Heritage in a dynamic place

I gave my talk last night to the Oakland Heritage Alliance and I think it turned out well. I tried to talk about our geology not on its own terms, but weighted toward its relevance in Oakland’s general civic life. One of my slides was this lovely digital elevation model that makes the Hayward fault obvious. Click to see the whole thing. Sadly, I can’t recall exactly where I got it.

oakland DEM

Here are my concluding remarks from the talk.

Oakland is situated in an area that falls down every century or so. Today, a repeat of the 1868 earthquake would erase large areas of our city. I don’t see how we can prevent that. How can we hang on to our history in the face of nature? And how can we hang on to our history in the face of human nature? By that I refer to well-known tendencies in cities that are traumatized. Citizens have a strong, almost overwhelming urge to return to normal, and that drive is amplified in their leaders.

We have the example of San Francisco after 1906, which underwent a furious rebuilding and whose leaders had no tolerance for delay. San Francisco was the leading city of the West, and the stakes were very high. Democracy was short-circuited for a time. The development-driven city leaders, led by “mover and shaker” James Phelan, were prepared to obliterate Chinatown before the Asian-American community rallied to save it. There was no heritage community at the time, and who knows how it would have fared had there been one.

After our earthquake—and it’s coming—Oakland will still have all the geographical gifts that I showed you at the start of my talk. We can assume that the seaport and airport and rail lines and highways will be rebuilt as soon as possible. The stakes will again be very high. There will be little conflict with the heritage community over any of that. The hard part will begin once the emergency ends.

Earthquakes are part of our geography. These days we like to talk about sustainable living: in tornado country, for instance, that means everyone has a storm cellar. What does it mean in Oakland? Some of our most beautiful neighborhoods lie along the fault, and they probably will not be reoccupied once destroyed. The city that arises after the next Big One will be very different in some ways.

I think I can foresee a more sustainable Oakland in which more people will live in well designed multi-family buildings and recreate in a long greenbelt where route 13 runs today. On the other hand, much will endure. City Hall should survive thanks to its retrofit after 1989. Landmarks like Tech High, the Camron-Stanford House, Peralta Hacienda, and Dunsmuir will be restored if they survive the tumult. I know that the Oakland Heritage Alliance will be there, doing its utmost to save what can be saved. In the end, much depends on the citizenry at large: the values they hold most strongly, the values we are teaching them today, will be those that prevail.

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3 Responses to “Heritage in a dynamic place”

  1. Naomi Schiff Says:

    Thank you for a fine talk! Really enjoyed it, and today’s walk.

  2. January Ruck Says:

    Great lecture Andrew. Your maps and images were really amazing and the audience was very engaged. Thank you!

  3. Richard Sintchak Says:

    Fantastic points. Call me a pessimist but the monstrosities and rush-thru approvals and exceptions done after the Berkeley-Oakland Firestorm gives you your answer right there…

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