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Art project celebrates local history, seeks to bring communities together

on June 18, 2009

The parks in Oakland are alive.  At 7:30 a.m., more than a hundred people lift their hands in unison, moving with slow, controlled energy as they practice the ancient Chinese art of Tai Chi. A few feet away, six older women and one man practice their line-dancing steps, hopping and skipping to the tinny sounds emanating from a hand-held boom box. Two women play badminton without a net.  Welcome to Madison Square Park on Jackson Street, in Oakland.

Any day of the week you’ll find this scene, and others, Sue Mark, the co-founder of 10,000 Steps assures me. But not all of Oakland’s downtown green spaces are as heavily used or well-known as this one.  Mark’s 10,000 Steps project intends to change that.

It’s been called many things – social activism, an attempt to retain local history – but to Mark and her husband, Bruce Douglas, who use the moniker marksearch, it is a community art project that grew out of a desire to preserve Oakland’s urban green spaces and bring otherwise distinct communities together.

“The idea that we keep coming back to is the invisible city within the city – the invisible architecture, culture, history,” Mark said of the project.  After an initial phase that consisted of gathering community stories and history, the project is in its second phase and they have yet to raise the full amount of money needed to complete it.  Nevertheless, Mark and Douglas intend on moving ahead.

10,000 Steps – a collaboration with Friends of Oakland Parks and Recreation, the city’s Public Works department and neighborhood organizations such as Old Oakland Neighbors – calls for a self-guided walking tour connecting four downtown parks that span neighborhoods in East and West Oakland.  The urban path will encompass a 50-square block area. Each park is within a 20-minute walk of the others.

Tina Tamale, the fifth generation owner of La Borinquena, a Mexican grocery on 7th Street and a board member for Old Oakland neighbors has been a community ambassador for the project.  She liked that the Mark and Douglas have put themselves out into the community to elicit residents’ stories and memories.

“You walk by this park and sure, it’s a nice green open space with trees, but you don’t know about the history unless someone takes the time and trouble to share it with you,” Tamale said.  “It’s a really important part of what community is.”

The walking tour markers are still in their design phase.  They will provide walkers with information about the parks, originally part of several original squares that formed the border of Oakland in the mid 1800’s, Mark said. The markers will also contain ‘local lore’ and information culled from dozens of interviews with community members and residents over the past year.

Douglas and Mark

Bruce Douglas and Sue Mark

Mark and Douglas, who met while working on another public art project in North Oakland, live in the Temescal district. Their dog Chico greets visitors at the gate of an unkempt, wild-looking garden, which is blooming and beautiful on a Wednesday afternoon.

Mark, petite with clear blue eyes and short red curls, wears bright green stockings.  They share their rambling house on 48th street with their new five and a half month old son, Roland.

After years working in Bulgaria, Germany and the Czech Republic on community space and oral history projects, Mark, an ESL teacher in Richmond teamed up with Douglas, a green building engineer. The idea for 10,000 Steps grew out of another project, which also focused on getting residents to engage in their neighborhood spaces.

“We were riding our tandem bicycle around and towing a big sign, which said, where is East Oakland and where is West Oakland?” Mark said.  They were planning to survey residents and talk with them about what made their neighborhood distinct.

“We wanted to find places where we’d find people and we thought, oh, we’ll go to the parks. When we went to the parks they were really empty – and this seemed very odd to us,” Mark said.

What was originally planned as a two-year project is going to take longer thanks to the number of community stories the two felt compelled to collect and record.  They traded in their tandem bicycle for a cart, complete with a fold-out bench, audio recording equipment for oral histories and tools for maintaining the park’s greenery. “The idea was we were taking a little mobile park around,” Mark said.

Bench at Lincoln Park

Bench at Lincoln Park / photo courtesy of Sue Mark / marksearch

The two went to community meetings and city events and handed out information on their project, as well as encouraged residents to contribute stories about their neighborhood. The response was enthusiastic.  Darlene Lee, a recreation staff member at Lincoln Recreation center, said that 10,000 Steps also took on a side venture to engage the community in its project.

“They helped us build a bench outside and they let the children carve it; they helped us build a butterfly garden,” she said.  “I think it’s nice to showcase Oakland. People could go on the walking tour, maybe sit down, have a picnic. If we can encourage people to do that, then they could see different parts of Oakland.”

Mark said that they are now filtering through the collected information and trying to get the city to accept their proposal and make the project a reality.

The pair are currently looking for more donors to fund a project that will cost an estimated $60,000 by the time it is completed.  Moving through the bureaucratic process has been difficult as well, but ideally, Mark said, they would like to be finished installing most of the markers by next summer.

10,000 steps will hold a launch party for their project in September.  A Latino cooking class, Tai Chi classes and an ecological walk are among some of the possible offerings.

“Even though we have not been able to actualize monumental change, we’ve been somewhat of a conduit and a presence,” Mark said.  “We’re trying to make the city aware of what the people need.”

If you’re interested in finding out more information about the project or donating, you can contact Friends of Oakland Parks and Recreation or email


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    […] June 19, 2009 Filed under: Community Wealth and Ownership, Green / Sustainable, Leaders and Activists, Oakland Recreation — Tina Tamale Ramos @ 3:09 pm I’m really fortunate to be an ambassador to this great project dedicated to parks and history in Downtown Oakland. Read more about the 10,000 Steps project here. […]

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