Knowland Park. It’s a place that many people think of for a moment as they pull into the Oakland Zoo. I never really understood what Knowland Park was all about, why it was part of the zoo. It is really the other way around; the zoo became part of it. It’s ironic that as the largest public park in Oakland, it is one of the least used. It is acreage named for a man who once owned our beloved Tribune, who built its tower, and who served our state parks for over twenty years. Knowland Park came to be as a way to honor a man who worked so hard to protect state land. As someone who loves to spend time in nature, my visit to this wild and open public space within our city limits was long overdue. As an Oakland Zoo member, I have been feeling conflicted about the hand it has been dealt as the zoo expands up the hillside, further into Knowland’s wild side. I thought my early morning visit to the hilltop would give me clarity, but as I have continued to read I still don’t seem to have it. I do know I have another place to visit when I need to take time to look for it further, on this issue…or any others that life hands out.
I have a deep level of admiration for those who entertain children for a living. Play isn’t something that comes naturally to me. When I watch jugglers, magicians, balloon artists and other performers at birthday parties and events, I am in awe. To take oneself to the level of a child may be “down” in the physical sense, but it actually requires one to move “up” in the sense of energy, creativity, and imagination. Puppeteers have always fascinated me in the ways they combine a piece of art, their hands, and their voices to create a character that will cause little eyes to open wide. While digital animation has taken over much of children’s entertainment in the 21st Century, iconic puppets still dance across our screens in long running shows such as Sesame Street. Yet there are few places where you can still watch a curtain move aside and see lively characters dance in front of your eyes. Oakland’s own Children’s Fairyland is one of those special spots. Along the shore of Lake Merritt, Fairyland has been home to our country’s longest running live puppet theater. Now celebrating sixty years, the Storybook Theater at Fairyland, and its dedicated director, invited me behind the scenes to see just how it has been pulling strings for so long.
When Gertrude Stein coined the phrase, “there is no there there” in relation to her childhood home, little did she know that it would have a renaissance in the Oakland of the 21st Century. While some feel the statement was a negative comment about our city, what she really was speaking to was change. The Oakland of her youth was gone, her version of “there” was gone; a new place was now there and it was unfamiliar. Cities change. They shrink and grow. They struggle and flourish. They crumble and build. Often, these things happen at the same time; a confusing dichotomy of positive and negative that is hard to understand. As I sat down to write this I remembered that I had touched on Oakland’s current climate in my very first post so I decided to go back and re-read exactly what I had written:
“I don’t intend to use this as a platform to jump in on that debate; but I do hope that I can use this site as a vehicle to not only share some of the amazing spaces and places that are planting new roots in Oakland, but to also occasionally highlight our city’s history, communities, and people. Will see how I do.”
When I look at that statement almost a year later, I feel a couple things. While I still feel I am not qualified to be on a platform, I do feel that I have a responsibility. I feel that since I have become a more visible member of the community it is my duty to share, to help educate, to give people something to think about. The Oakland Museum of California is doing the same thing. Their new exhibit, “Oakland, I want you to know…” is thought provoking, inspiring, upsetting, and hopeful. It is an invitation to our community, a challenge, to fight to keep our “there there.” As a member of the community I experienced all of those emotions when I spent time viewing it a couple of weeks ago.
When I think of Jack London, I typically think of the snowy Klondike, sled dogs, and a little log cabin by the Oakland Estuary. It is just recently that I learned more about his love for the rolling hills of the Sonoma countryside and his dedication to his land and property in Glen Ellen. Yet Jack London…surfer? This was news to me. When a fellow Oaklander gave me the idea to look into Jack London’s South Pacific travels, I was intrigued. I started to read about his love of adventure and sailing. I learned more about his interest in South Pacific cultures; his desire to build the perfect vessel to sail around the world. In fact, I have learned quite a bit about Jack London recently. While inspired to share more over time, it is his taste for the tropics that I have chosen to focus on as our Bay Area summer has turned mild. I dug around a bit and was connected to a source for images from Jack London’s personal photo albums. An amateur photographer, London often carried a camera and was passionate about documenting his experiences. It is clear that his cameras often traded hands as he moved from capturer to subject. As I skimmed through picture after picture of his travels through the islands it was clear to me that even over 100 years ago, the lure of the tropics was too much to resist.
