Thursday, March 31, 2016

Ladies of the Lake

The Measure DD Coalition met a week ago, as it has ever since the measure passed in 2002. The coalition is a large and mostly volunteer group that monitors projects made possible by the $198 million bond measure that has dramatically improved both water quality and public access at Oakland’s Lake Merritt.

At the meeting, it was announced that two of the lake’s most effective advocates are retiring from their day jobs. But it went without saying that neither Naomi Schiff nor Jennie Gerard will ever resign from their volunteer commitment to preserving and enhancing Oakland’s public spaces.
Naomi Schiff (left) and Jennie Gerard at Lake Merritt. 

For the last 40 years, Naomi ran 17th Street Studios, a small company that designed and executed marketing, publishing and illustration projects.

Jennie worked for the Trust for Public Land for more than two decades, and then served as chief of staff to Oakland City Council member Pat Kernighan and to Kernighan’s successor, Abel Guillen, whose District 2  is directly adjacent to Lake Merritt.

Between them, Naomi and Jennie represent many decades of activism and advocacy related to the protection and maintenance of public land around Lake Merritt.

Naomi first got involved with lake-related matters in 1998, when she opposed the destruction of a 1912 fire-alarm building that had served as the center of the electrical system for all of Oakland’s fire alarms. Her small but vocal group of citizens prevailed. But it was her much bigger campaign, three years later, that highlighted the importance of developing a real vision of the lake’s best use.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland wanted to build its new cathedral in the parking lot of the Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium.  The plan was successfully opposed by a group Naomi had co-founded, Coalition of Advocates for Lake Merritt—CALM—as well as by a cross-section of historians, planners, architects and activists. As a result, the cathedral now occupies the former site of Holy Names University, across from the lake.

This activism, says Naomi, led directly to discussions about creating a thoughtful approach toward the lake and its surroundings—as well as a bond measure to fund improvements.
It was at about that time that Naomi met Jennie. “She got it,” Naomi says – “it” being the importance of protecting this important civic asset.

Jennie had recently left the Trust for Public Land, which had had her flying all over the country. In 2001, she met with rookie City Councilmember Danny Wan, who wanted to explore the idea of a modest bond measure to fund improvements related to the lake. “I had never set foot in City Hall before that point,” she says. She immersed herself in the project, arguing that a much larger dollar figure could be accepted by voters and would allow for far more dramatic improvements to the area.

Naomi and Jennie became allies on the campaign, but they readily admit that their styles are quite different. “I’m the hothead, and she’s the wise one,” says Naomi, adding, “That’s proven kind of effective.”

“I had been on the inside for most of the time,” says Jennie, “where I was particularly grateful to have advocates in the community like Naomi.”

In November 2002, over 80 percent of Oakland voters passed Measure DD,  which funds waterfront improvements that include parks, trails, bridges, land acquisition, creek restoration – and, yes, a new children’s theater at Children’s Fairyland. (Measure DD money also funded a complete renovation and expansion of our puppet theater, plus badly needed infrastructure upgrades.) Many projects have been completed since then, and many others are in progress. Hence the ongoing Measure DD Coalition meetings.

What are Naomi and Jennie planning to do in their retirement? Naomi has two big agenda items: to fight the transport of coal through Oakland and to write the history of the cathedral project. “It’s important to show that if the people will lead, the politicians will have to follow,” she says. “If you can present a positive alternative, good things can happen.”
Jennie plans on spending at least one day a week caring for her 9-month-old grandson Ryan. Travel to Vietnam and Cambodia are also on her list.

But last Saturday they were both back at the lake, as members of the volunteer Lake Merritt Weed Warriors, pulling up old weed cloth to allow water to penetrate the roots of native sedge plants.

“It lifts my spirit to garden by the lake with other volunteers,” says Jennie.

“This is our Central Park!” is how Naomi describes the area around the lake. “I plan on helping Jennie with the weeds—and continuing to advocate for our public spaces.”
The Lake Merritt Weed Warriors meet on the last Saturday of each month at various lakeside locations, and they welcome new volunteers. Check their Facebook page for more information.


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