Lake Merritt: People and place, from slough to shining slough

By Kevin Hong, Wild Oakland intern

1857 map of Lake Merritt from the USGS

Kevin the intern here!

On Saturday, June 8th, we gathered at the Pergola at the northeast end of Lake Merritt, around our very own Constance Taylor and Norah Cook, for the natural and social history walk that marked the year anniversary of our first walk!

They started by talking about the natural state of the “lake”; as a brackish tidal slew 200 years ago, alive with redwoods, bass, pronghorn antelope, elk, and numerous bird species- a fertile hunting ground for the Ohlone and prime real estate for the European settlers to come.

Oakland Beginnings

In 1820 the Spanish crown gave Luis Maria Peralta the land surrounding the lake, but developers (most notably Horace Carpentier) soon came and started illegally selling plots of land to Gold Rush migrants from the Eastern states.

In 1850 California became a state. Through cutthroat business deals including the theft of land from the Peraltas, Carpentier became Oakland’s first mayor.

Samuel Merritt

The thirteenth mayor of Oakland, Samuel Merritt, established the slough as the first-ever national wildlife refuge.  This wasn’t so much because he wanted to preserve wildlife, but more because hunters were firing away with inaccurate muskets at the plentiful game in the area.

Legend has it that after a neighbor’s cow was shot and a bullet shattered Merritt’s bedroom window, he put his foot down and passed legislation in 1870 to ban hunting in the area.  This legislation would be used two years later as a blueprint to preserve Yellowstone, the nation’s first national park.

Between 1860 and 1870, the population of Oakland went from 10,000 to 100,000 due in large part to the completion of the western Transcontinental Railroad terminus in Emeryville. Oakland became the second largest city on the West coast, but with its growing population came infrastructure problems. One of these was sewage.

Lake Merritt: From cesspool to jewel

All the city’s sewage was going into the lake, which is connected to the bay, meaning it has a tide. With the sewage of a hundred thousand people coming in, low tide was a big, stinking problem. With the combined efforts of Samuel Merritt, Leland Stanford, and a city councilman Chapman, legislation was passed through the city government that created a new sewage system as well as making the area around the lake a public park.

The City Beautiful movement sweeping the nation had begun to influence Oakland in the early twentieth century. It affected city planning most obviously; public opinion swung in favor of the arts and aesthetics as well as the creation of public parks as beautiful, open places that would improve citizens’ morale and behavior based on the assumptions that 1) people don’t act immorally in parks and 2) parks are a humanizing institution that bring people from all walks of life together.

One lasting result of this was an increasing citizen pride in Lake Merritt, which stayed even after it was generally accepted that people still act immorally in parks!

Necklace of lights

From 1906 to 1919, the lake served as a recreational center for everybody. In 1925, the necklace of lights was put up, and the first bird island was built. In 1935, the lake was declared a fowl sanctuary. In 1956, the rest of the bird islands were built, and in 2011 removing vegetation overgrowth and installing new irrigation systems for the freshwater pools on the islands further improved these sanctuaries.

Measure DD, passed by the city with an 88% vote in 2002, is in progress to improve the lake area and bring it closer to its natural, life-nurturing state.  Removing culverts to improve tidal flushing thereby increasing oxygen levels and exposing more mud flat habitat, reintroduction of native vegetation, and construction of new habitats will bring it closer to its tidal lagoon origins.

Oakland industry and worker’s rights: Whose Oakland is this?

Starting in the 1920s, Oakland became an industrial center for ship building and textiles. It was a time when the contrast between the haves and have-nots became increasingly apparent. Factory working conditions were terrible. The saloons, where city government deals were made, cast shadows in which the weeds of cronyism and group patronage grew. The question of “Whose Oakland is this?” began to rise.

1946 Oakland general strike

Unions were strong in Oakland; in 1946 a huge general strike of 100,000 workers took place, and their demands were actually met!

In the 1940s, Oakland had become a center for war industry. African Americans were migrating en masse to escape the Jim Crow laws in the South, and minorities stepped up as white men went off to fight in the war.

With the end of WWII, employment dropped by 70% because the war production overdrive had ended as well as returning veterans pushing the minorities and women out of their new yet short-lived jobs. In the 1950s, general morale worsened further- the city’s tax funds were diminishing due to “white flight”.

A high amount of African Americans moved into the inner city flats, and as a reaction, many Caucasian Americans left the inner city and moved to the suburban hills. Black people were disproportionately affected by decreasing employment, and were often excluded from certain job opportunities and unions.

Black Panthers

In 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers at Merritt College. The group’s size and influence swelled due to a widespread dissatisfaction among African Americans being taken advantage of as a minority in a democratic system.

The Panthers can be a difficult group to define, since the activities of individuals associated with the party ranged from paranoid, pre-emptive violence to necessary, groundbreaking community programs in poor neighborhoods. Despite the many and far-reaching positive influences they had communities, the mainstream media and local government generally saw only the negative in the Black Panthers.

In 1967, Huey Newton was involved in a police shootout when he was pulled over by the Oakland Police. There was a shootout, one of the officers involved (John Frey) was killed, and Huey Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter.

1970 brought his appeal trial, dubbed the “Trial of the Century” by the media. Since the court had originally failed to tell the jury that Newton may have been unconscious during the shooting of Frey, the decision was reversed and he was acquitted! The masses that protested his conviction outside the Alameda County courthouse were jubilant and took to the streets in celebration.

