Each year the Oakland Heritage Alliance selects a variety of neighborhoods to visit when it offers its summer walking tours through the city. This year visitors will have the opportunity to visit 16 areas over eight weekends on tours such as the Mountain View Cemetery, Montclair Village and Oakland Walkways and Streetcar Heritage tours. Each trip is led by volunteers for the alliance, who include local history buffs, residents of the neighborhoods, as well as professors and business professionals familiar with the area.
This year the Oakland Heritage Alliance is celebrating 32 years of advocacy for the preservation and revitalization of historic spaces in Oakland and for the education of the community members about the city’s past. “The reason walking tours are such good vehicles for public education is because they get people out into the community to places where they may or may not be frequently,” said Oakland Heritage Alliance executive director January Ruck. “It lets them know more about the place where they live.”
This Saturday’s walk offered participants an opportunity to tour Lake Merritt’s 12th Street area. The walk began at the Lake Chalet Restaurant, formerly a salt water pumping station, then moved over to 12th Street and around a portion of the lake, then up to the Cleveland Cascades, a water feature embedded in the rock of Cleveland Heights Hills.
The tour focused on renovations that are underway as a result of Measure DD, a $198.25 million bond measure approved by the Oakland voters in 2002 for waterfront improvements at Lake Merritt and the estuary. These improvements will eventually incorporate a tree-lined boulevard into the landscape that will serve as a pathway for bikers and pedestrians, providing continuous access around the perimeter of the lake. The plans include a bridge that will extend from the lake path to the H.J. Kaiser Convention Center, as well as the removal of unsafe tunnels.
On Saturday, approximately 40 people met to take the tour hosted by Alison Finlay of the OHA and Joel Peter, a project manager for the city overseeing the improvements under Measure DD, who was there to explain the construction developments taking place on 12th Street. Dennis Evanosky, editor of the Alameda Sun and a history buff who has volunteered as a tour guide for the OHA for more than 12 years, also served as a tour guide, explaining all the historical details about the land and the surrounding area, along with Jim Ratliff, a Grand Lake area resident who has made it a priority to restore the Cleveland Cascade.
It was a nice day for a walk–not too warm, with just enough of a breeze that several of the women were wearing lightweight sweaters. As they walked, people looked at the handouts of the area and the maps that the OHA supplied. At each stop someone pulled out a camera for a picture.
As the group walked to its first stop, Peter explained Measure DD to the eager audience and gave a status update on the redevelopment so far, highlighting some of the projects already completed, like the area surrounding Lake Chalet that was once a parking lot and is now a park area, providing a pathway for pedestrians. Other renovations include a Fairy Land puppet theater that has been added to the structure near the lake.
One of the biggest changes will be to the 12-lane miniature freeway that ran across the lake right up to the water’s edge on the west side of the lake across from the Kaiser Center. The roadway has already been reduced to six lanes and pushed away from the lake, creating more park area on the shoreline, Peter said.
Eventually, he said, the lakeside pedestrian path will have its own bridge allowing residents to travel to the downtown area on foot or by bike. The Lake Merritt channel that connects the lake with the bay will be re-opened, doubling the tidal in-flow and out-flow of the lake and flushing it out more, which should improve the water quality, said Peter. Additional projects will allow anyone inclined to do so to paddle a boat out to the bay, Peter said.
“Through this lake [project], we are calming the traffic around the lake,” Peter said. “We are connecting the lake better to the neighborhood. We’re improving water quality, we’re improving habitat for the fish and birds so that everyone benefits.”
As tour-takers stood on the street near the freeway and looked over the railing at the construction site below at 12th Street and Lakeshore Avenue, Peter held up a drawing to show what the area will look like when the renovations are completed.
Then Evanovsky led the group down to the pathway below the street in order to get a closer look at the lake. The group moved on, making a stop to look at the Lake Merritt United Methodist Church, a circular building with long narrow mirrored windows. The tour next moved along the lake’s perimeter through the apartment district, passing medium-rise structures before stopping to look at the landscape and the Necklace of Lights, a combination of lanterns and a string of pearl shaped bulbs that were originally strung up around the lake in honor of the men who served in World War I.
The tour stopped once more at the area called Bird Island, a small island in the center of the lake covered with small trees and shrubs. Evanosky also pointed out the Scottish Rites Temple—erected in 1927—and the Bellevue-Staten Building, a brick-colored Spanish Colonial and Art Deco style structure built in 1929.
“In 1929, something of ultimate importance to me happened,” said Evanosky with a big smile as he addressed the group facing 12th Street. He pointed to his left. “It happened over on Grand Avenue and that is a man named Joseph Edy got together with Grand Ice Cream and they invented Rocky Road ice cream. If you go over on Grand across from the theater, there is a ramp. At the top of the ramp is a little brick building and that is where the ice cream was made at first.”
The tour ended at the Cleveland Cascade, where tour guide Ratliff showed everyone a chart mapping the changes in the space from 1923, when it was a water feature nestled into the steep Cleveland Heights hills, until it fell into a state of disrepair and was turned off in 1950. In 2004, volunteers began work to restore the fountain, which now serves as a garden.
Piedmont resident Kenneth Mannshardt has participated in at least a dozen tours over the years, and joined Saturday’s tour because he wanted to know more about the plans for the lake. “I’m a big kayaker,” Mannshardt said. “I have always been kind of interested in Lake Merritt, because even though it’s a nice lake it has a lot of intrinsic problems because it is dammed up. I am hoping this channel project will open up the lake and the resulting tidal flow will make it a little healthier. I come on the tours because I love Oakland and I love the history.”
Rose Whitfield said she has been coming on the tours for several years. “Oakland is my city,” she said. “The more I know about it, the more I love it.”
This year’s tours take place from July 7 to August 26. Upcoming locations will include Hidden Haddon Hill, Broadway Meets the Water and Piedmont Avenue. For more information about locations, dates, times and admission costs, go to the Oakland Heritage Alliance website (www.oaklandheritage.org).