The tropics. White sand meets picturesque blue water. Palm trees heavy with coconuts, fields of sugar cane, sweet tropical fruit. A lack of seasons means flip-flops year round; a golden tan that never truly fades. So many of us daydream of a tropical island as our permanent home. There was a time in my life when I thought I was meant to be an islander; I was twenty. A year spent abroad on the shores of Australia had me convinced it was the way I was meant to live. Twenty years later as I approach forty, with two kids and a mortgage, it’s a daydream I sometimes still revisit; a “what if” that creeps in when days are long. As the depth of summer sends images of tropical locations across my social media feeds, I have been thinking about ways to bring its allure into my own life. What happened is I discovered the ways a couple of iconic Oakland names went after their own tropical dreams; the first of which was a man with a wooden leg who turned his Oakland watering hole into a Polynesian-themed empire.
“High on the summit of Oakland’s eastern skyline a Woodland Open-Air Theater and Temple of Honor, reached by a gigantic stairway and surrounded by a grove of huge Sequoia trees, are being constructed to commemorate great California authors of the past and of the future, who among their writings heralded to the world the scenic beauties and the historic life of our superb State.”
Gertrude Mott, 1936
I have become sentimental about Woodminster. Odd, given that until five days ago I had never set foot inside its gates. Something about how this place came to be, and how it has become a second home to a family that has been producing musicals inside its open-air bowl for fifty years, has captivated me. It’s a place that was built amidst depression; a “cathedral in the woods” to honor California writers. Its early advocates had high hopes for its use; festivals in honor of California literature, educational programs for East Bay schools and civic organizations, and of course large theatrical and musical performances. World War II caused the lights to be turned off for the first few years of its existence and the rise of the television caused interest to wane in the middle of the century. However, for the past fifty years the summer musical program has endured thanks to a husband and wife team that brought innovation, passion, and family-filled exuberance to this special spot in Oakland’s woods.
Who was Howard Gilkey? He was a little boy from Iowa who loved to collect seeds and bulbs. He was a California teenager who worked for a famous botanist, cross pollinating plants as a “bumble bee”. He was a U.C. Berkeley student who sold gladiolus bulbs to pay his tuition. He was a City of Oakland payroll clerk who designed Lakeside Drive in his spare time. He was a landscape architect who designed the Cleveland Cascade in 1923. He conceptualized the grounds of Highland Hospital. He consulted on the landscape and gardens of Mills College. He designed projects such as the Woodminster Cascade and Amphitheater, the original Lake Merritt Wild Duck Refuge, and the Arboretum at Knowland Park. He produced the annual themed California Spring Garden Show for 23 years. Are you surprised you haven’t heard of him? I know I was.
When I stumbled on information about the Schilling Gardens late one evening, a double dose of irony was at play. I had just finished reading a book I thoroughly enjoyed called The Forgotten Garden, the story of an abandoned girl at the turn of the 20th century and her connection to a secret garden inside a maze on the other side of the world. I had also just arranged my visit to Oaktown Spice Shop; since I am curious about connections to Oakland history, I spent a bit of time looking into Oakland’s involvement in spice trading, which didn’t turn up much. The name Schilling rung a bell; images of old red and white spice tins popped into my head. As I opened more windows on my screen and read article after article about this hidden treasure on the western shores of Lake Merritt known as the “Gold Coast”, I discovered that this once treasured oasis of a local spice tycoon is a shadow of its former self. Furthermore, its remnants may completely disappear as development encroaches on the lakeside community. I knew it was a story I had to share.