3.15 / Bruno

Living Happily Ever After at Lake Merritt

By Victoria Gannon May 23, 2012

Image: Built in the 1960s, the geodesic bird dome near the Lake Merritt Rotary Nature Center is today used to house sick and wounded birds.

Scott Oliver is an Oakland-based artist whose public art project, Once Upon a Time, Happily Ever After, approaches Oakland’s Lake Merritt through a variety of narrative perspectives. Through an audio tour, maps installed around the lake, drawings, photographs, and interviews, Oliver conjures a sense of place, all while knowing “how irreducible this place is,” he says.

A series of four plaques containing geographic, architectural, and biological information are currently installed around the lake’s three-mile perimeter, and Oliver’s completed project will consist of twenty-one downloadable podcasts that can be listened to individually or in succession. Currently seven podcasts are available on the project’s website.

On a recent afternoon, Art Practical’s Victoria Gannon sat with Oliver near the Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge to discuss harmony, public works projects, a man named Leon who loved to walk the lake, wolves in cages, Fairyland on drugs, and how to make landscapes strange.



Victoria Gannon: You’ve mentioned before that there’s something improbable about the lake. What did you mean?

Scott Oliver: I guess I have this feeling of harmony when I’m here—it sounds cheesy … That’s what seems improbable. The lake is surrounded by disparateness and inequity; there’s the contrast of the natural and the artificial and social inequities, but somehow all facets of the city touch at the lake, and they cross and interact. I think it’s the most democratic space in the city as far as an organic interaction.

VG: It feels like everything is going to be okay here, and there are many parts of Oakland where I don’t have that feeling—places where there’s either gentrification or extreme poverty or a feeling of unease.

SO: I think there’s still a lot of tension in Oakland. There are definitely parts of the city that I don’t feel comfortable in, but I feel like that is more about familiarity and not about any …

VG: … objective danger. I feel like East Oakland is part of the map that often doesn’t get folded into the rest of Oakland.

SO: Even though East Oakland starts right there [points to eastern edge of lake]. That’s what’s so interesting about this lake, because I think it is the real center of the city.

VG: How long have you been working on Once Upon a Time, Happily Ever After?

SO: It’s now in its third year. I’ve been working on it since 2009, but not solidly. There was a period of getting funding together, and then the funding came through at different stages, so I would work on chunks of it at a time.

When we first launched the tour we had a booth in the lake’s Rotary Nature Center; you could actually check out headphones and a player for the audio tour. That cost money to sustain. It was all volunteers. It was just open on the weekends.

It started out as just an audio tour, and that’s always been at the heart of the project, even though I completed other parts first, like signs and a series of souvenirs. I worked with a group of sixth graders over at St. Paul’s [Episcopal School]. We came down to the lake and did these drawing workshops, and then those became graphics for T-shirts.

Audio tour map from 2010. Design and illustrations by Veronica Graham and Jesse Eisenhower.

VG: You’re ambitious. That’s a lot of different parts.

SO: Well, it’s hard to do a project about a place. It’s unwieldy, right? So as much as I could, I wanted to manifest something that reflected how irreducible this place was. And that’s why I attacked it from different angles, through different forms of narrative.

I also worked with this photographer, Rachael Heath, and we turned her images into postcards. And I worked with an artist, Veronica Graham. She created this abstract interpretation of the lake with opposing landscapes. One depicts the area during the time of pre-European settlement, and one depicts the lake today. In a very abstracted way, it shows how the built environment is superimposed onto the natural environment.

When I’m feeling very theoretical about it, I think of the audio tour as a sculpture, in the sense that you’re moving through three-dimensional space, and the audio tour is shaping that experience. I’m also interested in how the lake is a sculpture of sorts, in that it’s continually being shaped and reshaped over time.

VG: What are the different forces that you see shaping it?

SO: Some of them are political. Some of them are economic. Oftentimes these things are intertwined. For instance, all the work that’s being done on Twelfth Street now is from Measure DD, which was passed in 2007, and it’s $22 million dollars for parks in Oakland, but the lion’s share of it is being spent down here. The biggest project is that Twelfth Street reconstruction. That’s really shaped the lake.

A similar moment happened in the 1910s. It was during Mayor Mott’s administration; he was riding a wave from this City Beautiful Movement, and he got a big bond measure passed, and a lot of the historic structures here are from that time period.

Before that not much had been done. Samuel Merritt had built the dam, which turned it into a lake. It was a tidal estuary before that, so it didn’t really have boundaries as such; it was this gray, marshy zone that would fill up. I think until about the 1870s or so it was used as the city sewer. One of the first big infrastructure projects was to divert the main sewer line out past the lake and into the channel. But there’s no sewer coming into the lake anymore. The theory was that the tidal action washes it out, but it was by all reports a very stinky situation.

VG: It seems like there was lot of construction in Oakland in the 1920s.

