Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Trail of 4 Cities Meander

Who knew. I took part in an urban hiking event Sunday, little knowing that I was participating in a pedestrian critical mass. For those of you in my extended audience, Critical Mass is an anarchist sort of bicycle gathering monthly in San Francisco. Through sheer volume, they take over streets, roll through stop signs and red lights, causing consternation and curses in the unaware motoring public.

I live in a belt of cities along the east shore of San Francisco Bay. I'm in Oakland, the one of which Gertrude Stein said "there is no there, there". A gross slander, by the way. To the north is Berkeley of international fame, University of California, student dissent, etc. and my alma mater. North of that is a little wedge called Albany, which  we will forever after ignore in this post, then an upscale community - Kensington. We got married in the First Unitarian Church of Kensington, only for some reason, they call it the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley. And, Finally, El Cerrito. There are more, but our walk ended in El Cerrito.

Back to the event. In the winter, I search for hiking opportunities, and sometimes look for street walks instead of the often cow pie hazard scattered trails of our regional park system. Sometimes a challenge when wet and muddy. On the urban streets I search for the odd yard art, something self created, that represents the person living there, the odder the better. If you hire a fancy architect to make your statement, I might appreciate it, and maybe take a photo, but what I really like is the yard that has the neighbors clucking, full of gnomes, ceramic figurines, flamingos, your choice. We have these in Oakland, in the area where I live, but I should digress.

This is a hilly area. There is a flatland commercial and housing district, where the wealthy houses used to be, and they had their summer cabins in the hills where it's a bit cooler. This was back I'd say in the 1920s. Back in that time there were streetcars/trains on the flatlands, and running through some of the canyons into the hills. Everyone had to get to the train to get to work in The City (San Francisco), so there were paths, steps, down to the streetcar and train pickup points. Look on real estate maps today, and you can see many of these maybe eight foot wide easements, in theory, city owned. In practice, many of the paths and stairs have vanished, been fenced over, built over, blocked by adjacent landowners. Sometimes it its actually done legally, by paying the city for a lot line adjustment. There is also the little matter of alleys, those lanes where the garbage trucks pass, but frequently are regarded by the adjacent homeowners as private roads. Some are. Some aren't.

Back to the walk. All of these cities now have hiking groups dedicated to exploring the pathways, i.e. the former paths, steps, alleys that now belong to the public. Maps are published, matching the legal boundaries,  but not always the reality. The pathways groups work on restoring, reclaiming, enjoying these routes of the past. I have an Oakland Walks map with all the paths marked, and like everyone else, found obstacles. I also have the Berkeley equivalent, put out by the Berkeley Wanderers. I've blogged about some of the Oakland walks, did a few YouTubes, and in my search for history, found the Urban Paths group of Oakland. Their newsletter told me of this unprecedented event, groups from Oakland, Berkeley, Kensington and El Cerrito put together an intercity walk from Rockridge BART in Oakland to El Cerrito BART - about 13 miles. Susan got notified independently through some friends in Berkeley Wanderers, so it made our calendar, not something that happens easily. It is usually filled out about two plus months. We thought, exercise, good! Expecting maybe ten or so hiking zealots, we show up Sunday, and find a crowd of about fifty people, and we literally take over the side streets, once under way. People peel off along the way at the intermediate BART stations, but at least thirty were there at the end.

My preconceived thought that Berkeley was the place for likely yard art proved very wrong. First we went through a section of Oakland that was destroyed by the 1991? fire. Big unique houses, but I felt I was seeing the architect's statement, without much of a clue to the resident. My area of Oakland is still full of the converted bungalows that used to be summer homes for the rich folks. Quite a bit of yard art. The fire area had zero. As far as were to find yard art, draw a bullseye centered on the major streets. Close in is uniform and sterile. Get a mile or so out and people are less conforming. The fire area the walk went through was still close in. Farther out you can see statues, peacocks, etc. In Berkeley we went close to campus, and saw old big houses, but no yard art. Of course that close to students, anything small in the way of yard art is very likely to end up in a dorm room.

We continue on into Kensington, which was a surprise. Wealth was not apparent, more like gradual decay of what once was a wealthy area. All the other three cities seemed vibrant, growing. Not Kensington. Finally, El Cerrito, which more than made up for the others in the amount of yard art. All the homes seemed unique, wildly different architecture, some very small ones, 700 sq feet or so, and, finally, yard art.


  1. Looking at our place through your filter, I'm noticing that most of our additions are buildings (by us architect wannabees), plants, rocks, "interesting" pieces of wood and homemade bird, squirrel or other critter houses. Art by any other name?

  2. It depends on my frame of mind at the time. I've got a lot of shots of smaller things that strike me as yard art, but the main thing is I have to be able to see it from the street. On rare occasions I'll walk up someone's driveway. You might like this YouTube I did of another Oakland walk:
    Oakland Hills Walk 2