NY Times story on different type of Oakland parks
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| By chris_d on Sunday, March 21, 2004 - 07:40 am:|
It's way 'off-field', but here's an article from the Sunday New York Times...
He Measures Oakland's Beat, and Parks Bloom
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
Published: March 21, 2004
[O]AKLAND, Calif., March 20
Places, like people, can get the blues. Walter Hood listens to them.
Lafayette Park was for years one of those defeated American places. Long known as Old Man's Park, it was a respite of green where codgers gathered to play checkers and horseshoes under the generous
boughs of an ancient oak -- the kind of tree for which Oakland, in more optimistic times, was named.
The story of the park's descent into a corpse of a place has been told many times, here and in hundreds of other American cities. Less
familiar is the tale of its rejuvenation by a 45-year-old landscape architect who is becoming the Frederick Law Olmsted of the city's
Mr. Hood, who likes to call himself an "urbanist," is a pioneer in a new approach to landscape design in which streets, squares, plazas, playgrounds and parks are fused into a jaunty new urban form, one
resonant of a site's past.
Landscape architects are serving an increasingly visible role in reshaping cities, as Peter Walker's design for the World Trade Center Memorial will do in New York. Mr. Hood is among those rejuvenating the forgotten urban edges of cities -- the vacant, often environmentally devastated stretches of land once consigned to
industry and often in low income neighborhoods.
Around the country, landscape architects are being enlisted by cities and community groups to rethink once-bleak land, from the waterfronts of Brooklyn and Louisville, Ky., to the newly reborn
former military airstrip at Crissy Field in San Francisco.
At Lafayette Park, one of 10 landscape projects with which Mr. Hood is changing the face of Oakland's neighborhoods, he created a shaded
plaza where women from nearby Chinatown practice tai chi, a resurrected horseshoe pit and a raised hillock that recalls an observatory that once existed on the site. Children cartwheel,
grown-ups dry clothes in the sun and people gather to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July.
The park's design did not come only from his head, but from months of conversations with neighborhood residents.
Perhaps more than anything, Mr. Hood, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, notices things. He notices the girls playing tag in the church yard, the
guys hanging out on the corner. He notices, then he designs for them, mining and divining the soul of places.
"People respond to the familiar," he said, driving around his adopted home of West Oakland recently, not far from his studio in an old neon sign factory. "So we want to take the familiar and heighten it."
Mr. Hood's landscapes are about "connecting the dots," as he puts it, understanding the deep history of a place, observing it over time,
and listening to community needs.
"Before, it was an ordinary park," said Philip Madison, 39, a Lafayette fixture, pointing out areas for skateboarding and getting cheap haircuts from an entrepreneurial park regular as he grilled achicken using a tree branch as a spatula.
Mr. Hood finds inspiration and even beauty in the shadows beneath the freeway.
"I'm interested in how the everyday mundane practices of life get played out in cities, the unheralded patterns that take place without celebration," he said. "There's a structure to cities, a 4/4 beat. Designing is like improvisation, finding a sound for each place."
To Randolph Hester, a colleague at Berkeley who collaborates with community groups on landscape design, Mr. Hood elegantly honors the layers of places, however beleaguered.
"Most people would simply see the things Walter observes and ignore them," Mr. Hester said. "He sees the guy who comes and hangs out at the park as someone who enriches the experience of being there. His genuine search for place give his designs a real heart."
Mr. Hood is himself a hybrid. Born in Charlotte, N.C., he is as at home among tumbledown Victorians and bottle-strewn parks in the West Oakland flatlands -- far from the Bay area's vaunted good life -- as he is at the American Academy in Rome, where he was a fellow in 1996-7. One minute, he is zipping off to London to inspect stones for the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, scheduled to open next year. The next, he is prowling forgotten service roads along the Oakland waterfront where he is
designing a network of parks and walking and biking trails, financed by a $198 million bond measure passed in 2002.
At Oakland's Splash Pad Park, palm-lined plazas, fountains with colorful spigots and undulating lawns are classically aligned à la Versailles with a once-onerous freeway. In Fruitvale, a heavily Latino neighborhood, his answer to urban despair -- a garbage-strewn creek on a dead-end street frequented by drug dealers -- was planting a formal procession of 150 flowering plum trees on a path between the creek and the steet.
