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.

A love affair with San Francisco Bay

Kelley Heye is a former advertising minion, artist, elite cyclist, chubby gal-turned-personal trainer. But more than that, she is a great lover of the outdoors—especially the ocean, the San Francisco Bay, and the critters who live within the cold, wild water.

KelleyHeye

I have always loved the water. Growing up in San Diego, I spent time most every day at the beach. Going to the beach is what we did.

When I moved to San Francisco, I missed the beach. Sure, we have Baker Beach and Ocean Beach, but it’s not the same. It’s cold and windy; folks just don’t go hang out at the beach. It’s not what we do here. Sadly, I had lost my connection to the water.

Over the years, I found ways to enjoy the waters of San Francisco without freezing my butt off. I would run along Crissy Field or ride my bike up the hills of the Marin Headlands just so I could look at the water; it made me feel connected, proud. I especially liked the days when the water was calm, striped with currents and vessel traffic. Riding my bike over the Golden Gate Bridge as an enormous freighter passed beneath me was thrilling.

Gazing at the Bay was nice and certainly helped to satisfy my craving for the water, but something was missing—I was just a spectator.

Taking the plunge

Then one day a few years back, I received an invitation that would change everything. A friend invited me to join him for a swim in the Bay. “No wet suit, it’s frowned upon,” he said. I didn’t want to go, I was afraid, but figured I’d better dig deep and go… “Okay I’ll do it!” I said.

The water at Aquatic Park was cold—very, very cold and seemed wild and scary. The second I fully submerged myself in the Bay, my heart rate went through the roof and I couldn’t breathe. I was sure I was going to die, but miraculously, I didn’t. My heart rate eventually went down, and I realized that I was swimming in San Francisco Bay, sans wet suit! I was really swimming in the Bay! The water was shocking, like cool silk on my skin. Turning on my back, the sky was bright blue, dotted with puffy white clouds. It was exhilarating. Cold, yes, but absolutely exhilarating.

Ever since that first swim, the Bay has wedged itself deeply into my soul. I am no longer a spectator—I have grown into a full-fledged participant in all that our Bay has to offer. I swim a couple times a week and have inspired others to join me so that they, too, could experience the water’s cool embrace. I also fly across the currents of the Bay with my crew as we row vintage wooden boats while being chased by playful harbor seals. I cannot describe the joy I feel when their smooth, round heads and huge, black eyes pop up just next to my oar. Lines of pelicans soar by, and remind me how lucky I am to be out there.  Just seeing the animals and natural beauty of the Bay makes my heart swell with love for this special place that is our home.

How has the Bay inspired my workouts, my clients, and me?

San Francisco Bay is a vast, ever-changing element. It can be wild, thrilling and cold, but it’s special: there’s only one San Francisco Bay. Even on its crankiest days it is a magical, inspiring backdrop for a workout of any kind—mental or physical.

People often ask me why I don’t work in a gym. I tell them because there are no wild parrots, pelicans or blue heron at the gym. There are “treadmill bunnies,” but you’ll never see fluffy brown bunnies hop past. At a gym, you’ll never experience the magnificence of a pod of whales coasting by, or inhale eucalyptus-scented air after your run, or discover puddles to jump in.

As for my favorite Bay locations to workout, I like to take advantage of the views from above—especially the Marin Headlands. Your reward for ascending all of those rugged hills: the best views and the best workout ever. Lands End is the best place to workout during whale migration season. It’s hard to stay focused though; you won’t want to take your eyes off the whales. I also really enjoy the Presidio; it’s become a lovely place to workout or just be—whether you’re running, riding a bike, or walking, there’s something very meditative about being amongst all the trees.

Life-changing love

My love affair with the Bay has changed my life. Not only has it taught me to go beyond what I thought was physically possible (or sane!), but the Bay has also rewarded me with great friendships and an appreciation for all that is connected with it. I have gotten up-close and personal with harbor seals and sea lions, and I have met some wonderful, caring people. And, while I hope to never meet a great white shark, I know they are out there and I will do my best to respect their home and do all I can to keep it healthy.

My advice? Hike up into the headlands and gaze at the Bay. Dip a toe in the water. Or better still, be brave and take a quick, cold, exhilarating dip. Our greatest reward for living in the San Francisco Bay Area is our Bay. Submerge yourself in all of its glory.

– Kelley Heye

Biodiversity & Ronosaurus Rex’s Walk Around the Bay

Ronosaurus Rex, a.k.a. Ronald B. Richardson, recently completed a 350-mile walk  around San Francisco Bay. His journey inspired these reflections on the biodiversity of our region. 

