August 19, 2016

The artist Mark Bulwinkle is widely known for his exuberant sculptures in uncoated steel. His signature series in the East Bay Bridge shopping plaza (or, as he calls it, Bulwinkle Plaza) surely gets as many viewers as any work by an Oakland artist. His smaller pieces grace many homes and gardens.

Today Bulwinkle’s studio, Bulwinkleland, is in high West Oakland, but for many years he installed sculptures all over his home on Manila Avenue. Eventually the house was shrouded in a fantastic frizz of welded rusty steel, each bit a piece of artwork, that resembled a giant crouton gone flagrantly moldy. I lived nearby and never tired of it. One day he decided to stop encrusting and start deconstructing. Soon enough the house was ordinary again, then he sold it and moved on.

Left behind were these two works embedded in his neighbors’ driveways: a moon and a star.



These remind me of the dreamlike spectacle the house presented at night, its great fringe of steel branches silhouetted against a moonlit sky, or backlit just as impressively by low Bay clouds.

Land and Water Conservation Fund plaque

August 12, 2016

Land and Water Conservation Fund

This plaque sits discreetly by the entrance to the North Oakland Regional Sports Center at 6900 Broadway, where countless drivers pass on their way to jam up Route 24 or Tunnel Road.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a federal program that redirects offshore oil and gas revenues to other ends. Its website notes that it “was [my emphasis] a bipartisan commitment to safeguard natural areas, water resources and our cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans.” Both of our Senators and 37 of our 53 Representatives signed this year’s “Dear Colleague” letter supporting the program. One of them was a Republican.

This land was acquired and developed using LWCF funds between 1977 and 1985. Let’s assume the plaque was installed in 1985.

Vestiges of Western Union

August 5, 2016


This utility-hole cover sits at the foot of Washington Street where it was placed by the Western Union Telegraph Company. Western Union was once the king of American communications, a colossus like the phone company used to be.

Oakland’s Telegraph Avenue got its name from a telegraph line that once ran up Claremont Canyon over the hills. That wasn’t Western Union’s — the Alta California Telegraph Company built it, in 1859. But soon enough Western Union subsumed Alta California and other local telegraph firms as part of constructing the transcontinental telegraph line in 1861. The story was compelling enough that Hollywood fictionalized Zane Grey’s version of it in the 1941 movie “Western Union,” directed by Fritz Lang and starring Robert Young.

This lid looks like it dates from the early 20th century. Western Union completed its monopoly in 1943 when it acquired the Postal Telegraph company (more on that firm in this post).

How did telegrams work, you ask. You would bring your message to a Western Union office and pay them to transmit it in code over a landline to its destination city, where another Western Union office would decode it, print it out and deliver it by messenger the same day. You paid by the word — and punctuation counted too. If you had to use a period, you paid for the word “stop”.

Today all that seems as lame as classified ads in a newspaper, but once upon a time it was a killer app. Telegrams were still a big deal when I was a child, in the 1950s and 1960s, but the only thing today’s Western Union transmits is money.

Sidewalk Maker: Milan Cvetich

July 29, 2016

As I surveyed Oakland’s sidewalks, I came to be amused by the marks of M. Cvetich for the variety of stamps he used over his career. At first, in 1928, he had this ordinary, understated mark.


At the time, he was listed as Michael Cvetich in the phone book, living and practicing with his wife Annie at 2515 Adeline Street.

In the mid-1930s, he was listed as Mike Cvetich and he used at least three different stamps. Two included his address and phone number.



The third left off the address, and the phone exchange had changed. This was the stamp he stayed with through the 1940s to 1950, the latest date I have from him.


By 1940, he was giving his name as Milan, which I assume was his real name. But eventually he dropped the phone number.


In addition to these basic stamps, he varied in the way he marked the year, sometimes inside the mark and sometime outside, sometimes with the month and day and sometimes not. He wasn’t very consistent. To me that implies a certain playfulness for someone in this exacting line of work.

So now I have to ask, because I don’t know anyone named Cvetich: How is it pronounced? It looks suspiciously like it might sound like “quidditch.”

More on the Great Western Power Company

July 22, 2016


I found another utility-hole cover from the Great Western Power Company at the south end of Ivanhoe Street, where it must have been since the late 1920s. This firm was a bigger deal than I thought last month. (Previous post here)

At its peak, the Great Western network, under the leadership of Mortimer Fleishhacker, extended all the way across California. Starting in 1908, the company dammed the Feather River at Big Meadows to create Lake Almanor reservoir, given its name for Alice, Martha and Elanor — the three children of the company’s vice president, Oakland lawyer Guy Earl.

Lassen Peak and Lake Almanor, 22 September 2006

More dams and turbines were built along the Feather River to generate electricity in a mighty “stairway of power.” The power lines ran from there all the way to Oakland.

The colorful origin story of Great Western in 1905, and the colorful story of how Great Western invaded PG&E’s market in the Santa Rosa region in 1912, are both well told on the Comstock House website.

In another remnant of the once-great firm, the Great Western Power Trail in El Cerrito runs where a substation once supplied electricity to the Hutchinson Quarry (presumably part of the Hutchinson construction empire that left its sidewalk stamps all over Oakland).

I’m thinking that these covers survive in other places outside Oakland.

Odds and ends

July 15, 2016

Here are a few add-ons for some previous posts on Oakland Underfoot.

I found a second variation of the utility-hole covers used by The Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company, predecessor of Pacific Bell, featured in my post of June 17. I’m quite taken with it.


I found another concrete master number used by a member of OPCFIA local 594. As of now that makes 16 different numbers, but I’m sure there are a few more out there. Previous posts are here and here and here.


Finally, I located a fourth sidewalk maker who was a member of the Cement Contractors Association of Alameda County. The other three are here.


My impression is that like the others, this mark dates from the late 1920s.

2016 – Seton Pacific Construction

July 8, 2016


5835 Keith Avenue

There are a bunch of these on Keith Avenue. Seton Pacific appears to have several offices in California; the one with this phone number is in San Francisco. I’ve never seen their marks before, so, welcome to Oakland!

This is the first mark I’ve found from 2016. Each year, I keep an eye out for marks from the new year. Here are the dates when I found my first current-year mark:

2016: 2 July
2015: 10 June
2014: 15 January
2013: 9 November
2012: 22 August
2011: 1 July
2010: 17 September
2009: 6 July

In 2008, the year I began this blog, I didn’t find a mark from the current year until Christmas, and that was an amateur mark. I didn’t find a professional mark from 2008 until June 2015.

This has been your meaningless data set for the week.

While I’m at it, here’s another new date for an old sidewalk maker.

1943 – A. MacDonald


San Pablo Avenue at 29th Street

This post shows why I keep my eyes open even after I’ve finished surveying the whole city. First, there’s always new stuff that was installed after I last came by. And second, sometimes I’d miss a mark, or find it indecipherable the first time. This was probably in the last category.


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