Opinion: Celebrating Ohlone Park, born in protest 50 years ago

One way to celebrate the anniversary would be to finish the vision of the artist Jean LaMarr, who wanted to create a Native garden around the mural she painted in 1975. Berkeley is now considering funding the idea.

On June 1st, Berkeley celebrates the 50th anniversary of Ohlone Park—a park born in protest over the suppression of People’s Park by local police and the California National Guard under Governor Reagan.

The 50th-anniversary celebration will include California Indian storytelling and crafts demonstrations as well as a history exhibition, musical performances, a kids’ bike rodeo, tai chi demonstrations, and special events at its community garden, dog park, and playgrounds.

This half-block-wide, six-block-long open space along which 30,000 people marched to People’s Park in 1969 is itself the result of a protest. The area had been cleared when BART destroyed about 200 houses to build its rail line. Berkeley voters, however, refused to let BART run tracks above ground. On June 1st, soon after the land had been filled in over the new BART tunnel and two weeks after the assault on People’s Park that led to the death of James Rector, citizens proclaimed the area on the north side of Hearst Avenue between Milvia Street and Sacramento Street to be public land. They named it the People’s Park Annex.

Enduring evidence of BART on the liberated land was a stucco slathered vent building at Hearst and Milvia. Painted an ugly green, it was soon crisscrossed with graffiti.

A decade later, inspired by Malcolm Margolin’s The Ohlone Way (Heyday Books: Berkeley, 1978), the city renamed the land Ohlone Park to honor the indigenous people of the Bay Area.UC students and Berkeley citizens called for a mural depicting the Ohlone to transform BART’s eyesore into a thing of beauty. Some insisted that the mural be created by a California Indian artist.

Ohlone Park mural by Jean LaMarr. Photo: Emilie Raguso

In 1995, my neighborhood organization Friends of Ohlone Park (FOOP) invited Jean LaMarr (Paiute/Pit River) to paint the four-sided mural that became “The Ohlone Journey.” The panel facing a playground to the east, a cartoon-style depiction of the creation story, shows the abundance of life that once thrived in the East Bay. The north panel, based on historic drawings, shows Ohlone villagers doing their welcoming dance. The westward panel, drawn from 20th-century photos, honors the lives of Native families of the East Bay. And “The Strong Walk Back to the Future,” facing south, represents the determination of the Ohlone People to thrive without sacrificing their traditions or their cultural identity. A civic arts commissioner called this “one of the most revered works of public art” in the city.

However, the funding for the mural project and the support it received from Berkeley’s Parks and Civic Arts staff did not enable the artist to realize her vision fully. LaMarr and the Ohlone families who aided her research had worried that the mural would be defaced. They wanted a border area that could keep vandals and graffiti artists away from the panels. LaMarr envisioned an art garden around the mural, with an acorn grinding rock sculpture, redwood benches with inlaid images of swimming salmon, and native plants growing beside the tule reeds and trees she painted on the mural. It was never constructed.

Over the years, taggers left their marks on the Ohlone Mural and vandals gouged it, requiring Civic Arts to do a costly restoration and cleaning and coat it freshly with anti-graffiti varnish.

Finally, in this 50th anniversary year of Ohlone Park, there is a chance to fully realize LaMarr’s vision. The UC Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund recently donated $5,000 in support of the garden to FOOP, a critical first step in raising the $39,000 needed. Now the city is gearing up to fund the garden in two phases. On April 18, the Public Art Committee will consider adding $19,000 to its budget to pay for the garden design and a grinding rock. If all goes well, the City Council could approve funding later this summer and the Ohlone Mural Art Garden will finally get built.

As an expression of Native culture, this art garden combines practicality and beauty. The Muwekma Ohlone tribe, which offers indigenous meals at Cafe Ohlone, wants to process acorns, their traditional staple, on the grinding rock. The garden will include plants that provided medicines, basketry materials, soap, tea leaves, and foods for thousands of years to the first people of the East Bay.

In contrast to Western gardening traditions, the Native concept of a garden was never confined to walled or bordered spaces. The lands they inhabited and traveled through were their gardens. Perhaps 50 years from now, when the hundredth anniversary of Ohlone Park is celebrated, indigenous plants will grow throughout the park, reducing or eliminating the need for watering, increasing the city’s insect populations and biodiversity overall, supporting indigenous culture, and making the land more beautiful for everyone who visits, travels through, and lives near Ohlone Park.

Stephen Most is a writer and filmmaker. He is the writer/producer of 'River of Renewal' and 'Wilder than Wild: Fire, Forests, and the Future' and the author of 'Stories Make the World, Reflections on Storytelling and the Art of the Documentary.'