California Writers Circle: A Community Kitchen

As we prepared to send in our proposal to give the Fire Circle a makeover last week, something wasn't sitting right with me. Was it seeing those little Wednesday outdoor school kids climbing around on the cracking, crumbling cement structure? Was it having somewhere to hang our CWC banner at our Earth Day poetry event? Was it the gentle backdrop to all those amazing poets (Nanette Deetz, Richard Loranger, Lucille Lang Day et al)? Was it the way Bob Stephens curled up like some drunken beat poet in the sliver of shade that slab provided?

Yes. YES. So much yes!

The way we all interacted with the space—food on one side, poetry on the other—made me realize this spot was thoughtfully designed for parties. I listened to President Keith deliver his puzzled, hilarious description of meat shopping for meat, and while staring at the shapes behind him, realized...

Those are ziggurats!

Yes, this classical, geometric stairstep pattern is an iconic Art Deco detail. How had I missed that all these years? We had guessed this structure was built in the 1960s with its groovy curved slots for trash cans, quite typical of hippie era cement. No one on the Facebook history forums could tell us any different. The Park historian and the Oakland Historical Society all shrugged their shoulders, unsure of this structures's origins or importance. But it kept nagging at me. People have been coming here for decades. It's a familiar place for people of all colors who like to gather and eat food to gather and eat food. This is a time when so many familiar places in Oakland just disappear... would it be fair to just disappear it? And the thought that Juanita Miller did readings of her father Joaquin's work nightly, staged plays yearly... it wouldn't be unreasonable to think that she built this. Well if she did, I wouldn't want it torn down on my watch! 

I went back to my books and poured through the Oakland Wiki. I found, in the very end of Splendid Poseur, this report:

Community Kitchens?

That must be referring to what we call the Fire Pit. I went on a very deep internet dive into community kitchens and, though little is written about them, discovered that sure enough they were kind of a signature structure of WPA parks. Usually they have roofs on them. This one is kind of unique. But as a sometimes food historian, I love the idea of an outdoor kitchen for the community.  Which left me wondering: Could this old thing be as old as the Cascade?

Today before going to the park I took my flannel shirt to the Bancroft Archives and the Oakland History Room. I watched the Park's history unfold before my eyes...the letters written, the money raised, hundreds of newspaper articles chronicling its development from an idea to a reality. Or as one person wrote, "A Million-Dollar Dream Come True."

And bingo, I found it. 

An article about the opening of the Park. In both libraries.

In the automotive section of the Trib in the Sunday paper in October, 1941, there it was, a spread about the new Woodminster Amphitheater. And a photo of, voilá, the community kitchen and picnic ground.

Caption: "Woodminster Theater in Joaquin Miller Park has a seating capacity of 300. Immediately adjoining it is a space for 7000 additional seats. Stage is ample for large productions and pageants. Picnic facilities are available and a barbecue pit to accommodate parties of several hundred. Vari-colored lights are thrown on fountain each night. It is only a 15-minute ride from center of city. The scout car is a 1942 Buick just put on display by Howard Auto Co. and Warren Boyd."

So this old concrete lump is not just 83 years old but a juicy piece of history! 

Now we're re-writing the proposal as a restoration and rennovation project to polish up a long buried treasure and who knows, maybe even update it for an electrobohemian future. (That's a new literary genre I want to invent, btw.) There's an Eagle scout who I want to believe is a descendant (or at least a long lost relative) of Lord Byron, Joaquin Miller's literary crush and model, and he's going to be fixing up the tables and repairing cracks and taking out all the fire elements, because, well... let's just say things have changed

Stay tuned for more!

And definitely listen to some poetry from our wonderful Earthday gathering, and contemplate the history of all of the art that's been part of this Park since long before it was a park!  

And yes, we're going to need more trees!


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