SO: The city hall was the first high-rise city hall in the United States. It was built in 1919. Oakland’s Cleveland Cascade was built around that time, in 1923. They built the pergola and the boat dock; there’s a bandstand in the park; there was a canoe house that is now the boat house.

In this 1931 photograph of the Cleveland Cascade, located along Lakeshore Avenue across from Lake Merritt, water flows down its steps. Photo courtesy Friends of the Cleveland Cascade.

VG: So did you create the audio tour because you were walking around the lake wishing there was something to tell you all this information?

SO: No, there’s a lot of information in my tour, and it’s educational, but it’s all fleeting, too. To me it’s more about the fact that there’s a multitude of forces that are interacting with each other to bring about this complexity. And you get to interact with it. I feel like the lake is this phenomenon, and I wanted to try and explain that.

They’re not really my stories; that was one thing that was important to me. That’s why the audio tour is interview based. I narrate it to make it flow from one to the other and build context around things, but I really wanted people to tell their stories and through them have these multiple perspectives on the lake.

I do have a literal touchstone for the project. There’s a marker that was placed, I think, in 2002. It’s over by the Lake Merritt Hotel, right below the restaurant part that juts out. There’s this stone with a little plaque on it, and it just says “Leon Olson loved to walk here.” I was really touched by it.

VG: Did you stumble upon it one day?

SO: Yeah; I mean not literally stumbled, but I just noticed it. It is this really diminutive, really mysterious, and totally touching tribute to this guy. I was able to find a 2002 story in the Oakland Tribune about him and the plaque.

The story is about this cop who was on horseback here—there was a horse-mounted police force until 1998 or 2000—and she would see this guy, Leon, and she became friends with him. He walked the lake two or three times a day.

VG: That’s like ten miles.

SO: He was living in one of the senior facilities. It’s the story about how one day he noticed that he needed new shoes, and she bought him new shoes at one point. It’s just this sweet story about this guy.

VG: How did you find the people to interview? Did you make a list, or did one thing lead to another?

SO: It was a lot about the people I would meet and talk to about what I was doing, and they would say, You should talk to so-and-so. There are some very dedicated individuals who work down here.

VG: Like the woman at the Rotary Nature Center, who you interview for part of the audio tour.

SO: Stephanie Benavides; she started working there when it was a zoo. A zoo!

VG: That was amazing! There was a wolf in a cage or something!

SO: There was a hexagonal fence that’s still there.

VG: A giant dome, too.

SO: One of my interviews was with one of the architecture students from Berkeley who was involved in building that dome. The materials were supplied by the Kaiser Foundation.

Stephanie talks too about the wildlife refuge extending a hundred rods beyond the lake, and a rod is the length of a football field. So, much of the city sits inside of …

VG: … the wildlife refuge? I’ve been thinking about that. Is it legal to kill animals in the rest of Oakland?

SO: I doubt it. There’s probably city ordinances and stuff that cover that.

VG: So the refuge might be redundant now.

SO: Right. In 1870, when it was passed, there were people actually hunting down here.

I did a lot of research in the Oakland History Room at the main branch of the Oakland Public Library, and I kept uncovering stuff, like the no-cruising ordinance. There’s still one sign left up by the colonnades that says “No Cruising.”

The ban was in the mid-1990s. It happened after a bunch of other things. There was something down here called the Festival at the Lake, and it ended up being cancelled because there were these mini-riots at the end of it every year.

Then they instituted this cruising ban. Police would set up checkpoints, and I think it’s probably true that the police were using it to do illegal searches, and it was mostly young African-American men they were stopping.

The interesting thing is they only ever gave three or four tickets for the cruising part. At its peak they set up checkpoints, and if you went past a checkpoint more than once in an hour, they could pull you over. I think people ended up feeling really intimidated. But there isn’t that kind of nightlife down here anymore.

I once walked around the lake with friends on Ecstasy at night. That was pretty fun.

The Walking Lake Merritt map shows the paved pathways and public green spaces around Lake Merritt. It also shows the location of each of the storm drain outlets to the lake.

VG: Fun or scary?

SO: No, totally fun. [Children’s] Fairyland has these overnights occasionally—maybe once a year—and it happened to be on that night. It was the most magical thing—it was all lit up, and I was like, Wow! Then I realized we shouldn’t be staring at the kids.

VG: I think the ban on adults at Fairyland automatically makes you feel like you’re being perverse by looking in. I was just with a friend, and we were walking around the lake a few weeks ago, and we were looking into the fence at Fairyland, and then I thought, Oh, I look really creepy. But I’m really not! But that’s what it seems like because of the ban.

SO: I interviewed one of the guys who built a lot of the sets there. The city actually built Fairyland and then ran it. It’s been a nonprofit for awhile; I think the city has totally withdrawn from it. Same with the museum; the city has nothing to do with the Oakland Museum [of California] anymore. The city is just shrinking, shrinking, shrinking.

VG: It just doesn’t have any money.

