From left to right: Bonnie Sherwood, Dale Risden from Friends of Joaquin Miller Park, and Kristen Caven, writer-in-residence and a member of the arts committee. Credit: Amir Aziz

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The city of Oakland and Friends of Joaquin Miller Park, a nonprofit organization of naturalists, historians, cyclists, equestrians, hikers, and neighbors, have spent the past two years making improvements to Joaquin Miller Park. This weekend, Oakland residents can see some of the renovations at a ribbon-cutting ceremony by the Woodminster Cascade. The improvements include the restoration of the Woodminster Cascade, renovation of the park’s bathrooms, which have been closed for years, repairs to the many trails that traverse the park’s woodlands, a refresh of the “tot lot” playground, the reduction of fire hazard vegetation, and the return of arts and cultural programming.

Joaquin Miller Park’s 500-acres include redwood groves, oak woodlands, lush creeks, and meadows. The park grew in popularity during the pandemic as people wanted to get out of their homes and enjoy the outdoors. While it isn’t very accessible via public transportation (you can catch AC Transit’s Line 39), it has become a favorite destination for those who want to work out or go on a hike. The playground and meadows are popular with families and kids, and there’s also a dog park. Woodminster Amphitheater also just concluded its summer theater and music season after taking a break in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Newspaper clipping from the Oakland Tribune, Sunday, Sep 29, 1940, Page 7. Credit: Newspapers.com

Five years ago, members of the Friends of Joaquin Miller Park began having conversations about the need to preserve the park’s buildings, resources, and landscape. For example, the cascade—a series of three pools connected by waterfalls feeding a central fountain, flanked by staircases that climb 100 feet up the hillside, all built with native rock—is over 80-years-old and has not been functional since the mid-2000s. 

After District 4 Councilmember Sheng Thao was elected two years ago, she took an interest in the need to renovate certain park areas. “We took a big walk in the park and I explained to her how this is a gathering spot for Oaklanders,” said Dale Risden, a member of Friends of Joaquin Miller Park. “If we don’t save it, you could never build this again. This would never be possible in today’s world.” 

Councilmember Thao was able to secure $170,000 from the previous city budget and an additional $20,000 from Measure Q, a parcel tax approved by voters in 2020 to improve parks, to pay for some of the costs. 

Back in 1886, when the “poet of the sierras” Joaquin Miller owned the land, it was called “The Hights.” Miller planted Monterey Pine, Monterey Cypress, olive, eucalyptus, and acacia trees to beautify the hillsides. Some of these species, however, create greater fire hazards than native vegetation. One of the most labor-intensive aspects of the park renovation project is the removal of the acacia trees, an invasive species native to Australia. 

According to Bonnie Sherwood, a volunteer with Friends of Joaquin Miller Park, volunteers have already begun removing acacias in the western end of the park from Lookout Point and lower Sanborn Drive. The goal, Sherwood said, is to eventually secure fire hazard grants from Cal Fire and the federal government for the rest of the park. 

The top of Woodminster Cascade on March 23, 2016. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

Besides the urgent fire prevention efforts, the other huge project that the group took on was the restoration of the Woodminster Cascade, which fell in disrepair when the water supplying it was turned off about 15 years ago. The sealant in the pools was worn away and the pumps and plumbing system, all of which require running water to stay in good shape, was damaged. The cascade and the pools use recycled water, which allows them to continue running even during a drought. Friends of Joaquin Miller Park have been working around the clock to remove debris, seal all the cracks, and install a new plumbing system. According to Risden, the reflecting pool at the base of the cascade will be filled with water in time for the event this Saturday, and the cascade will restart next month. 

information about the event and how to support friends of joaquin miller park

What: Grand reopening of Woodminster Cascade

When: Saturday, October 9, at 12:30 p.m.

Where: Woodminster Cascade, 3300 Joaquin Miller Park

What: A Blanket and a Basket of Chow, hosted by the California Writers Club

When: Saturday, October 9, at 1 p.m.

Where: Fire Circle Picnic Area, 3175 Sanborn Dr.

Click here to donate or sign up to volunteer

The land where the Woodminster Cascade and amphitheater are was originally conveyed to the city by Joaquin Miller’s daughter Juanita, who lived at the park after her father’s passing in 1913 and even after the city bought the land in 1917. She remained there until she died in 1970.

Miller lobbied the federal Works Progress Administration to erect the Art Deco amphitheater and the stone staircase, cascade, and reflecting pools as a tribute to the poets and writers of California. When Woodminster Cascade and the amphitheater were completed in 1940, the cost was $1.5 million (around $30 million today). 

Back in the park’s heyday, Juanita Miller used to attend the plays hosted at the Woodminster amphitheater and the “fire circle” picnic area.

Following Miller’s love for arts and culture in the city, Friends of Joaquin Miller Park aims to bring back cultural programming. The first step is having a new writer-in-residence, Kristen Caven, a member of the California Writers’ Club. Caven will be in charge of organizing cultural events, starting with this weekend’s grand reopening of the cascade followed by a literary presentation titled “From Ina to Ayodele,” paying homage to Ina Coolbrith and honoring Ayodele Nzinga, Oakland’s first poet laureate. Coolbrith was California’s first poet laureate, and the first of any state in the nation. Nzinga will read some of Coolbrith’s work as well as some of her own. Others from the California Writers Club will also read work from works by poets who used to gather with Joaquin Miller at the park.

“This is the ignition point of a year-long program and something that we hope to continue,” Caven said of the unveiling of the new programming called “Arts in the Hights.”

“It’s for anybody who wants to perform, create new history, and be a part of it,” said Risden. 

Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.