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.

Guest Post | Know Your Fisherman

Captain Adam Sewall
Captain Adam Sewall is a local fisherman who spends his days between the Berkeley Marina and just outside the Golden Gate. Photo credit: Michael Santiago

Captain Adam Sewall of the Sunrise Fish Company spends long days fishing halibut from his one-man fishing boat in the San Francisco Bay and along the Marin coast. Take a journey in his boots for a day and learn more about why he throws back so much of what he catches.

When my alarm goes off my first thought is that it’s the middle of the night, there must be some mistake. But no, it’s 4AM and my phone is telling me that it’s time to get up. I put the kettle on and take one last look at my tide charts and weather report, it all looks promising.  I sip my strong black coffee as I load my gear and fuel into the truck.

As I steam out of the Berkeley Marina by myself in my 25’ open fishing boat, adrenaline and excitement kick in along with the caffeine. The bay is beautiful and flat this morning. The sun is just rising behind me. I speed past the city, under the Golden Gate Bridge, through a pod of porpoises corralling anchovies at Baker Beach, past Seal Rocks, to my fishing grounds on 14 fathom bank.

Casting off

When I arrive, I slow the boat and look for where to begin my day. I see a place where the sea is purple and black with a thick shoal of anchovies, their mass like a continent on a map. Birds are diving as salmon push the anchovies to the surface, and I notice the spout of a whale making her way towards the commotion. This is a good place to start.

I rig my rods and reels with heavy lead weights and herring. I send the herring along with the weight down to the sandy bottom, where the lead bounces along the ocean floor. I set six rods this way and tend them carefully. I watch the rods bend and tap rhythmically along the washboard texture of the sea floor. It’s not long before one of the rods buckles under the weight of a large fish. I scramble for the gear and start cranking. As I fight the fish I reach over the open console of the boat to steer carefully so the lines don’t tangle. My lead weight comes into view, and a few feet below it the silhouette of a large halibut. I reel the lead ball up to the rod tip and gaff the halibut into the boat. It’s a good fish, 17lbs.

Fishing outside the industry

When most people think about fishing, this is what they imagine. In reality, I am part of a very small fleet of passionate guys who fish by ourselves with rods and reels in small boats. Most of us couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

The overwhelming majority of the fish in our markets however arrives through a very different process.  For seventy-odd years, freezer ships have plundered our oceans, and more recently aquaculture has monocultured and stifled our coasts. It’s almost a misnomer to me to call what I do fishing, when the industry is dominated by these goliaths of the sea.

At the fish market, my local line caught California halibut lays in the cooler next to Atlantic salmon, a fish transplanted from its north Atlantic home where it is all but extinct, to massive fish farming operations choking the bays and inlets in Chile.

Next in the cooler are steaks of swordfish, labeled “local” but caught by boats that migrate thousands of miles in search of the pacific’s last stock. These boats lay hundreds of miles of baited hooks, laying waste to huge numbers of oceanic predators that are unfortunate enough to eat the bait intended for the elusive swordfish.

It’s hard to tell my halibut from the local dragger-caught halibut as it’s often labeled the same. These large boats with their massive nets plow and scrape the sea floor, destroying any creature funneled into its purse. In an effort to maintain the health of our California coast, the government has tried to buy back the permits to operate these vessels, but their hefty offers have been refused. Dragger fishing is just too profitable.

One catch at a time

By the end of my day, I have released salmon, thresher sharks, and a bat ray back to the ocean alive, and kept 17 Halibut weighing a total of 150lbs. I steam back under the Golden Gate Bridge as the last rays of orange light bounce against the San Francisco skyline. I unload at Fisherman’s Wharf. My catch today will be enjoyed by patrons at some of the finest restaurants, fish markets, and even tech start-ups in the bay area. Tomorrow, I’ll ice my fish and bring it instead to the Tuesday Berkeley farmers market where I enjoy selling directly to my community.

It’s almost 10:00PM by the time I get back to the Berkeley Marina. I clean up my boat, pack up my gear, and get home to my apartment in Oakland. It’s been a long day, and my alarm will go off in less than six hours, I better eat some dinner.