SO: There have been periods when it seems like the city was run pretty well. There was another Mott who was head of the parks department, and during his time the city had hundreds of gardeners for the city as a whole. Now they’re down to a dozen full-time gardeners.

VG: They’re just trimming away everything that isn’t policing or really basic needs.

I’m curious about the voice that you use in the audio tour. When you visit a museum, you expect some sort of institutional voice to orient or guide you. And most audio tours function that way. But you make a point to say that your audio tour is conditional and reflects merely your point of view.

SO: That actually relates to the “Leon Olson loved to walk here” marker, in the sense that as an individual you can have some claim on this place, but so can everyone else. It’s a jointly held entity. I was trying to say that my interpretation of it is certainly as valid as anyone else’s and vice versa.

VG: With natural spaces, we also expect to locate an orienting voice or an authoritative map. But it’s not really clear who runs Lake Merritt, if anybody does. The city doesn’t seem particularly involved; there’s the Lake Merritt Institute—is it part of the city?

SO: It gets a contract from the city to do what it does. And it actually has to bid on it every year. It goes through that formality.

VG: So it’s all of these semi-private organizations.

The Lake Merritt and Surroundings map focuses on architecture around the lake, identifying significant buildings and the surrounding neighborhoods. Illustrations by Veronica Graham.

SO: And there are tons of volunteers around here. The Cleveland Cascade is essentially maintained by a neighborhood group.

VG: With a lot of public places you can look things up online, and you can find one definitive source that says This is this place, and this is what this means. But with Lake Merritt it’s much more piecemeal. There isn’t one source, and so you end up discovering it yourself.

SO: It doesn’t feel like it’s this monolithic thing.

VG: There’s no one telling you how to experience it.

What are the different maps you’ve put up around the lake?

SO: There’s the one with the watershed information at Grand Avenue and Harrison Avenue. There’s one at the colonnade that has seasonal data, and there’s one by the Eighteenth Street boat dock that shows the topographic contours of the bottom of the lake and pathways around the lake. The fourth one is over by the Camron Stanford house; it’s a bird’s eye perspectival view of the city. It’s focused on historic buildings and color codes the neighborhoods with their historical names.

VG: I think when you see them installed, your first reaction is to assume it’s something the city put up; you think it’s going to be this old plaque with some really dry information on it. Your plaques get into this in-between place where you’re not quite sure what you’re encountering.

People have past experiences that guide the way they are going to approach and interpret plaques in a public place and influence what voice they expect to be represented.

SO: All of the things I made are known forms. I wanted to make the art accessible; I think that’s a big barrier for lots of people. As soon as you call it art, people think, Oh, I’m not going to get it.

VG: There are so many artists who use geography and maps but point out the inherent subjectivity of those forms, even though we’re brought up to consider maps as objective sets of information. It’s interesting to think about what makes a map by an artist different from one done straightforwardly by a cartographer.

SO: It’s about the information you show, right? What you make visible. I think the watershed one functions metaphorically, in a way. I think of the lake as a place of confluence in the landscape. The watershed map shows the physical coming together of the various streams, but the lake is also a social, economic, and cultural place of confluence. There’s about fifty thousand people living in the Lake Merritt watershed; it’s like seven square miles. That somehow makes perfect sense.

VG: It’s nice when things happen like that—when physical relationships or facts correspond to more abstract notions.

How many audio tours are there?

SO: There will be twenty-one when I’m done. Right now there’s seven.

VG: I listened to three of them. My favorite times were when they referred to physical things right in front of me and went back and forth between the physical things and the stories. That best reflected my experience at that moment: I’m physically here, but my mind is going over there, but then I’m coming back.

SO: Yeah, I’m sort of hijacking people’s minds. I don’t know how I feel about that exactly, but I wanted it to be like the meandering thought you have when you walk.

VG: That’s a nice way to think of it.

After all the stories you uncovered, do you see the lake differently now? Or do you still just feel that simple sense of harmony?

The Lake Merritt Watershed map shows the entire Lake Merritt watershed, highlighting such features as creeks and storm drains, topography, and historic shorelines. Illustrations by Veronica Graham.

SO: I see it differently in that I see it in more detail; I still have this feeling that it can’t truly be parsed out.

There’s this really great quote. It’s something to the effect of: “Walking through a natural space without having any knowledge of it is sort of like walking through a museum where all the paintings are turned with their face to the wall.”1

VG: I keep thinking of this Rebecca Solnit quote. Something like: “At first a landscape is strange, and then you experience it, and it becomes familiar, but if you get to know it better, it becomes strange again.”2

SO: I think that’s true of this place. It keeps opening up and pointing in different directions.



1. The full quote, by Thomas H. Huxley, reads, “To a person uninstructed in natural history, his country or seaside stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall.” 

2. The actual quote from Rebecca Solnit reads: “To know a place, like a friend or a lover, is for it to become familiar. To know it better is for it to become strange again.”

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