At one end of the lake, Oakland East Bay Symphony Brass Quintet musicians performed a Scott Joplin ragtime. At another end, playing a rousing rendition of a Eurythmics classic, was the Brass Liberation Orchestra, whose usual venue is protests and demonstrations. In between were salsa and samba dancing, taiko drumming, and clowning by the young members of the Prescott Circus Theatre.
Taking it all in last Sunday were thousands of people happily displaying their Oakland love — dancing, biking and strolling around Lake Merritt. Oh yes, and there were lots of happy dogs as well — although they, unlike their owners, didn’t know that the lake is a National Historic Landmark and the site of the nation’s oldest wildlife refuge.
We were all celebrating “Love Our Lake Day,” which featured the Lake Merritt Boulevard grand opening celebration, made possible by the passage of Oakland Bond Measure DD a decade ago. Our congresswoman, governor and mayor, among other dignitaries, were on hand with big smiles.
It was an especially satisfying event for me. During my very first week as the new Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland 11 years ago, I met with then-Councilmember Danny Wan, one of the people behind Measure DD. The bond measure had been inspired by the work of two of my favorite Oakland rabble-rousers and visionaries, Naomi Schiff and James Vann. These design and preservation activists, who were part of CALM (Coalition of Advocates for Lake Merritt), knew that we could do better than the slimy tunnel and pedestrian-unfriendly 12-lane mini-freeway at the 12th Street end of the lake, and that removing the dam to return to a natural tidal flow could only be a good thing for our region’s abundant wildlife.
Danny asked me how Fairyland, a key feature of Lakeside Park, might use money from a possible bond measure. For starters, I told him, we could improve our drainage system and a lot of our decaying infrastructure. We could refurbish and expand our historic puppet theater, re-imagine a long-closed tunnel, and — a big dream — build the region’s only children’s performing arts theater.
Fairyland ended up being only a tiny part ($2.8 million) of a huge ($198 million) bond measure, but the opportunity for us was enormous. When Fairyland’s projects were completed three years ago, our wish list turned into dazzling reality.
I volunteered for the Measure DD campaign, and we were all amazed and delighted when the “Clean Water and Safe Parks” measure was approved by a whopping 80 percent of Oakland voters. With oversight by the Measure DD Coalition, 56 projects were undertaken, including the creation of the East Oakland Sports Center, creek restorations and the transformation of the Municipal Boathouse: all projects planned for the benefit and enjoyment of Oakland’s residents and visitors.
At the dedication ceremony last Sunday, Mayor Quan said she hoped that with the reinstatement of marshland around the lake we may once again have coral growing here — “a symbol of our renaissance.” Congresswoman Barbara Lee spoke of the amazing diversity of our city’s landscape, plants and animals — and of our people. “Nowhere is this diversity displayed more clearly than at Lake Merritt,” she said.
Governor Jerry Brown said the successful project demonstrated that “with enough money and good taste, you can do wonderful things.” Not even a heckler could dampen his enthusiasm. “Let’s give him a ride on the high-speed rail at 400 miles per hour,” the governor quipped. He closed by saying that Oakland is the best city in California, a statement that no one present was in a mood to dispute.
What followed next was a song performed by a young woman by the name of Andrea President. (“Yes, that’s my real name.”) “Oakland, You Are My Song,” speaks of the hard-working people and the physical beauty that make it the kind of place where “I’m proud to know my way around.”
Measure DD projects are not yet complete. Major public arts projects are still underway: the 12th Street Bridge pedestrian underpass, the 10th Street Bridge Channel, the Lakeside Green Streets rain garden and the entrance gates for the Gardens of Lake Merritt.
But with the majority of the project completed, it was clearly time to celebrate, and we all did. As Naomi Schiff put it, “Sometimes the good guys win.” In this case, the good guys included private citizen-activists, the city of Oakland and other public agencies, and the voters who made it all happen.
At the end of the formal dedication, I sought out Joel Peter. As the Measure DD project director for a decade before his recent retirement, Joel had played a key role in the project’s oversight and ultimate success. Joel is a quiet and unassuming guy who never once seemed flustered by the many challenges of the job he had. On Sunday he was smiling. What was his favorite part of the many-faceted project, I asked him. “Every time I walk around the lake I stop in the middle of the pedestrian bridge and watch the water flow (from the estuary to the lake),” he said. It’s also a great view, he added.
Even in his retirement, which involves lots of hiking and sea kayaking, Joel can’t let go of his attachment to the lake. He and Jennie Girard, another of the project’s leaders from the very beginning, are members of the Lake Merritt Weed Warriors, who meet the last Saturday of each month to do the maintenance work that can’t be done by city workers.
If you love the lake as much these two committed people do, keep the love coming. All are invited. Learn more at facebook.com/LakeMerrittWeedWarriors.