Whose Oakland is this?  “F**k the Police”: Another case study

It was a hot summer in 1994. Teenagers in Oakland were wont to cruise around the lake area to see and be seen, driving slowly and playing loud music from the open windows of their cars. In response to this supposed delinquent behavior the city passed a “no-cruising” ordinance, enforced by police checkpoints set up in the streets around the lake, resulting in heavily backed up traffic in downtown Oakland far worse than any slow-driving teens had created.

The ordinance, besides discouraging people from visiting the lake area, violated a basic civil right- the police were searching vehicles without probable cause.

In response, Boots Riley, the Oakland-based musician who founded the hip hop group “The Coup”, organized a rally called “F**k the Police.”

One afternoon, hundreds of people showed up wearing plain, white T-shirts. Riley rented a parking space for a barbeque grill and set up a short-wave pirate radio station from a car.  Everybody brought boomboxes and tuned into this station, creating the effect of loud music to accompany the festivities without any individual boombox playing over the decibel limit forbidden in the ordinance!  They later stormed City Hall and requested politely that the cruising ordinance be thrown out.

Lake Merritt Flora and Fauna

Along the way, Constance introduced to us the flora and fauna of the lake! Did you know that only 6% of plants in Californian urban environments are actually native to California? Among the most common around the lake are London Plane trees (which are a sycamore hybrid and very common urban tree due to resistance to air pollution and root compaction), Australian Tea trees (the gnarled trees on the shore of the lake, which are naturally drought resistant), and various oaks (including cork!). Nearer the Rotary Nature Center are great examples of are more willows, California buckeye, and trident maples (pro tip: maples are identifiable by helicopter seeds).

A diverse group of birds live around the lake! We spotted snowy egrets, night herons (the most widespread heron in the world), mallards, and the ubiquitous Canada goose.

There were 1,079 Canadian geese according to a census taken on June 6th, 2013; but their numbers have probably decreased since then. About 100 of them stay year-round, and others come down from the north from about May to June to molt and breed.

They’re flightless during their breeding season…though this intern wonders if it is more accurate to say they breed during their flightless season (“Hey, I’m stuck here you’re stuck here… maybe we can make something work, baby”).

An interesting behavioral pattern seen only in urban environments are “gang broods”- many goslings from different parents will be herded around and watched over by only a few individual adults.

Prominent on the booms in the lake and the bird islands are the double-crested cormorants, which come with their own set of interesting behavioral patterns.

Cormorants nesting at Lake Merritt

Males flash open their bright blue mouths to attract females and assert territory control to other males. They also nest in trees in colonies, and are known to kill trees because the mass of poop a colony of cormorants will create!

Cormorants are diving birds but have much less preen oil to coat their feathers, making them much less waterproof than most other diving birds. This helps them dive and swim better since they don’t have to fight against buoyancy, but as a result they must sun themselves to dry off from dives. We often see them do this, standing on the booms in Lake Merritt with wings spread wide open.

As we made our way to the gardens, Constance showed us another interesting tree species: the California Buckeye. Every part of it contains neurotoxins that affect everything not native to California that tries to eat them. However, Native Americans had a way of preparing the large brown seeds so they could eat them without harm in times of acorn scarcity.

In the gardens, we found Eddie Dunbar from the Insect Sciences Museum and met Tora Rocha!

Tora is one of the park supervisors, and she showed us a couple new features of the gardens. One of these is the Bee Hotel! The bees in our area are unlike the archetypal honey bee in that they makes homes out of burrows in dirt ground or in dead wood. But because of urbanization and increased use of mulch (which prevents them from digging in the dirt to lay their eggs), they’re running out of habitable spaces.

Bee hotel

The bee hotel contains dead logs of different types of wood and stands in a patch of dirt, with holes drilled to encourage bees to settle in. The hotel is still under construction, however! You can volunteer the 1st and 3rd Saturday of every month, from 9 to 1 at the Gardens at Lake Merritt to help pack the hotel with material for the bees to nest in.

Another insect-attracting feature in the garden is a new pollinator fountain! Minerals from the material the fountain is made of are added to the water as it trickles from the center and over the sides, flowing slowly enough for pollinators (butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, bats) to land and drink from it.

Tora also told us about a new project she’s working on involving constructing pollinator pathways through the concrete jungle of urban Oakland. She told us we could find out more on the Facebook page for the Gardens of Lake Merritt.

Redwoods in the garden

Though redwoods once flourished as a subfamily of trees, there are only 3 species left: the Dawn Redwood, the Coast Redwood, and the Giant Sequoia.

The last remaining dawn redwood ecosystem is in China, and the species is considered critically endangered. The coast redwood is native to California (as the coastal fog is actually important to this tree’s survival), and the giant sequoia is native to the Western Sierra Nevada and East California, and it is a vulnerable species. All three of these were represented at the garden.

And finally…

As we wrapped up our walk in the Japanese Garden, Constance left us with some words of wisdom:

“We are responsible for educating each other. Talk to strangers about what you’ve learned the next time you’re at the lake, trust your observations… by educating each other, we’ll strengthen our human communities as well as the bond we have to the ecosystems we live within.”


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