Cleaning up Old Oakland one mosaic at a time

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Old Oakland Neighbors (OON) is a neighborhood group founded in 2006 comprised of residents, merchants, and property owners committed to connecting, celebrating, and caring for Old Oakland, a downtown neighborhood near Chinatown and the convention center. 

As part of OON, I’ve spent the last few years leading an ambitious community project to bring together neighborhood residents, local artists and businesses in order to clean up our streets and reduce the amount of litter polluting the bay. We are a small team of dedicated volunteers doing our best to make our corner of the world a little brighter and cleaner. 

We transform blighted trashcans into neighborhood treasures with 3-panel mosaics featuring local birds, native plants and tidal marsh scenes. Ugly trashcans that were once the frequent target of graffiti now delight pedestrians and drivers passing by. They are a refreshing break from the streets and concrete sidewalks and remind us of the natural environment beyond downtown.

Mosaics of hope

But our project didn’t originally start out as traditional anti-litter campaign. It started in reaction to a fatal shooting that occurred 3 years ago this month in the heart of our neighborhood. We wanted to create a community tribute to peace at the corner where the shooting occurred, so I and a few neighborhood volunteers created and completed our first mosaic trash can: a dove carrying acorns of hope. Working on this project, we realized street litter was huge problem and that many more trash cans in our neighborhood were in need of an artistic makeover.

So we partnered with Juan Lopez of New World Mosaics to help us scale our project and mosaic all the trash enclosures in Old Oakland. We created a short video and an online crowdfunding campaign to raise awareness and project funding. We have been funded by online donations from community residents and businesses and grants from Capital Impact Partners, Keep Oakland Beautiful and the Alameda County Clean Water Program.

So far, we’ve completed 14 more mosaic makeovers and more will be added as we raise more money. We believe that the more visible, attractive and memorable our trashcans are, the more they get noticed and used. As a result, there is less littering and less trash ending up in the storm drains and the Bay.

Natural beauty instead of blight

We also hope to increase awareness and appreciation for our feathered friends and our native bay landscape. The Golden Gate Audubon Society, the California Native Plant Society (Bay Area Chapter) and the Oakland Adopt-a-Spot program have been advising us so that we can feature native birds like the California quail, snowy egret, great horned owl, and the endangered Ridgway’s Rail.

I love this project because I hate litter. So much so that I somehow managed to convince my two young daughters that picking up trash with tongs is a fun weekend activity. Our mosaic project has been an invaluable learning opportunity for them. By following our project every step of the way, they have discovered that there are creative solutions to urban problems like littering, that there is a greater impact when a community works together and that every generation has a collective stewardship responsibility to make the world a better place. 

I’m grateful to all of our funders and volunteers, especially Brook Vanderford, who has worked with me since the beginning to make this project a reality. I’m also thankful to all the other trash can mosaic artists in Oakland, especially Vivian Romero of the Adams Point Neighborhood Association who has been an inspiration and project advisor.

I certainly hope we can inspire the next generation to become active stewards of our environment and instill in them the passion to make positive change in their community.

— Tiffany Eng

Tiffany Eng is an Old Oakland Neighbors board member and founder of Family Friendly Oakland, a campaign to create a city for all ages.

South Bay Salt Pond Photography

Using a kite to fly a radio-controlled camera to great heights, photographer Cris Benton brings the intricate details of the South Bay’s salt ponds into focus. Cris’s aerial photographs have aided in the restoration efforts of the salt ponds and have been utilized by our habitat restoration team.

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Can you describe your process for kite aerial photography?

The idea is to take photographs from somewhere between head height and 400 ft. above the ground. To lift the camera I use single line kites selected for stability, often taking a quiver of six to eight kites when I head out to photograph.  After watching the wind, I select a kite that matches the breeze. After launching the kite I fly it up to steady air.