On June 20, 2015, I finished a walk around the San Francisco Bay at every accessible point, including islands, bridges, piers, and docks. I had many incredible vistas, and I saw some wildlife, especially birds—but not as many animals as I would have expected on a 350-mile or more trek. That’s surprising, because the San Francisco Bay is a biodiversity hotspot, which is a biogeographic region rich in biodiversity that is under direct threat from humans.

The Bay is the heart of the California Floristic Province, one of the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots: biologically rich areas that are threatened. These hotspots cover only 2.3 percent of the earth’s land surface, yet they support “nearly 43 percent of bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian species,” according to Conservation International.

So where are all the animals that rely on the Bay?

Salt ponds at Alviso Marina County Park. Showing the salt pond ringed by a man-made levee covered in invasive black mustard.
Salt ponds at Alviso Marina County Park. Showing the salt pond ringed by a man-made levee covered in invasive black mustard.

To answer that question, we need to take a giant step backward in time. The dinosaurs, as you know, were wiped out, along with about 75 percent of all species, at the end of the Cretaceous Period, opening many biological niches to the mammals, who quickly diversified. What you may not know, however, is that there have been at least five mass extinctions on this planet, and we’re in the middle of the sixth. The current extinction event began around 12,000 years ago and continues to this day!

You do not need to look fearfully skyward to find the cause—no mile-wide asteroids are smashing into the Gulf of Mexico and kicking up vast clouds of dust to block out the sun. No, this time the cause is much closer to home: you have only to look in a mirror.

The Wildlife I Saw—and Didn’t See—On My Walk

On my walk around the Bay, I saw many birds, including snowy egrets, great blue herons, pelicans, cormorants, geese, ducks, sandpipers, turkey vultures, and golden tail hawks. There are a lot of birds on the Bay, and we can thank Save The Bay and other environmental organizations for their numbers.

Snowy Egret on Lake Merritt
Snowy Egret on Lake Merritt

As for mammals, I saw some sea lions, a couple of deer (driven into urban areas by the drought), a red fox (a non-native species), squirrels, cats, dogs, and the carcass of a coyote, but little else. True, I am a loud and clumsy human who tends to scare away wildlife, and many animals, like the coyote and the bobcat, prefer to hunt at night. However on a recent trip to the Grand Canyon, I saw elk and deer everywhere, which shows that protected habitats do help wildlife flourish.

Reclaiming the Bay

The biodiversity of the Bay Area has radically diminished since the arrival of Westerners. One reason, besides overexploitation, is that settlers were trying to tame and reclaim the Bay. For the last 150 years, humans have tried to straighten out the line of the Bay, removing the tidal marshes that they saw as “wasteland”—literally “land that was wasted”—because they were not obviously useful for humans. Tremendous efforts were put into these projects, as well as huge amounts of money.

Tidal marshes and overpasses in Larkspur
Tidal marshes and overpasses in Larkspur

It is only relatively recently that we have grasped the importance of these wetlands. I learned from signs on my walk that salt marshes are the kidneys of the Bay, cleansing the water by removing toxins and filtering trash. They are habitats with distinct plant and animal communities, including over 250 species of migratory birds.

Also, over 30 percent of the Bay has been filled in, reducing its area from 787 square miles to 548. In the mid-twentieth century, there were plans to fill in a full 60 percent of it. Following the Reber Plan, only a narrow shipping channel would have remained by 2020. Imagine the Bay Area without a bay! Not only would this have been a horrendous loss of natural beauty, it would have been a major tragedy for biodiversity.  The Bay fill project was stopped, but unfortunately, about 80 percent of the wetlands around the Bay and Delta had already been filled in or dyked.

Because of the loss of habitat, as well as invasive species like the invasive cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora hybrid (which has dominated many tidal marsh ecosystems, crowding out native species) and pollution (more than 250 million tons of raw sewage have been dumped into the Bay, not to mention all the industrial waste), 90 animals and plant species in the Bay Area are currently threatened with extinction, including the California Coast steelhead trout, California tiger salamander, the Bay checkerspot butterfly, and the Suisun thistle, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Cordgrass “monoculture” in a salt marsh
Cordgrass “monoculture” in a salt marsh

The Ongoing Mass Extinction and the Importance of Biodiversity

The loss of biodiversity in the Bay Area echoes trends worldwide. Currently, the extinction rate is 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the normal background rate at which species go extinct. The current mass extinction, which began about 12,000 years ago, is actually occurring at a faster pace than the one that killed the dinosaurs.