– Captain Adam Sewall

Born and raised a true Mainer, Captain Adam Sewall comes from a long line of shipbuilders and fishermen. Adam bought his own halibut boat and started the Sunrise Fish Company in 2015.  He now plies the waters around the San Francisco Bay and the Marin coast in search of the freshest catch before selling at market in South Berkeley. Come by to swap fish stories and pick up the catch of the day.”

Environmental Activism Through Art

Linda Gass is a textile artist. Her work blends painting and textile techniques to create multi-layered birds-eye view landscapes and maps showing the human marks that affect our water resources.

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When did you become interested in creating art about San Francisco Bay?

Whenever I flew over the Bay I would look down and wonder what are those wild colors and why are they there? In 2005 I was at a point where I was able to research it and learn more about it and then I wanted to make art about it.

What inspires you and why you are so drawn to the San Francisco Bay?

I make art about things that I am familiar with and know something about and because I live here that’s really what inspires me. It’s my backyard. It’s something I care very deeply about.

Many of your stitched paintings deal with land use concerns. How do you see your work connecting with advocacy efforts for a healthy San Francisco Bay?

I’m drawn to the human mark on the landscape. I’m interested in how those human marks affect our water resources. My Land Use Series came out of a talk I went to by the poet Gary Snyder. He posed this quiz to the audience called “How Local Are You?”, which asked questions like “do you know where your water comes from? Do you know where it goes when you’re done with it? Can you name 5 native grasses?”

Although I thought I knew the answer to these questions, when I fully tried to answer them I wasn’t quite sure and so that inspired me to research where my water goes when I’m done with it, where my garbage goes and where my gasoline gets refined. When I looked at all three of those, they were located right on the edge of the Bay, which made me wonder, is this a good site for these activities to be occurring?

Why is it important to consider how landscapes have changed over time and how do you illustrate these changes in your work?

I’m interested in the present day landscape. I’m also interested in how it used to look and I’m interested in how it could look in the future. I draw on historical photographs and maps to understand what the landscape used to look like. Looking at these maps and photographs could give us a clue of what those landscapes could look like in the future through restoration efforts.

How do you think that art can greater connect people to their local environment and aid in education about environmental issues?

I feel like art has great potential to touch people emotionally and in ways that maybe scientific facts don’t. Art can also be a gentle way to encourage people to become interested in something that could be a difficult topic. I try to encourage people to look at things in our environment that we have great potential to repair and restore. I use bright colors and textiles and I make my work beautiful to encourage people to look at it and then if they want to they can learn the story behind it. I’m trying to use beauty to encourage people to look at the hard issues that we face.

Why are you so drawn to the birds-eye/aerial view of landscapes?

The aerial perspective is just one that I particularly love. I don’t know if I was a bird in a past life but I love that view of the land and it’s also that view that enables me to see the patterns of our human marks.

Do you have any upcoming projects that our readers might be interested in learning about?

I was awarded an art and science residency with the Palo Alto Art Center and Junior Museum & Zoo. It’s a 5 month long residency called Creative Ecology. There are four artists who received the award and we will be doing our work sequentially.

There are three parts to the residency: the first part is spending a month exploring an open space area in or near Palo Alto with the community and an art educator from the Art Center and a science educator from Junior Musuem and Zoo. I chose Cooley Landing in East Palo Alto.

We’re going to explore Cooley Landing over three consecutive Saturdays. The public is welcome to join us at Cooley Landing July 11th, 18th and 25th from 10 am – noon. We’re also doing scheduled sessions during the week with youth groups. We’ll be doing art and science activities, looking very closely at the environment, using magnifying glasses and binoculars, and drawing and writing about what we see. We will examine water samples from the Bay using microscopes to see the different organisms living in the water. We will be making connections between art and science.

The second part of the residency is to make artwork based on the experience at Cooley Landing. I’ll have open studio hours at the Palo Alto Art Center where the public can drop in and observe me making my work. I’m hoping to also have set up a way for the public to make their own small silk paintings about Cooley Landing and hopefully that would then get turned into a community quilt. The third part of the residency is an exhibition of the work that I’ve created.

Linda Gass combines environmental activism and artmaking to bring awareness to land use and water issues in California.  She travels extensively in the wilderness areas of the West where she finds much of the inspiration for her work.  Linda exhibits her work internationally in museums and galleries and her art has been featured in a wide variety of books and magazines. To learn more about Linda, visit her website