A draft excerpt from "How America Can Bike And Grow Rich, The NBG Manifesto"
Larry, the police officers and myself ran through the route we would be taking and how the one mile ride to Lake Merritt would be structured. There was my group made up of a dozen HiWheel bicycles, Larry’s kids, probably seven in all, and the three other adult chaperones who had come with them. I would lead the group as I followed one of the bicycle police. The other bike cop would follow up the rear. As we went through our short overview, I could see that the kids were busy asking Don, Max, Skot and Andrew questions about their bikes, Being city bred, they obviously had not seen a touring cyclist before either.
<dialogue about NBG>
Up ahead we could see Lake Merritt. A sparkling jewel set in the middle of Oakland, it is, in what is a little known fact today, America’s first National wildlife refuge protecting more than 90 species of migrating waterfowl. In1869 when a tidal slough that drained into the Bay was dammed up to create this 145-acre body of salt water, such a designation was required to protect the flocks and flocks of migratory birds from the hunters who had begun to see them as easy prey. Now home to innumerable herons, egrets, geese and ducks, this true urban miracle is surrounded by parks, homes, businesses, even a Children’s Fairyland.
We stopped near a small path that led down to the lake. While a couple of the HiWheel riders leaned on trees or poles, most of us jumped off our bikes.
The kids all looked amazed.
“We were wondering how you guys get off those things. Pretty impressive,” observed one of the bicycle policeman Continuing he said, “Well fellas, you have a fun ride. This is where we let you off. We’ll see you again in an hour. Martin knows where we’ll meet you.”
Soon we were pedaling on the path. three and a half miles in length that surrounded the lake.
“I remember when I was a kid in the 60’s sitting over there and watching drag boat races with my parents,” I said as I pointed to a grassy area where the lake spread out below stately apartment buildings that were fed by long staircases. “The used to come once a year but by 1970 or so, too many people were getting killed, I think, so they stopped ‘em. I can’t believe that’s what it took. Man I can’t believe they ever allowed that to begin with.” I shook my head in disgust as just then a giant white bird with huge wings landed in the water right next to us.
“I agree, I wonder how those neighbors put up with the noise,” Don said as he kept his camera trained on me.
“Man we’ve come a long way. As I think about it, there were drag boat races everywhere back then. You know that estuary by Jack London square where the Ferry used to let us off when we came in from San Francisco?” Not waiting for an answer, I continued, “they used to have them in another little inlet about a mile down where it rejoined the Bay. Talk about unconscious, they also had this major garbage dump there and they also were dredging the little mimi bay for fill so they could build even more homes in Alameda. And then you know that lake that we see when we cross over the freeway when we rode from Berkeley? That used to be a full on water ski park. Talk about noise and more oil and exhaust fumes and a lot of it ending up in the water...”
“Well I don’t think people mean to be harmful, they just don’t know. And as they learn they start making smarter choices. That’s kind of how I see our ride this summer, we’ve just been reminding people there are options,” said Don, as he slowly swept around the lake with his video camera.
Looking out on calm, tranquil waters that were sparsely populated with wind and human powered boats, it is this beautiful setting and resulting peace that Oaklanders still use to escape the stress of city life even today. But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, by 1890, in only the thirty years after Mayor Samuel Merritt had ordered a dam be built at 12th street, that the lake that resulted had turned into a murky, smelly mess few wanted to be near. Brought about by pollution from the large, gracious homes that soon surrounded it, the watery wasteland seemed to have died.
There was even a lot of talk about filling it in. Talk which grew increasingly serious when it was discovered that railroad baron and university founder, Leland Stanford, owned the land that had been submerged. He even considered using the land for a railroad station. However, when he talked his partner into their donating the land to the city so that it could build a park on its shores instead, a new vitality was given to the lake.
On weekends, the path we were riding on, marked by the occasional business person out for a stroll, would normally be filled with walkers and joggers. While if the sun was out, every kind of people powered watercraft would be visible. While there were a few of them to be seen today, if it had not been a work day, kayaks, canoes, windsurfers, miniature sailboats, pedal boats and even Venetian gondolas would be turning these waters into a shimmering playground that glistened under the wide open sky.
What a setting for a bike race I thought as I reflected back on the Columbus Day races that used to encircle this epic setting. Put on by the legendary Peter Rich who still owns Velo Sport in Berkeley, one of the nations oldest and most revered bike shops, the bike contests ran from 1956 to 1978. Barely noticed, they took place at a time when bike racing in America did not have the benefit of television or corporate sponsorship that it enjoys today.
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