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Signs Of Life

Columns by Pamela Majteles

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Posted by pam on January 14, 2011 at 10:38 pm

Originally published July 10, 2009

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

As the nine of us walked along, trying to stick together, it felt like we were an expedition team making our way up a mountain. But we weren’t attempting to scale a mountain peak, we were just trying to cross Broadway before the light changed, while on a walking tour of downtown Oakland.

If first appearances count for anything, my team looked strong. I’ve always believed a group’s strength lies in its differences. If that’s true, given the mix of ages, skin colors and spoken languages among us, we had to be the Superman of tour groups – capable of leaping the tall buildings of Oakland in a single bound.

Of course, a team is nothing without its leader, and we had a good one in Betty Marvin who leads free tours for the city of Oakland. She was taking us on a tour of the area around City Hall, known as city center. If she could whip us into shape, by tour’s end, we’d be able to cite important landmarks, while demonstrating a firm grasp of the architectural history of such notable buildings as City Hall, the Rotunda, and the Tribune Tower.

Admittedly, we got off to a slow start when a couple of members of our tour group arrived late, missing the 10:00 AM start time. They came running after us, waving their arms wildly. They were lucky to get our notice, let alone anyone else’s, in the ebb and flow of street life in downtown Oakland.

The latecomers were students at UC Berkeley and, as fellow teammates, they were easily forgiven because what they lacked in punctuality, they made-up for with sheer smarts. When standing in front of the Latham Memorial Fountain, erected in 1913, at Telegraph and Broadway, Betty threw out a challenge by asking, “What was the original purpose of the four basins on the pedestal?”

“They held water for horses to drink!” Female Student shot back.

But Betty kept coming, “What about the smaller basins at the foot of the pedestal?”

Not missing a step, Male Student smashed back, “They held water for dogs!” Yep, these kids were good.

But the team’s real superstar was a local woman, who confessed she regularly took the walking tours. She displayed an unrestrained enthusiasm for Oakland’s architectural history, embellishing Betty’s excellent information with tidbits she learned on previous tours. “See those narrow windows at the top of City Hall – that’s where the city jail was located in the early 1900s,” Local Woman couldn’t resist sharing.

My team was also impressive in the way everyone worked together. If anyone needed backup, others stepped in. For instance, one of our teammates from out of town had many questions about the Paramount Theatre, a subject not covered in the tour.

“This tour doesn’t make it as far the Paramount, but another tour does,” Betty informed Out-of-Town Man.

“The Paramount also offers its own wonderful behind-the-scenes tour,” Local Woman gushed.

“If you’re interested in the Paramount, you might also want to check out Fox Theater which is newly restored,” Male Student volunteered.

Boy, what a team.

Together, we learned a lot: the grand tree in front of City Hall is a Jack London Oak; the eye-catching sculpture in the Frank H. Ogawa Plaza is by West Oakland artist Bruce Beasley; the basement of City Hall boasts some impressive “shock absorbers” installed during the earthquake retrofit.

We also saw the power of teamwork. Here we were, mere strangers, who had come together and covered so much ground — up and down Broadway between 14th and 16th streets.

It was with some regret that I took my leave at the end of the 90 minute tour, because it’s not everyday you find yourself on a team like this one. I couldn’t help thinking of what might have been accomplished, if only we had more time. I’m betting we could have even made it as far at the Paramount.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

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