I am a long time Oakland resident and one of my favorite places not just in the Bay Area, but in the world, is Mountain View Cemetery on Piedmont Avenue. I have walked the breathtakingly beautiful grounds – if you’ve been there you know what I’m talking about – several days a week for the last 20+ years. In fact I love the place so much that when my parents died in 2004 and 2006 I bought a plot there for them and buried them behind the Gothic Chapel under a beautiful redwood grove. Since then I have found it extremely comforting to go there and walk my dogs, breath the air and enjoy the sweeping views of the bay while multitasking by feeling close to my parents at the same time. I never imagined that the cemetery grounds, which feel so much like the crown jewel of Oakland as well as a huge part of California history, would ever be taken away from me. But sadly they have.
Back in March of 2020 when California experienced an unprecedented shelter in place order, the one respite we had from being told to remain at home at all times and have no social contact with people outside of our households was that we could, in the name of sanity and physical fitness, take part in some outdoor activities like going for socially distanced, masked walks, bike rides or runs. Relieved that I could still walk my dogs and retain some semblance of normalcy and routine by visiting the cemetery without breaking the rules, I was shocked and horrified that first day when I found the usually serene grounds absolutely crawling with people. The wide main road that runs from the entrance up to the top was choked with people. The meandering side roads were the same. Trash cans were overflowing. There was nowhere to park. Large and small groups of people were gathered, some walking, some picnicking, many stepping all over the graves. It was upsetting, but not as upsetting as what followed.
A few days later the cemetery shut its gates. When I called them about the closure they initially said that they were closing for safety reasons and would reopen as soon as Alameda County moved into a less restricted tier. That was a year ago and they still remain closed to this day. Over the months I called to check in as to why they were still closed even though our tier did in fact change and restrictions were in fact loosened, but they did not budge. They still claimed safety reasons, but now their tone had grown a bit snippy, and a short tempered “we’re not a park” awaited anyone who pressed for more information.
After feeling really alone in my outrage and sadness for many months, I finally saw an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. The Chronicle has done many articles about Mountain View Cemetery in the past, touting it as a must-visit Bay Area destination, and listing the many famous and important California figures who now rest there. But this one was a little different. It was asking the same question that I had been going over and over again in my mind – why were they still closed? The Chronicle suggested that perhaps something more sinister was behind the closure, like an ongoing beef with the City of Oakland over construction in parts of the cemetery grounds. It seems as though there was some un-permitted construction going on and they had been caught. Did members of the public blow the whistle, and could this be the reason they shut their gates?
The Mountain View management finally broke their silence after the Chronicle article and posted a somewhat bizarre, argumentative and accusatory “essay” on their website. In it they painted themselves as victims and disputed the claim that the cemetery was designed to be enjoyed as a public space, which is pretty hard to swallow as it was designed by the same architect as Central Park in New York. They also accused the public of abusing cemetery grounds by leaving trash, drinking alcohol and letting their dogs run amuck, among other transgressions. But what is most interesting, or perhaps troubling about this essay, is that it ends by suggesting that if the public wants access to their beloved cemetery again, then the public needs to pressure the City of Oakland to drop the charges, so to speak, against them for the illegal construction they got up to.
Please believe me when I say that Mountain View Cemetery is part of the soul of Oakland, and there are a great many people here who consider it a true jewel. I would like to see more public discussion about what is going on here and also more public pressure in the hopes that the grounds will open to the public again. We’ve just been approved for indoor dining and movie theaters, so this closure remains a strange and sad situation that I believe needs public scrutiny to be righted.