The neighborhoods surrounding the north and east sides of Lake Merritt are crossed with curving streets, scenic alleyways, and secret staircases winding like capillaries past backyard gardens. Among these is the Cleveland Cascade, a quintessential Bay Area staircase park, built in the 1920s and rehabilitated after 50 years of disuse.
The cascading stairway was built in 1923, modeled after fountains in Italy. Planned by landscape architect Howard Gilkey, the fountain featured 20 concrete bowls descending in a stair pattern, each set with a basin and seashell ornaments. An electric pump allowed water to cycle back up to the top of the structure, and colored lights illuminated the descent.
During the 1950s, the cascade became neglected and its water was shut off, leaving the fountains dry. The decorative shells and ornamental bowls down which the water flowed were removed, and the basins themselves were buried under dirt and forgotten.
In 2004, a group of neighborhood volunteers, working from photographs found in old newspaper clippings, used hand tools to excavate the stepped basins. New lights were installed to keep the park open later, and more attractive landscaping was added, as was a plaque explaining the park’s history. The upkeep of the area is now handled by a volunteer group that claims to want to restore the functionality of the fountain (although in a state with recurring droughts and lawn watering laws, any superfluous use of water is likely to attract controversy).
Popular with the locals, the easily overlooked park is the perfect vantage point for anyone seeing the lake for the first time, as the cascade’s upper landing presents a clear view across the water of the Bellevue-Staten Building’s asymmetrical, art-deco profile, a magnum opus of 1920s architecture that abounds in neighborhoods around Lake Merritt. On weekends the park resembles a training camp, with runners sprinting up and down the stairs, some doing pushups and crunches on the landings between circuits, others hunched over, gasping and clutching their sides. Outside of the rainy season, locals take advantage of the stairs not only for exercise, but also for the view: a reminder of the ways in which Oakland causes a person fall in love with it again and again.
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