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Artist hopes to bring stories of Lake Merritt to your ears

on April 17, 2012

Scott Oliver stood under the columns alongside Lake Merritt and pointed to the middle of the lake. After the Gold Rush, lawyer Horace Carpentier—who later became Oakland’s first mayor—built a bridge across the water, Oliver said. This route was called the “Bridge of Sighs” because crossing the bridge cost a large toll.

In fact, he said, returning his focus to the columns, this used to be the embarcadero, or pier. “At high tide, this was navigable and this was a landing where they would load cattle and bring them out to the bay,” he said. Now, it is a place for capoiera, yoga and the occasional wedding photo session.

Oliver can tell you a lot about Lake Merritt. He can tell you that it’s not really a lake but a tidal lagoon. He can tell you that this place used to be named Lake Peralta and that, for a while, it was Oakland’s sewer. He can tell you that the white pelican who hangs out year-round is called Hank. And no, he does not buy into the rumors about a Lake Merritt monster.

Now, Oliver hopes to bring the story of Lake Merritt to anyone with headphones and an audio player. But first he needs support and funding from the community.

Oliver heads a public art group called One Upon a Time…Happily Ever After, which in 2009 received grants to release a seven-stop audio tour of the lake, in addition to selling Lake Merritt souvenirs and postcards. While the short audio tour is available to download as a free MP3 series on the group’s website, Oliver now hopes to raise enough money to make a full audio tour of the lake with 21 stops featuring interviews with about 45 locals. “I see it as a sculptural work,” Oliver said. “But you’re moving in 3-D space.”

Lake Merritt is home to many migratory birds. The Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge, the first refuge of its kind in America, was voted into law in 1870. (Photo by: Lexi Pandell)

Oliver has finished most of the research, music and interviews for the rest of his audio tour stops. The money that he hopes to raise on USA Project, an artists’ fundraising site similar to Kickstarter, would go toward writing and recording narration in addition to sound editing. He has until April 27 to raise nearly $11,000. Although Oliver and his group need just $5,000 more to meet their goal, they will receive no money if the target amount is not met by the deadline.

The audio tour will be about three hours long once it’s completed and, like the completed seven stop version of the tour, will be available on the One Upon a Time…Happily Ever After website for free. Oliver said that other local institutions might host audio players and headphones that people can rent or check out, but that has yet to be planned. The piece will be structured kind of like a museum tour, but with long stops, Oliver said. “I was trying to present the texture and vitality of walking around the lake,” he said of the audio tour. “And when you walk, your mind wanders.”

In fact, Oliver first conceived of the audio project by letting his own mind wander. When he started taking daily strolls around Lake Merritt in 2000, Oliver began to wonder what the lake meant, both historically and as a symbol in the community. “I wanted to explore all those things it holds at its edges, and the metaphor of confluence where streams and drains come down and where it’s a confluence of the community as well,” he said. “Even though it’s man-shaped, it’s been here for 5,000 years.”

Birds taking refuge at Lake Merritt at dusk. (Photo by: Lexi Pandell)

Oliver has become something of an expert on Lake Merritt, which he calls a “socially dynamic space.” On a walk around the lake on a cloudy Thursday, Oliver pointed out some of the notable landmarks. A plaque on Our Lady of Lourdes marks the spot where the first Catholic Mass was held in Alameda County. The long set of stairs on Lakeshore Avenue known as the Cleveland Cascade used to have a waterfall that ran down its center.

As Oliver meandered around the lake in jeans and a black jacket, he said that learned about Merritt from his many interviewees—ranging from a supervising naturalist for the nearby wildlife refuge to musician and community organizer Boots Riley to a guy who brings his cat to the lake for exercise—but said he also discovered a lot from “hanging out and research as well.”

While Oliver will be the narrator for the completed version of the audio tour, he said he wants to let the interviewees tell the story of Lake Merritt. Their experiences, after all, are part of what has shaped the area’s past as well as its present. In the end, Oliver hopes the audio tour can be “artwork embedded in others experiences.”

To donate to the One Upon a Time…Happily Ever After audio tour project, visit their USA Project page. To learn more about the piece or to download the seven stop audio tour, visit

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  1. Ann Nomura on May 12, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    Ken Hagan entomologist(a beetle guy) who worked at the now occupied Gill Tract, grew up in Piedmont and told stories of swimming in Lake Merritt.

    When I worked at the Gill Tract people from all over the world would bring Dr. Hagan a single beetle leg or wing and he could ID it. When we lost him, we lost our library. He was a quiet man who loved beetles and swam in Lake Merritt.

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