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How did Joaquin Miller Park become a “park”?

Redwood trees in Joaquin Miller Park.
Nick Doty
Redwood trees in Joaquin Miller Park.

It’s a crisp spring day–after a morning of rain. Oakland resident Dale Risden helps lead weekly forest cleanups with the volunteer group, Friends of Joaquin Miller Park. Dale grew up across the street and –over half a century later– he says he still can’t stay away.

I ask him how often he comes to the park. Laughing, he replies, “Five days a week?”

We’re meeting at a main entrance on Joaquin Miller Road, near Highway 13. From here, it looks like a standard city park–a brightly-colored playground, picnic areas, and a row of parking spots. But, to see the park’s vast interior, fellow volunteer Bonnie says you’ll have to travel on foot. She explains, “There are about 28 trailheads on this side of Skyline and a couple more because there’s a little part of Joaquin Miller Park that’s on the east side of Skyline.” 

Joaquin Miller Park is part of a system of nearly one hundred thirty public parks owned and operated by the city of Oakland. But it’s pretty different from most of its peers. At 500 acres, the park is the size of Disneyland – larger than almost all the city’s other parks combined. Its hilly, redwood-lined trails are more dirt than cement. And it also has local guides to show visitors the park’s flora and fauna.

According to Julie Mills, another park volunteer, “It's a city park, but it's really more of a regional park. People come from not just all over Oakland, but from all over the Bay Area.”

So why are Joaquin Miller’s borders, wildlife, even its visitors so distinct from other city parks? To find out, we need to go back in time–to when indigenous groups –including the Lisjan Ohlone Nation–were the main occupants of the East Bay. Tribal chairwoman Corrina Gould says her ancestors didn’t think of parks and nature as designated recreational spaces, the way many Americans do today.

“‘Nature’ was never an indigenous concept because we were part of the land, not apart from the land,” she says. For thousands of years, Corrina says this land was part of a larger ecosystem that provided resources to indigenous communities. And they replenished it, in return.

“There was tributaries of water, there was oak trees, there was a forest of redwoods in the hills, as well…[And] there was specific medicines, or traditional plants that we used that were in the Oakland Hills.”

And this land, she says, has always brought people together.

“There were gathering places that were up there. And I think that when you go to the redwoods today in the Oakland Hills that you can feel some of that.”

But by the mid-1800s, these indigenous systems and communities were under violent threat. California statehood and the Gold Rush prompted the migration of hundreds of thousands of white colonial settlers. By 1852, 90 percent of Oakland’s indigenous population had been killed or forcibly displaced.

Among the settlers was a writer from Indiana named Joaquin Miller. In the 1880s, Miller bought 75 acres in the East Bay hills. There, he planted tens of thousands of imported trees, permanently altering the landscape cultivated by Corrina’s ancestors.

In Corrina’s words,“If we want to take Joaquin Miller, it's this place that was destroyed, and then recreated as a park.”

Miller’s now-private wooded estate became a gathering place for early American authors to brush shoulders overlooking the bay. Kristen Caven, the park’s writer-in- residence says, “People would hike up from Oakland in all their Victorian finery. And he would host these events – parties, readings, literary events here. Writers from all over would come and perform and gather.” Kristen’s unique role was introduced last year to honor the park’s literary legacy.

Joaquin Miller's Home in the Oakland Hills, 1880s or 1890s.
Bonnie Sherwood
Joaquin Miller's Home in the Oakland Hills, 1880s or 1890s.

When Miller died, the City of Oakland converted the estate into Joaquin Miller Park, one of many civic green spaces created to serve growing urban populations. Other nearby land was divided soon-after – into regional reservesRedwood, Tilden, and Sibley. By the 1940s, Joaquin Miller was the only major city-run park located high in Oakland’s hills – making it out of reach for most city residents.

