Saturday, December 15, 2018

Oakland Urban Paths: Walk of the Dead

After the smoke from the fires up north forced a reschedule, we had a small but "lively" group for the Walk of the Dead. In addition to clearer skies in December, we also had great weather—sunny and not too warm. After talking a bit about customs around death like the Day of the Dead, a brief glossary of terms, and some of the symbols we might see on grave markers, we headed off.

Our first stop was Chapel of Memories, also known as the Oakland Columbarium. It opened in 1901 as an independent business, but now is run by nearby Chapel of the Chimes. The buildings are mostly full of smaller niches. While a few are tagged "before need", most are occupied.

Just up Howe St. is Oakland's oldest existing cemetery, St. Mary's Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery which started a bit before nearby Mountain View Cemetery. There were earlier cemeteries closer to downtown, but as Oakland grew, they got in the way of development. The Oakland Cemetery (1852-1857) was at 8th and Oak. The Webster St. Cemetery (1857-1867) was between Webster and Snow Park. Most of the residents
moved to Mountain View or St. Mary's c.1872-76, but not all:
An excavating machine hit a metal coffin and spilled the contents: “the left hand and arm
nearly to the elbow protruded from the ground, the hand drooped over gracefully from the
wrist. Portions of the coat and vest were visible, as were the outlines of the face, but over these
still rested a coating of fine earth.”
Oakland Tribune April 28, 1877

After a brief stop at 4460 Howe Street, which was home at different times to a superintendent of St. Mary's, a florist, and a granite and marble showroom, we went in the top entrance of Chapel of the Chimes. That took us into the newer areas, but down some flights of stairs and around a couple of corners, and we were into an older part, which was designed by noted architect Julia Morgan. Five different architecture firms worked on the structure over the years. The oldest part was originally a station for the streetcar which stopped at the top of Piedmont Avenue.

From there it was through the gates of Mountain View Cemetery, but into Home of Eternity Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery run by Temple Sinai. They purchased land from Mountain View in 1865. Besides more familiar religious symbols on the grave markers, there we saw some kohanim hands, which mean the person was of the priestly tribe of Aaron. Leonard Nimoy used a modified version of the gesture as the Vulcan greeting in Star Trek.

Stepping past a row of trees took us into Mountain View Cemetery, which at 224 acres, is by far the largest cemetery in Oakland.

First we went into one of several large mausoleums on the Mountain View grounds, which contains the remains of Oakland city council member Frank Ogawa and his family. He and his wife were imprisoned in an internment camp along with other Japanese Americans during WWII. Their daughter, Nancy Lynne Ogawa, was born in the Topaz camp and died there. That mausoleum also contains the remains of my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, and my aunt's father, Dr. Edward Lundegaard. Dr. Lundegaard served as a surgeon in the county coroner's office from 1946 to 1954, and then was elected coroner in 1954.

We wound our way up the hill to "Millionaire's Row", where the likes of "Borax" Smith, mayor Samuel Merritt, and the Crockers of Crocker Bank fame are buried in some sizable and lovely mausoleums. The air quality was better than November, but it was hazy enough it didn't show off the great view. That view, plus the park-like setting (MVC was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City) are part of why people used to visit their grave sites before they needed them, and countless Oaklanders still walk, run and admire the views today.

We finished by the Infant's Plot by the Main Mausoleum, in view of the Pauper's Plot. We didn't have time to continue down Piedmont Avenue and check out the cemetery-related businesses, including florists, grave marker carvers (former), and funeral homes, but we got a nice overview of part of Oakland inhabited mostly by the dead.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Oakland Urban Paths: downtown murals

Saturday was a walking tour of some of the murals downtown, organized by Oakland Urban Paths and our parent organization, Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, and led by local artist and organizer Sorell Raino-Tsu. The walk was originally scheduled for March, but rescheduled for this month because of the weather. And the weather definitely cooperated—it was warm and sunny, not too hot, perfect for a walk around downtown.
After an introduction and safety reminder by WOBO president Chris Hwang, Sorell led us up Telegraph to view the first mural.

On the back of the Cathedral Building is the United Nations Mural. Sorell told us about the challenges in getting permission (separate permission for every floor of the building) and painting it (the height caused the crane to start tipping). And in an echo of the past, the mural was originally intended for San Francisco. But the artist Zio Zigler wanted to do it in Oakland, and Sorell helped make it happen. The mural was probably intended for San Francisco because that's where the United Nations Conference on International Organization was held in 1945. But in 1966 when it came time to fly the UN flag, San Francisco said no, and the flag ended up in at Jack London Square in Oakland.

