Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Shall I tell you about our exciting park tours? My weekend in Mendocino? "Too muchness" is becoming a problem ... .

Those tours are most successful. Choreographing the 4-hour sessions of community people from a list of volunteers has been a real joy. In the first place, these are people who are being asked quite subtly to participate in the beginnings of the building of a national park. We don't use those words, but in effect, that's precisely what we're doing.

We gather at city hall in one of the conference rooms, share coffee and fruit and watch our little "Lost conversations and untold stories ..." DVD and give them a chance to explore our collection of World War II artifacts collected from Rosies across the country through a grant from the Ford Motor Company. We board the little 28-passenger rented bus at around nine o'clock for a visit to the woman-designed Rosie Memorial on the site of what once was Kaiser Permanente Shipyard #2 and that is now the site of a development of upscale condos and a beautiful park. We spend the next 4 hours taking our "tourists" over areas they've been traversing for their entire lifetimes; past structures they stopped "seeing" long ago; past ground long-familiar and that has played background to the totality of their life experiences over the past 60-odd years. Watching the reawakening as our guests excitedly pop up from their seats to interrupt Naomi (our NPS guide and my co-worker) to add to the bare bones of her story. She's designed her presentation to provide context -- to purposely evoke this response. The history is so close to the surface and proves to be so irrepressible -- immediate -- alive!

The cast of characters of this -- our fourth tour over the past few months -- consisted in part of a Latino member of the county grand jury, a man raised in war housing of WWII; a member of the city's redevelopment agency staff and a newcomer to Richmond; the City Clerk; a contentious and courageous community activist (African American) for whom a new health clinic is about to be named; the owner of an historic deteriorating building -- the International Hotel -- that once housed the black Pullman porters while they waited out the servicing of the Pullman railroad cars at the nearby plant (still standing but converted to new uses) before returning to the upperclass travelers for whom they were designed.

That little building that consists of 20 sleeping rooms and a large reception hall has served as her home for all the years while she's fought for historic landmarking and the funding to restore it. It figures hugely in black history since African American workers could not stay in the (white) Pullman hotel at that time. This place was known across the country and would surely figure in the story of the fight for racial justice waged by C.L. Dellums in the 50's; a story that begs the attention of future black historians. Today was the day that we added Ethel Dotson's International Hotel to the tour and raised it to the level of "landmarking," officially, in the minds of our "tourists."

Antonio Medrano, upon our stop at the Mexican Baptist Church on the far western edge of the city, took over to tell us about the early days of Richmond's spanish-speaking community; that this area was once agricultural, where they tilled the soil and raised their food -- along the rail lines of the Santa Fe.

There is an openness in these recollections. Racial differences are briefly touched on, not so much as complaints, but rather as a clear recognition of the reality of those times -- the painful years that preceded the Civil Rights struggles of the Sixties. When seen against the progress that has followed in its wake, that history seems to have been at least partially detoxified -- ready now for sharing across the lines of separation.

We also had on board Steve Gilford, a Kaiser Permanente historian, whose work in researching of African American participation in the shipyards served as the basis for some of my own. When the tour reached Kaiser Shipyard #3, the site of the SS Red Oak Victory and the Whirley Crane that helped to build her, Steve took over and provided the more technical information that would have been otherwise missing. It was at this point in the tour that I started to see the need to involve more young people in these adventures. How wonderful it would have been had they been a part of the group. I thought of Glen Price, member of the West Contra Costa School District board who'd had to cancel at the last minute but who has signed on for the July tour.

Also on board was a reporter for the Berkeley Daily Planet, Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor, who wrote a great story for last week's Friday edition -- a piece that has been widely circulated and appreciated by members of the National Park Service staff and management. It can be read at the paper's website.

Just before leaving for a restful weekend on the north coast I briefly visited another growing edge of our work, this time at the request of a team that's engaged in the planning of a streetscape project that will bring the park to the heart of the city, Macdonald Avenue, the main artery now undergoing revitalization. With that team we're participating in the planning of a series of programs called "Memories of Macdonald" that will engage the community in the gathering of more oral histories, digital video and digital-audio projects in which the kids of the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts will be involved this summer. Our meeting was with the artistic director and staff of the EBCPA with whom the park and the redevelopment agency are partnering. We later met with the city's Arts Commission to introduce them to the concept of civic engagement and of their part in it.

We're busily building a national park, guys, and it's an amazing process.

Photo: Taken under the old wooden bridge just south of the picturesque tiny town of Mendocino. Great place for picking up drift wood and lovely pastel-colored sea glass.

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