East Bay Yesterday Podcast explores Emeryville’s evolution from ‘Rotten City’ to ‘Renaissance’

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The East Bay Yesterday podcast has made tiny Emeryville the subject of their latest podcast. EBY host Liam O’Donoghue interviews former Emeryville City Manager Joe Tanner and The E’ville Eye founder/Emeryville Historical Society volunteer Rob Arias for the 110th episode of the podcast O’Donoghue started in 2017.

“Rotten City no more” covers Emeryville’s rise from “The Rottenest City on the Pacific Coast” and subsequent scandals and ongoing toxic remediation of the city’s many EPA superfund sites. “How did it become such a hell hole in the 80s? How did it transform so radically since then?” O’Donoghue asks.

Tanner was City Manager of Vallejo from 2006-2009 (Photo: Solano’s Got it Blog)

Former City Manager Dishes on LaCoste Era “Machine Politics”

Joe Tanner was hired in 1984 amid the well documented downfall of notorious Police Chief John LaCoste. The youngest City Manager in the region at the time, Tanner came from the private sector where he worked for Cambell’s soup. He soon realized he was in over his head with the level of corruption and dysfunction he was thrown into.

“I was probably too ambitious, too young and too dumb to care,” Tanner reflected on his brief time with the city during a tumultuous era when asked if he ever feared for his life. “I was the new kid in town and I was going to clean up Emeryville,” Tanner lamented.

Tanner “spills the tea” on a variety long held rumors (some we’ve heard, others we have not) about the LaCoste Era.

Some of the more titillating bits include the long-rumored blackmail methods of LaCoste who allegedly set up a video recorder behind a two-way mirror at The Townhouse (owned by his close associate Tom Wenaas at the time) and enticed councilmembers and the politically connected with prostitutes. He would then allegedly use the video as leverage in the event he needed a political “favor” or they didn’t see eye-to-eye on an issue.

Tanner also speculates that LaCoste improperly used his Law Enforcement connections for a “gun-running” operation. LaCoste was a well known fundraiser for the Democratic Party including former President Jimmy Carter and Tanner speculates that this provided protection for him when the feds began investigating his improprieties.

LaCoste quietly passed in 2020 listing “Chief of Police Emeryville, CA” on his tombstone.


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Tanner also dishes on how some of the City’s Card rooms including King Midas were likely run by the Wha Ching Chinese Mafia.

Tanner was employed by the city for about two years before moving on to a job with another local municipality.

“Two Huge Local History Nerds”

Next, O’Donoghue “geeks out” with this publications’ founder on E’ville’s seedy past jumping around from topics including the pervasive vice of the era, industry and subsequent toxic remediation and address other rumors including the hidden tunnels from Town Hall to the neighboring card clubs and brothels.

Arias and O’Donoghue also touch on a variety of more contemporary topics including dumpster diving at Semifreddi’s Bakery, which bands likely played in the surrounding vacant warehouse spaces and recent improvements to the city like its Greenway, Bridge and new Park that have made the city more livable for residents.

Arias & O’Donoghue have previously collaborated on Emeryville History talks at Pixar and The Public Market.

O’Donoghue also plugs the Park Avenue District walking tour that Arias designed, plotted, wrote and recently installed signage for with the assistance of longtime Emeryville resident Ben Yee.

O’Donoghue, a formal journalist, has quickly established himself as an indispensable resource for East Bay History and has branched out from podcasting to hosting history talks & interviews, historical boat tours from the Emeryville Marina and writing a regular history column for SF Gate.

East Bay Yesterday Key System inspired merchandise is available through Oaklandish.


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Listen below or via Apple PodcastsSoundCloud or Spotify. Support East Bay Yesterday’s work through Patreon.

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The Emeryville Historical Society

The EHS was founded in 1989 by a small group of local history buffs. Membership, which comes with a subscription to their quarterly printed journal and access to their vast archives, is available through their website.

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