Then it was up a ways and over to Broadway to view another large piece, by far the largest of the Beacon Mural Series by Joshua Mays. On 19th near Flora is a smaller piece by Argentinian artist Pastel (aka Francisco Diaz), featuring his trademark deadly flowers. On Thomas L. Berkley Way on the back the I. Magnin building is a large, striking mural of flowers by Jet Martinez. it's painted in shades of green to echo the green terra cotta tiles of the building shown at the start of the post. On Franklin St. there are two notable murals on opposite sides of the same building: Water Writes on one side, painted by Estria and crew, and a striking human rights mural on the other, painted by Ricky Lee Gordon from South Africa. Over on Webster, there's a combination fence and ground-based mural by Brett Flanigan. Brett broke his foot during the painting, and finished the job with help from others while he was in a wheelchair!

Near 19th and Webster is a large mural sponsored by the Oakland A's, painted by Illuminaries. Going down Webster a bit we passed a temporary mural by Sorell on a construction fence. Across the street on the back of Howden Market is another piece by Zio Zigler. It was painted shortly after he broke up with his girlfriend, and so fittingly, it features a man with his heart being ripped out. A couple doors down on the side of the former Oakland Business and Professional Women's Club building is a piece by Irot. And across the parking lot is a work in progress called Elevate. And next door to that was our final mural, a somewhat disturbing rabbit mural painted by Nychos, an artist from Austria.

Thanks to WOBO for organizing the walk, and to Sorell for sharing his knowledge!

See the Athen B Gallery website for lots more photos, including some of the murals in progress.
See here for more photos from the walk.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Mountain View Cemetery Black History Month Tour

The following is a guest post by Sarah Wilson. Thanks, Sarah!

Mountain View Cemetery's 2018 Black History Month tour began at 10 a.m., on February 24th, in front of the cemetery's administrative office. I arrived a few minutes early and easily found a place to park. (Free and easy parking is to me as rare and valuable as pirate-treasure.) I saw people walk inside the office, and a woman stood in the lobby with a clipboard. I assumed that the woman was the tour organizer, and if not, a clipboard made anyone look official and attention-worthy. I followed the others up the steps and inside.

I opened the wide door and paused, not wanting to bump another person who stood inside the doorway. I waited as that person moved, and then I slid inside. I felt grateful for the warmth. The sun fell warmly, and I dressed warmly, but not warmly enough. The temperature hovered between 55 and 60 degrees. I wished I had a scarf to add to my long-sleeve shirt, sweater, jacket, and gloves.

"Sign the clipboard to get on our mailing list." The woman lifted her clipboard into the air. My eyes followed the upward movement, but kept going, to the vaulted ceiling. I knew nothing about the architectural style that surrounded us but guessed that it was Victorian, or Gothic. I noticed that behind me stood a miniature model of the cemetery. I noted the tiered layout of the grounds, or the model's way of representing significant changes in elevation. Either way, the cemetery expanded over the nearby hillsides. In fact, the model showed minimal flat ground.

More people arrived outside. Those that stood with me in the lobby were a mix of ages, men and women, black and white. If I were to guess, I would say that there were a few more women than men, and about 30 people total. I anticipated that the tour would begin soon, given the nearness to the hour, and went back outside. I found a sunlit patch of sidewalk and stood and tried to ignore the cold.

"There will be vans, or you can drive yourself, or you can ride with one of us," Lydia said. Lydia was the woman with the clipboard, professionally dressed for a Saturday. She had a scarf, which I envied.
"Can we walk?" Someone expressed what others likely felt -- the expectation that the tour was a walking tour.

"You can, but we will wind our way up and around. You'll have to follow our caravan, and it's quite a trek." I spied the nearest white van with the cemetery logo on the side and edged toward it. "Anna is here," Lydia sang. "Good."

I looked for 'Anna,' but did not see her. Anna blended into the background until she spoke. She did not raise her voice, and the group quieted. Anna introduced herself as a docent and tour-guide. Finished, she moved from where she stood on the steps next to Lydia.

I edged closer to the van, but Lydia said that we had a "stop, just over here." We moved a few yards from the office steps, and Lydia pointed to a stone structure behind her, about 200 yards away. Five or six rows of large, square, stacked sections rose four or five sections high. I did not know the cemetery-term for the structure, which obviously entombed remains. I found out later that the structure was a mausoleum. "The last time we gave this tour, last year, we said that this cemetery was never segregated," Lydia said. "We were wrong. We only just found out the truth, from records we uncovered."

