Fairview Park residents rally to restore stone pillar

on September 19, 2011

On a normal day in Oakland, most passing drivers probably wouldn’t pause to think about the pairs of stone pillars marking the entrances of four streets in the Fairview Park neighborhood. The worn, 100-year-old pillars have long been a visual anchor in the area. But yesterday it was hard to miss them: two of the monuments were decked in huge, lime green bows.

For those living on the corner of Regent and Alcatraz, the pillars are much more than just landmarks. They have become a rallying point for community involvement and neighborhood identity. In 2002 a local teenager lost control of his car and smashed into one of the pillars. The teen was fine; the edifice was not. It lay in a pile of rubble on the corner. After nine years of negotiating Oakland city bureaucracy, residents finally inaugurated a new pillar on Sunday.

A 1904 ad for Fairview Park housing in the historical San Francisco Call newspaper. Image courtesey of Library of Congress.

Part of the problem was figuring out whose burden it was to fix it. The pillars were erected at the turn of the 20th century by a developer who transitioned the area’s old barley fields into homes. The rough-hewn beige stones, stacked about six feet high, were topped with heavy capstones that bore the engraved names of the cross streets where they stood. A century later, as far as anybody could tell, nobody owned them. “Who’s responsible for the pillars?” asked resident Carole Howard. “It was kind of clear as mud.”

Shortly after the 2002 accident Oakland City Council member Jane Brunner asked the Department of Public Works (DPW) to put the displaced stones into storage, and many hoped the city would later restore them, as happened on the neighboring Colby Street when their pillar was also tumbled in a car accident.

But after several years of aborted initiatives to pull the stones out of storage and reassemble the column, it became clear they were nowhere to be found. “As you know, the city of Oakland has bigger problems than a pillar on the street,” said Emily Stoper, who headed the successful fundraising campaign for the project.

“The city said ‘We don’t have them, we don’t know anything about them,’” Howard said. Assuming that the smashed east pillar was a lost cause, she turned her attention toward its counterpart, which was deteriorating and twisted on its foundation. The thought of being left with no pillars at all was too upsetting, so she kindled new talks over restoring it.

Residents became increasingly galvanized. Jim Morgan, recently laid off, seized the momentum to once again address the fallen pillar.

“As far as I’m concerned, the new pillar should be called Jim’s Pillar,” said Stoper.

After following a long string of referrals, Morgan finally managed to track down a stonemason capable of replicating the century-old style stones, and convinced the city to pay for them. He approached Brunner, who Morgan suspects felt some responsibility for having asked the DPW to store them in the first place.

“I said to the DPW director, if you lost the stones then I think you need to pay for them,” Brunner said. “And he looked at me and said, ‘Well, that makes sense.’”

Under the deal, the city fronted the cost for new stones, but asked the neighborhood to cover the cost of labor. Prodded by Stoper, more than 50 donors on Regent and surrounding streets cobbled together $6,000 for the project—$2,000 more than was needed, requiring refund checks to be cut.

During yesterday’s ceremony, recycling bins with yellow caution tape blockaded the entrance to the road, and a sign propped on a metal patio chair announced the street was closed. Residents circled to hear Stoper read aloud a proclamation from Mayor Jean Quan declaring September 18, 2011 as Fairview Park Day. Jane Brunner made a brief speech, then Stoper recited a poem she drafted the previous day, chronicling the story of the pillar. A hand-carved talking stick, sleeved in brightly colored beads, was passed in a circle and residents took turns expressing their gratitude for the project.

Josie Lemon, an elderly woman with a soft, dulcet voice, moved to Regent Street in 1942 when she was just nine. She lives in the same house today.  “They were always here and you always saw them,” she said about the pillars. “And one day it was like it died. It was like you lost a friend.”

After the ceremony, Jane Brunner mingled with residents around the food tables. “When you have a neighborhood being as gracious as it is and raising money,” she said, “you have to come halfway to meet them.”

 

1 Comment

  1. Jim Morgan on September 22, 2011 at 7:32 am

    Thanks, Dylan. You have pulled together information from many sources into a story that reflects both the facts and the spirit of the project. Good work!



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