Situated next to downtown Oakland, Lake Merritt is by far the city’s most popular park. It’s also a wildlife refuge that’s surrounded by dense residential neighborhoods where thousands of Oaklanders live. When the pandemic shutdown began in March 2020, vendors gravitated to the lake in larger numbers, turning the eastern shoreline into an outdoor bazaar. Locals flocked to the lake too, seeking a safe outdoor place to socialize and exercise.

But as the crowds at Lake Merritt grew last summer, existing tensions between visitors, vendors, and neighbors worsened. Frustration over problems like excessive litter, noise, violence, and dangerous driving reached a boiling point, as did concerns about racial profiling and inequitable policies that could be used to exclude certain groups, especially Black people, from accessing and enjoying the lake. 

What the lake should be depends on who you talk to. Some want it to be a quiet sanctuary, while others desire a bustling urban park. Over the past year, locals, lake advocates, and city officials have worked hard to listen to each other’s concerns and find ways to ensure everyone feels welcome at Lake Merritt.

The Oaklandside’s news editor Darwin BondGraham met up with lake advocates, naturalists, and city officials to hear more about what makes the lake such a special place, its natural history and wildlife, and what’s being done to mediate conflicts and create a more just public parks system. In this video you’ll hear from the Lake Merritt Institute’s Executive Director James Robinson, naturalists Katie Noonan and Damon Tighe, and City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas.

The video was first streamed on June 16, 2021, as part of The Oaklandside’s one-year anniversary event, Live-ish, a three-day celebration of our newsroom’s first year, featuring community conversations, short documentaries, panel discussions, and musical performances by local artists.  

Blue Shield is the presenting sponsor of Live-ish.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.