The Fences


In the beginning, circa 1999, The Ranch was sort of fenced. The fences were an ugly assortment of shapes and sizes. They served to keep prying eyes from seeing the piles of automotive debris, rotting building materials, rusted vehicles, couches housing generations of voles. No one really cared; people drove by in fancy cars and never noticed, the mess was all behind fences…

Except on the weekends when suburbanites would come into West Oakland with trucks loaded with juniper branches, the rich organic detritus’ of suburban gardens. Our sidewalks, those that existed, were welcoming free fields which absorbed mountains of the suburban trimmings.

One of my favorite neighbors, back in the day, a guy who owned a car yard/used parts business. While his was a legitimate business of sorts, at the time in West Oakland there were many less legitimate businesses known as “chop shops”. The legitimate and the illegitimate had co-existed in a fairly benign humdrum of inner City modernity for decades.

BUT…on one fateful weekend…the legitimate automotive recycler heard loud noises from the back side of his 2+ acre toxic waste dump of a business site…not necessarily his fault as previous to his decades of use/misuse the same site had housed a shellac manufacturing plant…welcome to City zoning. Loud noises, an investigation by the owner ensues. It appears that there are two little trucks…the 4 cylinder type favored by weekend gardeners and heavy shoppers, being unloaded at the backside of the property. The owner asks one of the unloaders, a mother and son team, to stop. They ignore him…a common mistake of outsiders to our “hood”. Not cottoning to being ignored, the owner of the automotive recycling business cum legit chop shop, returns to his office. Whereupon he calls the local authorities…that’ll take a couple of days, after all, it’s not like it’s a homicide or an armed robbery in progress…And they have issues with our “hood”…our local councilperson having worked for many, many years to alienate the men in blue…another story.

Our man, the recycling cum chop shop guy, loads up his trusty shot gun, mounts the ever ready forklift and heads out onto the street, to the scene of the violation. Mom and her teenaged son are just about finished dumping many cubic yards of suburban detritus onto our man’s property. One final try…lady, pick that stuff up or else…Ok sonny, you’re going for a ride…Our man inserts the lift under Sonny’s truck, lifts it to full height, pulls a gun on a now hysterical mother…why do they wait so long to get excited?…listening
is so underrated.
…Our man calls the police and announces that he has made a citizen’s arrest. Well that speeded things up. The police were there in minutes. Our man lowed Sonny down, wet pants and all. Mom was cited and 16 people from our neighborhood showed up when she contested the complaint. When the occasional “dump” occurs, I and several of my neighbors have been know to go thru the offending material and return it to it’s owner, often in Danville, Lafayette, Berkeley or other where the rules are applied using a very geographically specific formula. I’ve been here for 23 years and the rubbish and the “ignoring” continues, personal and institutional, truly tiresome.

When I first started working on The Ranch we had the first of many sewer line failures. Mercifully, help was quickly available. A local plumbing contractor with whom I have now worked for decades came and helped assess the problem. A youngster, now 40 something, who had been my student at The Renaissance School (California’s first arts alternative school for grades 7-12) now a successful earth moving contractor (that’s an art’s education for you!) came to the rescue. Many cubic feet of dirt were moved, a new line installed and a now famous quote endures. The owner of the “ditch witch” and the company that did the work: “Kathy, living here will keep you honest”. Well, he was right; we here in West Oakland are not insulated from the failures of our modern life. We live with the problems associated with poverty and lack of opportunity, right here in the middle of one of America’s most affluent areas. Go figure.

I think about that statement often. Most people with my education and background and age, chose to live in less “edgy” neighborhoods. But, I have to say; I have always felt much safer in this little part of the big City than I ever did when living in splendid isolation on the hill right here in the very same City. Like it or not, this is a community and it may not have worked so well together but slowly, over time, I think there are some sprouts of change.

Once when I was working on a building with a contractor he left
The Ranch in my very old little red truck (more a shopping cart than truck)…as he left the parking lot, I realized he had all the keys to the building we were working on…opps. I went to the sidewalk and tried to whistle for him to stop his passage down the street. I failed but by the time he reached the first corner of our street, a street person flagged him down and suggested that he needed to turn around…a neighborly thing to do…flagging.

The fences are made of used container siding. We are less than a mile from the Port of Oakland, a major world wide shipping venue. The Ranch, in the beginning, was an outpost of security for the “gypsy truckers”…guys with big rigs and no yard on which to park them once unloaded while they drive home to Pinole, or Stockton or Merced for the weekend.
As a consequence, siding and all things related to used container shipping are readily available. I made fences of it…it is extremely durable, weather tight and it fits in with both the history and the texture of our “hood”. This and other recycled materials have added to the “doohickory” at The Ranch; appearing as fencing, shade cover, lighting fixtures, gate bolts, doors and awnings.

Oakland and I have gone to battle several times over both the fencing material and the fact of the fence. Countless-witless “city planners”, comfortably lodged at the counter downtown, paid to facilitate renovations and improvements have said NO to fences over 6 foot tall, corrugated metal of any sort and “non transparent” fencing (you should be able to see thru the fence?!) They are just following “policy”. Who thinks this up? Policy? What?, every culture on the planet, every person wants a little privacy where they live.

I first built the fences to keep the tourists out…or more rightly every city planning graduate from UC and other institutions of higher learning then fostering the growth of the “new urbanism”. Or the countless city college classes that put me on the map in search of “sustainable urban agriculture”…So, I’m weeding, it’s Sunday and they drive in park and DEMAND to talk inner City development/sustainable whatever, new urbanism and whatever else this weeks’ TA demands they describe/dissect in ways only an undergraduate can imagine. If they would go to work weeding or spading up the growing beds, we would work and talk…no work, no talk.

The fences got built and the traffic has died down. The trouble with starting an internet dialogue with these same folks is that they are distanced from the garden-guilt I am so adept at dishing out.

New Urbanism has its devotees and much has been made of the urge to remake underutilized parts of cities. It’s all good but I really need to do my weeding and not talk so much.

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