Nearly a year after the Occupy protest coalesced in downtown Oakland, a longsuffering casualty of the protest is finally being attended to as the City of Oakland begins a full-scale restoration of the lawn of Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. The project involves the removal and replacement of all grass sod in the plaza—a new lawn, essentially, from scratch.
The grass was largely destroyed due to the presence of people, tents, and hay throughout the Occupy Oakland protest that began last September. The plaza itself served as the protestors’ base of operations, and was a site of repeated and sometimes violent confrontations between protestors and law enforcement officials in late 2011. Groups of sometimes thousands congregated on the lawn and plaza, which housed at one point over 150 tents of semi-permanent Occupiers. The lawn suffered permanent damage from the assembly of crowds, its coverage by tents and other materials and the caustic accumulation of human waste.
Today, the lawn is completely removed. The removal of the old and damaged lawn now complete at this point in the project, the landscape is a barren swath of bare dirt and bits of blown-about litter. Fences surround the turf, with a few bulldozers lining 16th Street beside the square.
Belfor Property Restoration has been contracted by the City of Oakland to carry out the project, which will cost $95,000 and, according to Oakland city communications manager Karen Boyd, is being paid for largely through the insurance policy held by the city for the lawn space. Another portion of the funding will come from savings the city accrued by suspending lawn maintenance since, as Boyd puts it, “There hasn’t been a lawn to maintain.”
New sod will be laid in late August and early September, and the area will remain fenced off until early November to give the lawn time to become established. “Restoring it is important,” says Boyd. “It’s important for civic pride, for giving locals a sense of place, and for making downtown look like a thriving place that people want to come to.”
The only thing largely untouched in the process will be the plaza’s well-known oak tree, the subject of some community worry in the months during and following Occupy as protestors occupied the branches of the tree itself. Added to this was the fear that wet conditions along with the effects of human waste and foot traffic threatened the health of the tree’s root system. “That tree is our absolute pride and joy,” says Boyd, who added that it has remained healthy throughout this process.
For some who live or work near the plaza, the lawn’s replacement is seen as a renewal; for others, it is a reminder of lingering problems. Maria Gastelumendi, owner of The Rising Loafer bakery near Frank Ogawa Plaza, points out that anything tied to Occupy is likely to prove divisive for area residents. “For some people it’s very irritating to see the fences up,” she says. Many locals and Occupy supporters, she says, see the fences around the square as a reminder of governmental power, or worse, as a continuing deterrent against re-occupation.
Gastelumendi said that the restoration calls attention to longstanding problems within the plaza concerning transients, dirty conditions and lax maintenance. “This is a beautiful place, but a troublesome spot,” says Gastelumendi, adding that she believes the area has been in neglect during her 7-year tenure as a local business owner.
The plaza is still frequented by members of Occupy who called the lawn home during the protest. According to an Occupy protestor who identified himself simply as “Uncle Boomer,” the lawn restoration “is a good thing. We were never trying to destroy. We have ways of being heard without being aggressive.” He is happy to see the lawn be replaced, noting that the grass had been in poor condition before Occupy moved in.
The manager of nearby Café Teatro, Said Avi, sees the necessity of rebuilding as entirely separate from the success or failure of the Occupy protests. “Do we understand [Occupy]? Yes. Do we respect it? Of course,” says Avi. “But we have to live and work here every day.”
Boyd hopes the gesture will be seen not as a removal of evidence of the Occupy protests, but rather simply as a restoration of the plaza as a thriving public place. “We have cultural festivals and gatherings of all different kinds here,” says Boyd. “It’s been very sad for locals of Oakland to see that we’ve had this common space looking ragged.”
“We have always said that our goal is to facilitate peaceful first amendment expressions,” she continues, “and certainly Frank Ogawa Plaza has become a place where there is a lot of expression.”