Golden Gate University law professor Paul Kibel studies how certain urban communities often have less access to environmental benefits: “the things we want, like open space, and parks and recreation.” Paul says locals took notice as the amount of protected green space in the Oakland Hills grew. Over time, park-rich East Bay neighborhoods–like those around Joaquin Miller –became more desirable, expensive, and whiter than the rest of the city.  

“It's like a chicken egg process,” he says. “You have extensive high quality open space wild lands available in close proximity to affluent communities, and much less quality lands and much less acreage readily accessible and available to low income minority populations.” Or, in Oakland, as he sees them, “the people down the hill.”

Back on the trail, volunteer Julie explains that this reputation–and reality–have stuck. “The city and even the state has seen this park as a park of the hills,” in other words, not for everyone. “And so on equity measures,” she says, “we get like a zero.”

But that’s something she says she and her colleagues are working to change. This year, the park’s diversity committee is polling visitors to learn who they are and what they want. The first question they’re asking? “What’s your zipcode?” 

She says solutions for making the park more inclusive for all Oakland residents, can come in unexpected forms … like plumbing. She explains, “If you live in the neighborhood, and you need to go to the bathroom, you can just go back to your house. But if you're not from the neighborhood, what do you do when there's not a functional or sanitary bathroom?

Without working bathrooms, it’s harder to attract visitors who drive or large school groups. The park has also added multilingual guides and is exploring new partnerships with local artists.

Now, the Bay Area’s indigenous community is pushing for greater structural change. In 2015, Corrina co-founded Sogorea Te Land Trust, an Oakland-based women-run coalition that advocates for returning land to indigenous tribes. She says the process of getting her community’s historical land back - also called rematriation– can be long, complicated, and painful.

“As a local tribe without land base, we have to ask permission to gather on lands. We have to ask permission to pray at places that have been our sacred places for thousands and thousands of years.”

A portion of Joaquin Miller Park is one of a handful of city-owned sites currently being considered for rematriation. If the process goes through, Corrina and her community could finally be the ones to manage -and welcome Oaklanders - to their ancestral land.

She says, processes like rematriation remove historical barriers. “[Rematriation] allows us to stand in sovereignty as we have for thousands of years. And to not only do that for ourselves, but to be inclusive of people that now live here in our territory.”

Near the end of my park visit, Dale leads me to a hilltop vista. It’s a view that Corrina says reminds her of the park’s rich past.

View of Oakland and San Francisco from Joaquin Miller Park
Man Pikin
View of Oakland and San Francisco from Joaquin Miller Park

“You can see the vast beauty of our lands, the landscape of the Bay Area is laid out in front of you, And you can begin to imagine if you use your mind’s eye, what this place had been for thousands of years.This is a sacred landscape, a landscape where we would be able to, in past years be able to signal out to other tribes across the bay, a place for us to be able to have ceremony at the top of our hills. Because Joaquin Miller is open to the public, many people go there for just that reason still today.”

Like Corrina and Dale, I grew up in Oakland, less than a mile away from this park. They both tell me this feeling of interrelation –between self, community, history, and land–is their dream for all park visitors.

For Corrina, it’s “not just going there as a visitor, but remembering our connection, as this place that we should be a part of. [That] will change us.”

Dale adds, “You bring a child to a park and it's going to change their life. Every child growing up in Oakland should be having an opportunity to come to this park so that they fully understand it's theirs.”

..to feel, as it does for the three of us, like coming home.

I am a researcher and writer from Oakland, CA. I cut my teeth in radio at my college station and since graduating, I’ve worked as a paralegal, arts administrator, maritime historian, and most recently, a fellow at WorldAffairs, a global politics radio show and podcast co-produced with KQED. In my work, I am interested in the intersections of race, climate, and labor rights as well as place-based narratives of marginalization and the relationship between local history, public space, and identity formation, especially among queer and BIPOC communities. I am also passionate about drawing on the performing arts—particularly theater and music—to develop interview/storytelling practices grounded in mutual repair and community-building.