In 1955, or thereabouts, Clara Mae Long, a black woman, intended to lay her husband to rest inside a mausoleum at Mountain View Cemetery. The cemetery denied Ms. Long's request, because that particular mausoleum was set aside for whites. Ms. Long sued, and the resulting case, Long v. Mountain View Cemetery Association (1955), ended in a California Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal upheld the lower court's ruling, affirming that though Civil Code Sections 51 and 52 ensured all citizens equal access to public accommodations, the law's provisions did not include cemeteries.
However, the presiding judge wrote that he could not resist a word of protest:
"I cannot believe that a man's mortal remains will disintegrate any less peaceably because of the close proximity of the body of a member of another race, and in that inevitable disintegration I am sure that the pigmentation of the skin cannot long endure. It strikes me that the carrying of racial discrimination into the burial grounds is a particularly stupid form of human arrogance and intolerance. If life does not do so, the universal fellowship of death should teach humility. The good people who insist on the racial segregation of what is mortal in man may be shocked to learn when their own lives end that God has reserved no racially exclusive position for them in the hereafter."
I felt uplifted by this story and the judge's sentiment, if not by the Court's decision. I liked that Lydia and Anna chose to bring the story and the judge's assertion to our attention. Others murmured their approval, and someone chuckled at the situation's audacity. On that note, it was time to board the tour-caravan.

En route, our driver explained that the cemetery stretched for 230 acres. That sounded large, but I felt more impressed by the variety of headstones and monuments on display – modest ones, ornate ones, and ones laden with unfamiliar symbols. It took less than two minutes to wind our way up to our first stop, and that timing remained true for the tour's entirety. We visited the grave of local hero Captain William T. Shorey, a.k.a. The Black Ahab, and local legend Bobby Hutton, the first member of the Black Panthers. At each stop, we learned about people who enriched or affected the lives of many and thus, did the same for Oakland's history.

I came away with a sense of what I would like my eulogy to say, a realization I valued. But, in truth, I attended the tour for a purpose. I sought Virginia Prentiss's final resting place and an answer to a question on her behalf: How could Ms. Prentiss, a significant member of Oakland's historic black community and Jack London's surrogate mother, be laid to rest without a headstone?
"Virginia Prentiss was buried here," Anna said, on our third of fourth stop. She gestured to the ground. "Probably about right... there." Anna pointed to the feet of a fellow tour-goer. He laughed and took his cap off and pressed it to his chest.

In that moment, I felt grateful for the cemetery's well-kept records. Otherwise, we simply stood at the top of a hill, under a tree, a few feet from a burial site for Elks-Club members. The rest of what Anna said about Ms. Prentiss, I already knew: that Ms. Prentiss was born a slave in 1832, escaped soldiers of the Civil War, married Alonzo Prentiss, and found her way to California, where she raised her children and became a mother-figure to an icon of American literature. She died in 1922.

I wanted to approach Anna as she stood under Ms. Prentiss's tree, but decided to wait. Just prior to the tour's end, and when I thought I could no longer tolerate my cold-induced sniffles, we found Alonzo Prentiss's grave. Mr. Prentiss lay in the veteran's section, near a Civil War memorial and burial plot.

"Why weren't Alonzo and Jennie Prentiss buried together?" I asked Anna as soon as I saw an opening to approach her, as the tour concluded, and the others departed. Anna shrugged and said something like, no one expects to outlive their children. I remembered then that the Prentiss children died young. So, their plot had room for mother and children only. Then, I asked my big question.

"I know," Anna agreed, "why spend the money on a plot and not include a headstone?" She shrugged. "I don't know the answer."

At that moment a woman with owl-rimmed glasses, who rode in Anna's car from one place to the next on the tour, interrupted us. Unsure that I hid my disappointment in her answer well enough, I left Anna to climb back up the hill with the elk statue at its peak. I shunned the paths for the direct route, wondering about graveyard customs along the way. Was it disrespectful to walk over a grave? Was it poor form to snack in a graveyard? One should not pick a flower that grew in a graveyard, I felt, (though I am not superstitious). I wondered what Ms. Prentiss would think about Black History Month, knowing that she viewed whites as ungodly, given their un-Christian treatment of black people.

I reached the unmarked plot for the second time and felt grateful for the solitude. I took pictures and hoped to share them with other Oakland-history buffs, who may also feel unsettled by Ms. Prentiss's unsung status in the cemetery. I resolved to return to Mountain View Cemetery, perhaps for one of their other tours. I hoped to build on what I knew about Ms. Prentiss:
  • Virginia Prentiss died at around 91 years old, at Napa State Hospital
  • Jack London's will included provisions for Ms. Prentiss's burial expenses
  • Charmian Kitteridge, Jack London's second wife, was the executor of his estate
  • Ms. Prentiss died on Ms. Kitteridge's 51st birthday, in 1922

Thanks to the tour, I learned that the wealth of history that resides at Mountain View Cemetery cannot be overemphasized. Of course, one also cannot overemphasize the wealth of information that resides on the internet, which provided the breadcrumbs that led me to the cemetery. However, the internet lacks a place where you can place your feet on the ground and stand in honor and wonder of what lies beneath. Mountain View Cemetery provides free, bi-monthly tours. Dress warmly, or according to the internet.