After the selected kite reaches steady air I fly it for about 10 minutes to establish that the wind is reliable and the kite is performing well.  And then, a hundred feet or more below the kite, I attach a little string and pulley suspension called a Picavet. Below the Picavet cross you attach the camera. Controlled by a handheld radio transmitter, the airborne cradle can point the camera in any compass direction, tilt it from straight down to the horizon, and with the flip of a switch change from portrait to landscape format.

Once the equipment is rigged to the kite line you just let out more line, the kite flies higher and pulls the camera cradle up after it. In the South Bay I have hiked five miles along the levees with the camera aloft taking photographs as I go. I frame each photograph by watching the camera, imagining what it would “see” and using the radio to pan and tilt. After the shot is composed, I wait for camera to be still and then press the shutter button to make the exposure. It only takes a few seconds per image and it’s great fun.

How has your work progressed in kite aerial photography (KAP)?

My first forays into KAP sprang from the confluence of longstanding interests in photography and radio-controlled sailplanes. In 1995, after playing with mounting a camera on one of my planes I made a shift to kites, which tend to be stable, self-tending platforms. Since switching to kites I have progressed through three photographic stages.

The first stage, lasting several years, involved sorting out how to fly kites, mount the camera, compose the photographs, and keep my lofted gear from crashing. During my middle period, again lasting several years, I traveled broadly with my KAP gear in a quest for aerial images compositionally worthy of display. This was a fine period of honing technique and skill that yielded satisfying work, the placement of images in publications, coverage in the press, and a few exhibits.

I am now well settled into my third period, the use of kite aerial photography in sustained studies of specific landscapes. The best example is my project examining the South Bay salt pond landscape. I came across the salt ponds while taking a series of hikes with microbiologist Dr. Wayne Lanier during my sabbatical at the Exploratorium.  On these hikes Wayne would photograph through his field microscope while I took overhead views of the sampled environment.

Not knowing much about the South Bay I was struck by the otherworldly colors and textures present in what was once marshland. This was intriguing territory to photograph. After learning more about the current day South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, I developed a proposal to continue photographing the South Bay landscape in service of the restoration efforts. The Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge and the California Department of Fish & Wildlife issued Special Use Permits providing permissions conditioned on seasonal restrictions to protect wildlife. This project, still underway, has blossomed into a major undertaking.

What is the nature of this South Bay project and what has it accomplished?

I started by photographing the colors and textures associated with the various salinities of salt ponds in the South Bay. Curiously, you can see little of a pond’s color or bottom detail while hiking on the ground due to sky reflection from the pond’s surface.  Happily, an aerial vantage point reduces surface reflection to allow a view of pond colors and bottom detail. This advantage, afforded to airline passengers landing at SFO, is also realized by a kite-lofted camera.

I was having a great time bagging new colors, as though trophy animals, when I realized that many of my aerial images contained vestigial remnants of the marsh channels that once served square miles of South Bay marsh. Looking more closely I also found traces of old boat landings, 19th century salt works, and curious patterns left by over a century of dredging and duck hunting.

What began as a photographic romp through a visually compelling landscape slowly shifted toward documenting the landscape’s history and deciphering traces of it evident in my aerial photographs. My aerial images often presented puzzling artifacts. These fueled visits to libraries, map rooms, and local experts. Then it was back to the field for more photographs. After photographing for several years, I came to appreciate that the landscape was still in transition, and rapid transition at that, as the salt pond restoration project gained stride. This realization has lent a sense of urgency to the project.

Over the last ten years I have made about 250 trips to photograph the South Bay. The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project has used my images for outreach and in support of science projects guiding the restoration. For instance, my low-level aerial images of Drawbridge were used to “ground truth” the locations of invasive vegetation as predicted by the analysis of satellite data. My photographs of the project have also been used by over three-dozen non-profit agencies, including Save The Bay. I have mounted several exhibits of the South Bay work including a permanent display of sixty images at the Exploratorium and large panoramas in the Oakland Museum’s 2014 exhibit Above & Below: Stories from Our Changing Bay.

Cris Benton is a retired professor of architecture and former department chair at the University of California, Berkeley. He uses kite aerial photography as a technique for documenting several Northern California landscapes.