California State University East Bay

The Pioneer

California State University East Bay

The Pioneer

California State University East Bay

The Pioneer

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Lake Merritt: A Diamond in the Rough Streets of Oakland

The “Jewel of Oakland” was built in 1867 and has since remained an iconic symbol of Oakland.

Oakland is the only city in the United States with a man-made lake in a downtown metropolitan area.

“Lake Merritt is an icon for Oakland,” said Oakland Mayor Jean Quan. “Located in the heart of the city—near Chinatown, downtown and Grand Avenue/Lakeshore Shopping Districts—it conveys beauty, environmentalism and community.”

“The lake sparkles literally and figuratively.”

Lake Merritt is both a fresh and salt-water lake, the largest of its kind, measuring 3.4 miles in circumference.

“Lake Merritt is the Jewel of Oakland,” said Lake Supervisor Earl McKelvy. “The whole city is centered around this lake.”

McKelvy has been working at the lake for 40 years, since he was in high school.

Lake Merritt is host to many events, including weddings, walk-a-thons and bird shows, says McKelvy.

The lake was given the name “Jewel of Oakland” when it was built in 1867.

Dr. Samuel Merritt, who was the mayor of Oakland at the time, donated 155 acres of tidal water and it became “Merritt’s Lake” and later, “Lake Merritt.”

This jewel is equipped with its own “necklace of lights,” which consists of 126 lightposts that illuminate the entire area at night.

Lake Merritt is characterized by its therapeutic atmosphere. Its peaceful and relaxing setting differs greatly from the negative image of Oakland portrayed in the media, says Oakland residents.

“The atmosphere at Lake Merritt is very calm and peaceful—no police cars, sirens or arguing, which is very different compared to where I live in East Oakland,” said Lisa Marie Thomas, 20.

“I like to go to the lake to relax, enjoy the scenery and read a book. The lake has a lot to offer our community.”

Thomas said she goes to the lake twice a week after she gets off work.

Lake Merritt is surrounded by a variety of nearby amenities and shops. Some of the well-known attractions offered at the lake are: the boating center, the Wildlife Refuge, the Garden Center and Children’s Fairyland.

In fact, Children’s Fairyland—built in 1950—was the first attraction in the United States dedicated solely to catering to young children. Its “storybook theme” inspired many similar parks to open up around the country.

Some come to enjoy the scenery, some turn the lake into a family getaway and others use it as an outlet for exercise.

“I walk around the lake two to three times a week,” said Oakland resident Katie Miller. “The beauty of the lake is that it is community-oriented. People tend to feel a lot more comfortable hanging out at the lake than they would other parts of Oakland.”

Miller said she likes that the city continues to keep Lake Merritt beautiful. It keeps the gardens looking nice, it preserves the wildlife of the lake and keeps the area around the lake clean.

The Wildlife Refuge at Lake Merritt is home to fish, birds, clams, crabs and shrimp. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1963 and is the oldest wildlife refuge in the nation.

“The many different features of Lake Merritt definitely draw people to the lake, which in turn draws people to Oakland,” said resident Renee Smith. “I wouldn’t say it was the jewel of Oakland. It is just one of the jewels of Oakland.”

Although people feel like Lake Merritt positively enhances Oakland’s image, some residents don’t think it is enough to completely change the negative views of Oakland.

“Although Lake Merritt is a great place…it is not enough for one, or even a few small communities within Oakland, to change how people perceive Oakland,” said Kinesiology Master’s student Leigha Stafford. “One small community cannot change that perception, let alone the reality of it. There are many communities within Oakland that offer semi-safe environments for engagements, such as Lake Merritt, Rockridge and Skyline; however, these are still embedded within Oakland and crime is only blocks away.”

Still, others feel that people need to look past Oakland’s problems in order to see its overall beauty.

“It’s so frustrating having to defend this beautiful place that I live in, because people just stop listening after you say ‘Oakland,’” said Lake Merritt resident Trina Walkama.

“I think people just need to visit Oakland, come to our Farmers’ Market, take a stroll around the lake and forget [the negative stereotype]. Have an open mind. Maybe people can begin to love this city as much as I do.”

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Lake Merritt: A Diamond in the Rough Streets of Oakland