Why does biodiversity matter? Ecosystems are interdependent webs, made up of species that have co-evolved to maintain a specific balance. When one species is lost, it can affect the other species in its ecosystem, sometimes catastrophically. According to “What is Biodiversity” from the National Wildlife Federation, biodiversity offers humans access to foods and materials, thereby contributing to a healthier economy. Many medical discoveries have come from research into new species. Each time one is lost, so is a potential human resource, such as medicine. Biodiversity makes it easier for ecosystems to adapt to disasters, such as the drought California is currently experiencing.

And, as the National Wildlife Federation puts it, we need to preserve biodiversity “simply for the wonder of it all. There are few things as beautiful and inspiring as the diversity of life that exists on Earth.”

Saving the Bay

When I first visited the Bay as a boy, I remember how it stank. Now, sewage must be treated, and industrial waste has been greatly reduced. Much more needs to be done, but feel free to take in a deep breath as you walk along the shoreline.

Yes, there is good news. Many migratory birds have returned to the Bay Area, and of the 90 threatened or endangered species in the Bay Area registered under the Endangered Species Act since 1973, none have gone extinct!

So, don’t you dare tell me that your individual efforts will not have an impact on the future of the Bay and the well-being of this planet. Every action you take affects the environment, whether positively or negatively. It is time for all human beings to come together to end the mass extinction that we have wrought.

What You Can Do

Here are a few things you can do: donate time and money to organizations like Save the Bay working to protect and restore the wetlands around the Bay, including the removal of invasive species and the restoration of native species. Do not dump pollutants into city streets, as they drain into the Bay. Recycle and reuse, as much as you can. Pledge to achieve zero garbage. Support politicians and policies opposed to global warming, as this phenomenon will have a dreadful impact on the Bay and our fragile global ecosystem.

However, my best advice for you is to take a walk around the Bay, even a short one, so you can see, as I have seen, how beautiful and important this grand estuary is to plant, animal, and, yes, human life!

Ronald B. Richardson teaches composition and literature at San Francisco State University and City College of San Francisco. He has written a book on the influence of narrative language on perception and behavior called Narrative Madness, and he has a successful blog at ronosaurusrex.com, where he writes fiction, poetry, and nonfiction and writes about metafiction and teaching. You can read more about his walk around the San Francisco Bay under nonfiction.

Father’s Day on the Bay

Dean out  on a restoration trip pictured here with his daughter Claire and one of her friends.
Board Member Dean Meniktas volunteering at a restoration event with his daughter Claire and one of her friends.

Meet Dean Meniktas, board member and Bay Area dad.

Like all fathers, you hope your children have the opportunity to see, experience and enjoy life.  Nothing compares to the natural beauty of our San Francisco Bay and the numerous opportunities it provides.  Whether you hike, bike, run, windsurf or sail, the SF bay is one of the most beautiful places in the world providing memories for young and old.

I recently became a Save The Bay board member because I wanted to get more involved in their efforts to preserve and restore the Bay for the benefit of my daughters and future generations to come.  Save The Bay has protected our Bay for over 50 years and we all benefit from their efforts.

Last month, my youngest daughter Claire, one of her friends and I volunteered to help restore the East Bay shoreline. Save The Bay restoration specialists, Nissa Kreidler and Bryan Derr, were very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the work they do and were willing to share that with us.  We learned about the restoration efforts being done and also enjoyed the comradery of the other volunteers.   These volunteer hours do make a difference helping to preserve the natural beauty of our Bay Area shorelines.

Dean's three daughters enjoying a day out on the Bay.
Dean’s three daughters enjoying a day out on the Bay.

As a father of three daughters and lifelong native of the Bay Area, we have spent countless hours on and around the Bay.   We had our first daughter while living in San Francisco and I can remember the many runs pushing the jogger stroller along Crissy Field taking in the breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands.  As our family grew, we often spent time at Crissy Field playing on the beach and sometimes the family tolerated my short “detours” to windsurf on the Bay.   Whether spending time at Crissy field, taking bike rides around Angel Island, or kayaking in Richardson Bay, we feel very fortunate to live in the Bay Area and experience our amazing SF Bay daily.

It is imperative that we preserve and restore the Bay for all its current and future inhabitants.  The Bay is truly a unique environment and is crucial to making the Bay Area a special place to live and raise our families.

So Dads — on Father’s Day, or any day, go out and enjoy the endless experiences our San Francisco Bay offers with your families and friends!

A financial advisor since 1994, Dean Meniktas holds a MBA in Finance and BS in Civil Engineering from the University of California Berkeley. Prior to joining UBS, he was a Senior V.P. of Investments with Merrill Lynch in Oakland. He has the designation of Certified Investment Management Analyst,(CIMA®) following course work and examination at the Wharton School of Business. He is also a member of the Financial Planning Association and the Investment Management Consultant Association. Dean enjoys windsurfing, auto racing and spending time with his wife and three daughters. He resides in Moraga.

