At the Golden Gate Public Library in North Oakland, Mary Marsh, a neighbor and former librarian at City College in San Francisco, shares photographs of her house with Sue Mark, an artist and educator. Mark is hosting an open archiving session for residents of the neighborhood as part of her project, Commons Archive, which she launched this spring.
Mark started the community archive based at the library to encourage neighbors to share their stories and interact with each other through events like block parties, walking tours and printmaking workshops. “People don’t see themselves as producers of history, but they really are,” said Mark. “What we are doing is sparking that physical movement of materials from under their bed and in their attic.”
Marsh has brought along an album filled with photos of her house, which was built in the 1890s. She started to renovate it when she and her husband bought it in 1999. She recently went to the Oakland History Room at the library’s main branch, where she traced her house’s ownership using the “block books,” a historical survey of property owners on particular city blocks.
One of the house’s original owners, she discovered, was a man named Frank Mecca, who still lives in Oakland and is now in his 90s. “We found his initials carved in the attic before we renovated,” she tells Mark.
“Nooo! Did you document the initials?” Mark asks in amazement. “It’s amazing to think of the huge change that’s happened in the neighborhood in his lifetime.”
Both of them begin to flip through the photo album, remarking on the changes Marsh and her husband have made to the house and commenting on some photos of the old patterned wallpaper from the 1970s. Marsh preserved a small piece, which remains on the wall. Mark starts scanning the photos as they talk.
At a time when Oakland neighborhoods are gentrifying, Mark hopes to bring together neighbors to form stronger community bonds. “There’s a real issue in Oakland—and not just in the Golden Gate neighborhood—in terms of connecting new neighbors and longtime neighbors,” said Mark. “If people don’t know each other as neighbors, they live in isolation and that’s where a lot of misunderstandings happen. Archiving is not just a process of being citizen historians—but also of reactivating the role of an engaged neighbor.”
Erin Sanders, branch manager at the Golden Gate Library, has helped develop community programming in partnership with the project. “There’s sort of this institutional veil that people see museums, archives and libraries as housing stories of ‘important’ people,” said Sanders. “That’s why this project is so interesting, because it’s community driven—all of the material will be from the community, and it is based on participation from the community.”
Joanne Dickerson Harper has been in the neighborhood since her parents bought their house in 1945. They were the first African Americans on their block. She shared her family pictures with Mark, including photos of six generations of the women on her mother’s side. Her mother moved to California from New Orleans.
Harper says she wanted to share the photos “to show that people came here, we didn’t fall out of a tree. They came for better wages, for better working conditions, and for better treatment—they left what they knew and they made lives for themselves and that needs to be shared.”
She also says that with new people moving to the neighborhood, it’s important to be able to have dialogue with the “old timers,” as she refers to herself and others who have been in the neighborhood for a long time.
To that end, she helped organize a walking discussion with Mark, where she talked about her house, the surrounding community businesses and landmarks, and local history. “There are so many people coming into the neighborhood, so I thought it would be a nice idea for folks to really get a chance to see who their neighbors are and where they came from,” said Harper.
Brock Winstead, a former urban planner who moved to the neighborhood in 2011, began researching the history of his house in 2013, when conversations about gentrification in Golden Gate were reaching a peak. Like Marsh, he went to the Oakland History Room to look at the block books, and also accessed the California Digital Newspaper Collective, as well as census records.
“My own curiosity and the conversations people were having about the displacement of ‘historic residents’ made me want to do a deep dive into what this place used to be and who used to be here,” said Winstead. He published an essay online about the process and his findings.
Reflecting on the process, Winstead said that he didn’t know about many of the resources that were available to him before starting the project. “That knowledge is unevenly distributed. Most people, even if they’re kind of curious about their house, either don’t have the time to track it down or aren’t quite so motivated like me,” said Winstead. “You do find these people harboring this curiosity but they didn’t know what to do with it—they are thirsty for this knowledge.”
He also said that the research outcome will be different for everyone. “I just got lucky that I could find these people and put together their stories based on sources that were available to me. That’s not the case for every house. There’s not a lot about regular working class folks in those kinds of historic sources.”
The idea for the community archive began when Mark received a grant from the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley as part of Print Public, a two-year place-making project along the San Pablo Corridor as it runs from South Berkeley through Emeryville and North Oakland. She began researching the role of the neighborhood branch library, and surrounding community’s early development in the late 1800s. Last spring, she organized a block party and a series of walking discussions on topics like how to research the history of your home, the history of nearby houses of worship, and what used to be in the neighborhood. Both Harper and Winstead participated.
She also met Mark Lasartemey at the Alameda Free Library, where she taught writing workshops. Lasartemey’s grandparents are Eugene and Ruth Lasartemey, the founders of the Easy Bay Negro Historical Society in Oakland. Many of the documents the Lasartemeys’ collected now form the basis of The African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO), but their personal collection remained with their grandson over the years. During the process of renovating his house in South Berkeley, Lasartemey re-discovered these materials and wondered if he should donate them to a library.
Mark worked with Lasartemey to start cataloguing the boxes of materials he had inherited, which included the couple’s travel journals and photos from the Acorn Camera Club, of which they were members. He said that in addition to collecting being a hobby his grandparents both enjoyed, one of the main reasons they started archiving was because of resentment stemming from the discrimination they experienced. His grandmother’s family was one of the first African American families in the city of Alameda. “In terms of the archives it was about education—knowing that African Americans have made their mark in society and saying, ‘If other people have done it, you can do it,’” said Lasartemey.
Mark was inspired after working with Lasartemey and wanted to demystify the process of archiving for others. She said she is grateful for archives like the one at AAMLO, but that they are often inaccessible to people who are not historians. “You have to make an appointment and know what you’re looking for—that creates a lot of barriers,” said Mark. ”How do you negotiate that process? How do you know where to start?”
While the Oakland History Room is open to the public, Mark thinks it is underutilized as well. This question of accessibility is one of the reasons she wanted to create a more participatory and interactive archive, while also making sure that whatever she created would be integrated with existing ones. Mark said that she doesn’t want Commons Archive to “just be a static archive,” and that she hopes to create more movement of materials across libraries, especially considering AAMLO and the Oakland History Room are both located downtown—a good distance from neighborhoods like Golden Gate.
“What I’d like to develop are safe ways for material and information to physically move between these branches. It’s not an impossibility, because they are all part of the same library,” said Mark.
She is currently reaching out to organizations in the Golden Gate neighborhood to form a stewardship team to develop a long-term plan for the archive. She is hoping to set up collection centers for people to drop off materials throughout the neighborhood, such as at anchor businesses like William’s Low-Cost Appliances and the local barbershop, and community gathering spots like Saint Columba Church and the recreation center.
“One of the things we want to do is have a broad reach—have nodes that are part of the community,” said Mark.
She also thinks it is important that residents have ownership over how the archive takes shape, which is why she’s built in a decentralized collecting process. “When I talk to people in the Golden Gate neighborhood, they see me as their historian. I’m not, and I’m not comfortable with that title,” said Mark. “I want to help with the creation of tools for everybody to be the curator of their neighborhood’s history.”