A New Vision for Lake Merritt and Oakland

an op-ed by Vanessa Whang, Oakland Resident and Arts and Culture Expert

I’m a resident of District 6, a former resident of Adam’s Point, and a stalwart supporter of Lake Merritt. I  will be forever grateful to Samuel Merritt and the citizens who had the foresight to save the estuary and its wildlife—both animal and human!—and to city government for its careful stewardship of this jewel of Oakland. So when I first heard about the planned hotel of the One Lake Merritt project, I was a little wary. But as I got to understand the broader vision behind it and the synergies it would build at the site itself and among local and area educational and cultural organizations, my imagination was truly sparked by how forward-thinking the idea is.

I was the director of all grantmaking and programming activities at Cal Humanities, California’s state humanities council and was formerly the director of performing arts presenting and multidisciplinary arts at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, DC, so I have both a statewide and national perspective on the role that the arts and humanities can play in community and economic development, but more importantly, the impact they can have on individual human lives. Creative Development Partners’ project demonstrates a deep understanding of the relationship building and organic processes that make economic development projects, human development projects. In it I see the respect of not only the historical significance of material culture and architecture, but of the significance of intangible culture—story, memory, practices—for example, through their understanding of the need to keep the arena a flexible space for activities that have been and will be important to Oakland. Fixed-seat theaters are important and good for certain kinds of cultural production, but not all. (The Calvin Simmons Theater is a beautiful space and I had the privilege of being involved in producing concerts there when it was still functioning.) The citizens of the early 1900s had the foresight to know that Oakland needed not only a great mid-sized concert hall, but also a space for all kinds of Oaklanders to do their thing—whether learning from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., jumping up and down to the music of Elvis and James Brown, showing their support for the Black Panthers, or, dare I say, lighting up to the Grateful Dead. Now we have a city that is a 75% majority-minority, and we need space to allow for hip-hop festivals, bhangra competitions, and son jarocho fandangos, along with the traditional Christmas pageants and sports tournaments—as well as a 21st-century place for visitors to come, stay, and participate with us in these activities.Oakland has a significant history, a vibrant now, and enormous unrealized potential—all of which need to be honored, considered in full, and embraced with the kind of foresight that built the Oakland Civic Auditorium in 1914. I believe CDP’s proposal has that kind of vision, and foresight, and concern for community.