OAKLAND -- With a nod to Earth Day, the tiny urban gem of Cleveland Cascade Park is celebrating its 90th year with a celebration Monday.
A dedicated group of volunteers is hoping they can get a new generation of people invested in keeping up the little park, whose historic waterfall was once buried under dirt.
While the steep hillside park is visible from the path on the shore of Lake Merritt, it can be easily overlooked -- it runs from Merritt Avenue down to Lakeshore Avenue in a continuation of Cleveland Street. Yet the double staircase in tiered layers is a magnet for exercisers, while couples catch the sun from benches amid the flower beds.
But it's a far cry from what the park was just 10 years ago.
"It was obvious we had a big job on our hands," said volunteer park steward Barbara Newcombe.
Newcombe is one of a group of volunteers who in 2004 banded together to work on the park. Under the name of Friends of Cleveland Cascade, they've revived the park while also excavating -- sometimes literally -- it's history.
The exact date when the cascade opened is a little fuzzy, admitted Newcombe, a former newspaper librarian who also happens to be turning 90 this year. She has done extensive research on the cascade but no better date has been found than 1923, the stamp on the concrete sidewalk.
The cascade was designed by once-renowned landscape architect and Oakland city engineer Howard Gilkey. A double set of steps ran up from the base of the park, flanking a channel where water poured down a set of 20 basins, illuminated at night by colored lights.
But by 2004, years of neglect meant not only were the original Italianate features obscured, the park had become a dump and a place where people slept. Newcombe, who has been working on the cascade since the group was founded, was not intimidated. At first, she was just throwing out the bedding of people who were sleeping at the park.
"After about four months of that and some personal confrontations, I guess I discouraged them," Newcombe said.
It was also Newcombe who discovered that the "cascade" in the park's name was a real water feature. It was at the Environmental Design Library at UC Berkeley that she finally found a picture that showed the flowing water that everyone had suspected.
"I let out a yelp. Everybody at the library turned around and smiled at me," she said.
Jim Ratliff was one of the first volunteers to start excavating the stepped channel that held water.
"We did not ask permission, and if we had asked permission it would still be buried," Ratliff said.
While the cascade was the primary feature of the park when it was built, by the 1950s the basins were dry. Newcombe thinks it was in the 1970s that the city finally gave up and filled the concrete basins with rocks and covered the whole thing with dirt and plantings.
The Friends of Cleveland Cascade's hope was for the water to flow again, but financing makes that unlikely to happen soon, Ratliff said. The group estimates up to $2 million would be needed to fix and maintain the fountain.
"It's not something you're going to do with bake sales," Ratliff said.
Some work has been done. In 2005, the city allocated $300,000 for restoration from Measure DD funds, which go to Lake Merritt and estuary restoration projects, for new handrails with lighting and other lighting work. The Friends of Cleveland Cascade raised $100,000 for a master plan for renovation that they donated to the city.
The decorative concrete half-basins that let the water flow and the shell-shaped light covers have been duplicated with a $50,000 grant. But without further funding, the project is stalled.
"They're now sitting in a warehouse in South San Francisco," Ratliff said.
But volunteers continue to weed and clean the park. At the Earth Day birthday celebration, titled "Kids at the Cascade," volunteers will invite families to help sweep, water and discover the park in order to get more people interested in maintaining the unique spot for another generation.
"After 90 years, we still want to keep good care of it," Newcombe said.
For more about the Cleveland Cascade and how to donate or volunteer, see http://clevelandcascade.org.