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.