I thought I was lost.

I was on a busy stretch of College Avenue last week frantically searching for the Rockridge Masonic Hall on College Avenue where the Oakland Heritage Alliance’s Partners in Preservation Awards were to be held. The block is filled with retail stores, and I’d walked it thousands of times without seeing anything resembling a large hall.

Then I found it: A tiny, unremarkable door that opened onto a Harry Potter–like world of surprises that no one at street level could imagine.

The nearly 150-year-old hall is stunning:  high wooden beams, stained glass windows, exotic Masonic imagery. Once you’re inside, you realize that below the huge space is the bustling and incongruous world of Rockridge retail.

How perfect that the OHA event was held in a pristinely maintained architectural gem, one of so many we are blessed to have all over Oakland.

The tiny but spunky alliance’s goal is to advocate the “protection, preservation and revitalization of Oakland’s architectural, historic, cultural and natural resources through publication, education and direct action.” Fairyland was in the house that particular night because our beloved master puppeteer of 45 years, Lewis Mahlmann, was being presented with a lifetime achievement award for his commitment to preserving the art, craft and performance of puppetry. Lewis’s health prevented him from attending, but I think he would have loved this group of people who stubbornly and passionately celebrate and work to protect Oakland’s history.

I was happy to see that some of my favorite organizations and companies were also honored that day.

The gloriously re-imagined Girls Inc. Simpson Center for Girls in downtown Oakland received the Rehabilitation Award for its adaptive re-use of a 1919 building originally used to house a public utility. I’ve had the pleasure of touring the facility, with its generous light, gleaming new kitchen, yoga and exercise rooms, and a large and comfy gathering space for girls that sends the message in no uncertain terms: yes, you ARE worth all this!

The winner of the Stewardship Award was another of my favorite places in Oakland: the Laurel District’s Food Mill. It was built in 1933, and its current owners have retained the spirit of the old-fashioned grocery store with cash registers and an original peanut-roasting machine still serving an appreciative community.

It’s worth noting that two of the other awards given—one to OaklandWiki for education, the other to Oakland Art Murmur for leadership—might have resonated more with a crowd younger than the mostly AARP-aged audience there that night (myself included).

But just think about it. The awards seek to “promote Oakland’s historic and cultural heritage.”

OaklandWiki, “a free website about Oakland that YOU can edit,” is a celebration of local history. I looked up information about my neighborhood—Adams Point—and learned that the house across the street from me was designed by Julia Morgan and built by Joe and Rose Shoong, who created National  Dollar Stores. The website was created in 2012 and is managed by a nonprofit “working to grow a grassroots effort to collect, share and open the world’s local knowledge.” In other words, promoting our historical memory.

Art Murmur, whose vision is “for Oakland to be recognized as a nationally and internationally-known and respected contemporary art destination,” transformed a neighborhood that in 2005 featured unoccupied, unmaintained and derelict spaces, many of which still had architectural integrity and rich history. A cooperative effort involving many community stakeholders has completely transformed the area around Telegraph between 23rd and 26th streets. Two dozen galleries and creative spaces have revitalized the area and brought new energy to the city.

I hope that the alliance can successfully recruit new members from the Oaklandish crowd—the 20 and 30-somethings who either grew up here or have actively sought to live here—who take passionate pride in Oakland. Our city is blessed with a rich and beautiful history—buildings, stories and people—and, as the alliance reminds us, “This is our inheritance. What we do with it is our choice.”

The Oakland Heritage Alliance ended the excellent program with a plea to support both state and local inducements to preserve, and join the organization to help fund their lectures, walking tours, newsletter and educational outreach. As their newest member, I invite you to join me.

For more information, go to oaklandheritagealliance.org


Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland. 

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