He begins the process with historical research. For example, he unearthed the path of a long-defunct trolley line and used it to place the allée of trees and then extended the street to link it to another thoroughfare.
"He saw that this poor neglected piece of land had incredible potential," said Christine Ralls, 52, a community activist in Fruitvale. When the city refused to clean the creek, Ms. Ralls and a group of neighbors spent hours one day pulling refrigerators, car parts, television sets and other junk out of the water, joined by a work crew of inmates from local jail and Mr. Hood.
"There he was, pulling out couches," she said. "Those detainees had no clue that he was Prof. Dr. Walter Hood from U.C. Berkeley."
Like a growing number of landscape architects, Mr. Hood considers community advocacy part of his job. Being attuned to the patterns of urban places and the hybrid roles they can play flows from his own experience as a boy in Charlotte, where he spent his younger years in a public housing project.
"Everything happened in the street," he recalled. "You played football, watched the bigger guys play, so the street became a stadium. When you got called in for dinner, it became a street again, then after dinner it was a fort where you played army. When it rained, it was a river where you put sticks in the gutter and watched them wash down. It was the place where you courted. Everything happened in public view."
In 1976, he enrolled at North Carolina A&T State University, which, was beginning a landscape architecture program under the direction of Charles Fountain, who had taught at the University of California at Berkeley and who became a mentor.
In graduate school at Berkeley, he made a galvanizing discovery while researching his boyhood neighborhood for a project. Looking at old maps of Charlotte, he figured out that the neighborhood had been built on landfill, on former bottomland. The revelation explained a lot, said Mr. Hood, who eventually earned graduate degrees in landscape architecture and architecture.
"In the back of your head you're always thinking, what's the deal?" Mr. Hood said. "Why the insects? Why did we always have the Orkin man? It's nice to know `why' about things. One thing I value about public work is that you can allow people to understand their predicament by making connections between the physical world and how they live., Then they can move forward. You don't get stuck in one place."
It takes an optimist to reimagine Seventh Street in Oakland, the terminus of the transcontinental railroad and once the hub of the African-American community.
"It was jumping," said Esther Mabry, the 72-year-old proprietor of Esther's Orbit Room, the lone holdover of a legendary blues corridor. Today, it is "a wilderness zone," in Mr. Hood's words, bisected by fortress walls of unlovely concrete from the elevated BART train. With a state grant, Mr. Hood is working with the city to reclaim the street as an intimate neighborhood thoroughfare, weaving in the street's musical heritage, "to let the ghosts of the past out and breathe."
In Macon, Ga., he won a competition to resurrect what is considered the city's "backyard" with a sequence of squares, anchored with plinths reminiscent of bales of cotton.
"It has to do with growing up with Martin Luther King and J.F.K. on the walls, with race and where I'm from," he said.
Mr. Hood is designing the landscape for the new De Young Museum, where he is working not only with the architects Herzog & de Meuron, but also a fractious array of community groups bent on protecting historic Golden Gate Park from urbanization.
His design extends the park to the foot of the copper-clad museum under construction, then goes further by bringing the giant tree ferns and eucalyptus that define the park indoors, into a series of terrarium-like courtyards, visible from different levels of the building. An outdoor children's garden will be what he calls "horticulturally jazzy, with red hot pokers and cool things to look at," while the sculpture garden will take cues from the undulating sand dunes that existed before the park was born.
The approach combines indoors and outdoors, past and present, the manmade and the natural. "The choices shouldn't be this or that," Mr. Hood said of designing for urban places. "It should be this, that, other."
| By eyleenn on Sunday, March 21, 2004 - 11:01 am:|
It's great to see a positive piece like this in the NY Times. Good for Oakland.
| By tekgraf on Monday, March 22, 2004 - 10:37 am:|
I love reading things like this. Why don't the local papers write this stuff? I live in the Fruitvale and had no idea this was going on in my own backyard.
| By eyleenn on Monday, March 22, 2004 - 10:37 pm:|
The local media are too busy talking about the murder rate.