Guest Post | Restoration at Sears Point

Sears Point in Sonoma County. Photo by: Julian Meisler
Unexpected flooding of Sears Point in Sonoma County brought thousands of birds to the site in late December. Photo provided by: Julian Meisler

Julian Meisler is the Baylands Program Manager for Sonoma Land Trust, responsible for overseeing Sonoma Land Trust’s holdings and projects along the bay including the 2,327-acre Sears Point Wetland and Watershed Restoration Project.  When project construction wraps up and levees are breached later this year, tides will rush in and connect this land with the rest of San Francisco Bay for the first time in over 120 years.

Every once in a while there are moments in our jobs, in our careers, when the significance of our work surfaces. I can attest as a field biologist turned project manager that these moments sometimes seem a little too infrequent.  Certainly our goals are lofty and pure but there are times when the day to day blurs to weeks and even years of permit negotiations, grant applications, reports, and presentations.  Alas, there are restorative moments that punctuate individual days of the year – a frog survey here, a rare plant survey there – and serve as reminders of why we do what we do.

But I’m talking about bigger moments.

For a little more than five years I have devoted myself almost entirely to a single project, the restoration of the 2,327-acre Sears Point property.  In 2005, Sonoma Land Trust (SLT) completed the purchase of this property which had come awfully close to being a casino.  The purchase set in motion years of work that would build and refine plans for management, enhancement, and restoration of the hilly pastures and riparian corridors of the uplands and the farmlands of the diked agricultural baylands below.  The most ambitious element of the plans would be the restoration of nearly 1,000 acres of the baylands to tidal marsh.

I came to the project after a lot of hard work had been done.  Surveys, studies, and assessments were compiled into a conceptual restoration plan and a draft EIR/EIS was complete.  My predecessor and a host of top consultants had laid the groundwork for the project.  My job was to get it done.  With our project partners at Ducks Unlimited and several agencies we slogged through more complications than the untrained eye would expect.  There were radio stations concerned with loss of power, PG&E installations and removals, threats from the NRA, evictions, deals, demolition, remediation, and budgets as convoluted as a fifth order tidal channel.  Not a single one of these topics, I might add, was ever mentioned in the tattered ecology textbooks of school, there were no references to such work in the Jepson Manual, nor even a nod in the soil survey.  This was project management through and through.

Yet we finalized the plans, we secured the permits, and we raised the money, and we began, in earnest, in 2014.  Beginning last summer, construction proceeded from dawn to dusk, six days a week for six months straight (without a single safety violation!).  The land was transformed and a buzz began to sound in the community.  By mid-December I was ready for a break and headed to cold and gray Pittsburgh, PA for visit to the land where I was raised.  It happened to be the week that the elusive El Nino briefly reared its head unleashing an atmospheric river that would rapidly and unexpectedly flood our future 1,000-acre tidal basin under three feet of fresh water.  Sunken from view were the six miles of channels that we’d excavated to build a 2.5-mile flood control/habitat levee.  Protruding from the water’s surface were the heads of 500 marsh mounds we’d built for the primary purpose of suppressing wind waves and thereby encouraging sediment deposition when the tides ultimately return next fall.  Ironically, rows and rows of oat hay sprouted along the crest and sides of the new levee overlooking the drowned fields that had grown that very crop for decades.  In fact, we had asked the farmer to seed our levee in order to buy us time to plan our ecotone and prevent the seemingly inevitable influx of non-native species.  All of this was rather remarkable for me to return to, having missed the storm entirely.

But the punctuation occurred on New Year’s Eve Day.  I visited the site to reoccupy the various photo points that I’d set up the previous year to track change over time.  This made for a long trek down the 2.5 miles of the new levee and the five miles of the old levee.  In the late afternoon, having covered a good number of these miles, I looked out over the water where farm houses and barns once stood.  Over a mile away the engines of the interminably busy Highway 37 were quieted by a typical afternoon backup.  Their sound was replaced by the flutter, the splash, and the whistles of what must have been thousands of ducks, geese, and shorebirds.  It was remarkable how quickly it had happened.  The site had been flooded for such a short period but these birds, some resident, some migrants, had found it.  It was habitat that hadn’t been seen on that site in generations.  I was struck and I was silenced.  Five years of work blended into a single meaningful moment. A moment of true punctuation.

The final denouement at Sears Point will actually occur this coming fall when we breach the levee.  It will mark the return of the tides for the first time in more than 120 years.  Unlike my private celebration on the eve of 2015, it will be public, the way it should be, for all to witness and enjoy.  Look for an announcement in the months to come.

– Julian Meisler