Saturday, June 23, 2012

Oakland History Getting a Pink Slip?

I'm a big fan of the city's free Downtown Walking Tours. I've been on all of them at least once, and have been looking forward to going on them again. Alas, there may not be a chance to do that in the future. Despite Mayor Jean Quan's 'no layoffs or cuts' announcement in May, this incredible program that teaches residents, tourists and students about Oakland's history is once again on the chopping block.

If it happens, it's not just fans of Oakland history like me that will lose out. The program is popular with visiting tourists, including recent visitors for the California Preservation Foundation conference that brought hundreds of people to Oakland. And it's been teaching Oakland students about the history of Oakland for decades—it's part of the 3rd grade curriculum to learn about their city.

The program dates back to the late 1970s, and was initiated by former councilmember Dick Spees, based on a similar program in Portland. The current program coordinator is Annalee Allen, who has been running the program since 1996. Her half-time position with the city is about to be cut, putting the future of the program in doubt. While many of the tours are led by volunteers, Annalee schedules the tours, recruits and trains the volunteers, and serves as a backup tour guide in case a volunteer is unavailable, which in my experience has been about 1/3rd of the time. Annalee also added a new tour to the program, New Era, New Politics, which focuses on more recent history and role of African Americans in Oakland's history. The program currently consists of 8 tours:

While it's possible the tours will continue in some form, there will be no one to coordinate them, recruit and train volunteers, or fill in as a guide when needed. Previously, volunteers were required to take an Oakland history class at Laney College or Holy Names University, but those classes are no longer offered so training a replacement will be more difficult. And while the Oakland Heritage Alliance ($10-$15) and Oakland Urban Paths (free) offer walking tours in Oakland, there is little overlap with the city's tours, and no overlap with the program for schools.

I know Oakland's finances are still a mess, and things like public safety are more important, but this is a drop in the bucket of the city's budget for a not easily replaced resource. I urge you to contact the city council and Mayor Jean Quan and voice your support for the program before Tuesday, June 26th. Particularly those councilmembers on the finance and budget committee (*) and the councilmembers for districts 2 and 3 where the tours are focused.

Please help save this valuable Oakland resource and keep knowledge of Oakland's history available.

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