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Oakland May Honor Bruce Lee's Local History

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City lacks a clear process for recognizing cultural heritage sites

It’s a Toyota dealership now. But 45 years ago, 4175 Broadway was the site of a kung fu showdown that changed martial arts forever. Bruce Lee, a 24-year-old dropout from the University of Washington, had recently landed in North Oakland, where he opened a martial arts studio not far from Oakland Technical High School. The school quickly attracted students. It also made enemies. The Bay Area’s martial arts establishment vilified Lee for accepting non-Chinese pupils.

The beef came to blows when Wong Jack Man crossed the bay from San Francisco to fight in a pre-arranged match with Lee’s livelihood at stake. If Lee lost the bout, he’d have to close the studio. Depending on whose account you believe, Lee either won the fight, or it ended in a draw. But it was because of his experiences during this duel that Lee later developed the fighting style that would make him a worldwide legend, the style of no style.

Bruce Lee’s years in Oakland have been well-documented. A few years ago, Oaklandish produced this mini-doc featuring an interview with Lee’s widow talking about the famous showdown. But now Mayor Ron Dellums wants to give Lee’s Oakland interlude some official recognition from City Hall. The mayor (himself an avid martial artist) wanted a plaque placed on the site of the old studio in time for a martial arts tournament he hoped Oakland would host later this year. The tournament is off, but the Landmark Advisory Commission is still considering making 4175 Broadway one of the city’s cultural heritage sites.

The discussion is more significant than a piece of brass on the wall of a car dealership. Finding the best way for the city to acknowledge Bruce Lee’s time in Oakland would provide a sorely needed precedent for recognizing other cultural contributions made in Oakland, said Dan Schulman, a member of the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board. From events as significant as the drafting of the Black Panthers’ 10-Point Program in North Oakland in 1966 to less-weighty moments like the invention of the Mai Tai at Trader Vic’s at 65th Street and San Pablo Avenue three decades earlier, Oakland needs a method to officially recognize its past. “Right now, it’s not really clear what the process is,” Schulman said.

The process for granting landmark status is clear when its comes to a particular building. Did someone famous live or work in the building? Did a well-known architect design it? Is the structure a representative example of a particular style? These are relatively straightforward questions. The line of inquiry is murkier when talking about something as nebulous as a style of martial art or a cocktail, especially in a process as politically fraught as official city recognition. Bruce Lee, the Black Panthers, even the Mai Tai aren’t likely to be controversial discussions. But one person’s landmark could elicit a shrug, or worse, from someone else. What would happen, for example, if Tom Cruise wanted to put a plaque on the spot in Oak Knoll Naval Hospital where L. Ron Hubbard first began to dream of Scientology?

The Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board will discuss 4175 Broadway at its meeting on Sept. 14.

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