead, the only "mitigation" was to have archaeological monitoring during construction. This procedure usually fails either in adequately mitigating the archaeological resource or in keeping the project on schedule, or--most frequently-both. (3) A pre-construction archaeological study was essential for the developer to be able to meet the legal protections for potentially unique and significant archaeological remains.

To activate the legal protections, community members spent countless hours spreading the word about the archaeological issue, calling and writing City Council members, and speaking at public meetings. Recognizing the importance of the potential archaeological site, the City Council adopted a requirement for a full pre-construction archaeological study into their agreement with the developer. The mitigation measures that the City Council adopted incorporated a public review process for the archaeological testing and treatment plan, specifying that the City would seek comments on the draft archaeological treatment plan from "established local Chinese-American organizations, including the Chinese Historical Society of America and the Oakland Asian Cultural Center." (4)

While it was hard won, the public review procedure was not an extraordinary measure. In terms of how local governments conduct Environmental Impact Reviews, seeking public comment on the archaeological testing and treatment plan merely brought the proposed archaeological mitigation plan into the same sort of public review process routinely undertaken for proposed mitigations to impacts on historic buildings, traffic patterns, or air or water quality.

The remainder of this paper shares lessons we learned in this process.


In the world of cultural resource management, doing a "preconstruction archaeological study" can mean virtually anything. Some methods to discover existing intact historical archaeological remains are proven to fail but are still commonly used in legally mandated studies. One example of an investigation method proven to fail is geotechnical soil bores or auger testing. This method may be appropriate for discovering sites such as Native Californian shellmounds, sites that are meters deep and wide. But these soil bores are likely to miss remains of sites such as early U.S.-period California towns. Another method, backhoe trenching, tends to discover archaeological remains simultaneous with destroying them, or, at best, while removing significant contextual data that is required for archaeological interpretation. (5)

Mechanical methods can be employed to good effect, however. A backhoe with a fiat-edged bucket can be an effective tool that allows archaeologists to rapidly expose a wide area of historic soil at one time and excavate by hand when potential archaeological remains are encountered. Such "areal" or "horizontal" excavations provide the archaeologist with a better chance to observe the relationships between archaeological deposits and to form a discovery method that is efficient, cost effective, and appropriate to historical archaeological remains. An additional factor that can determine whether effective archaeological interpretations of the site will be possible is whether there is adequate observation and recording of geomorphological data. This is the data that speaks to when and how the archaeological deposits were created and lets those of us who were not on-site for the excavations "see" what the site looked like. (6)

Whether the archaeological study would conduct the historical research necessary to perform an adequate assessment proved to be another issue. We found that contracting archaeologists did not necessarily utilize the basic set of historic documents that could reveal early land uses. Instead of conducting basic land-use research using documents such as property records, chains of title, and the federal census, contractors frequently relied on historical accounts found in secondary and tertiary sources as well as maps that post-dated the time period for which legally-significant archaeological remains may exist. (7) In the future, mitigations may need to specify either the general scope of landuse research required or specifically name documents and records that must be studied.


The Secretary of the Interior provides standards for who can be considered a "qualified archaeologist." The standards require that the archaeologist have a proven track record of bringing archaeological work from excavation and analysis through completing the final stage, public reporting. These are minimum standards. It's also relevant to...

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