Artist and landscape designer Walter Hood kicks off Dearing Memorial project with talk on history, landscape, memory

Julie Reichle

Walter Hood at the speakers podium on Nov. 7 in the Alan Harvey Theater

Around one hundred community members, city officials and staff turned out to hear from the internationally renowned artist and landscape designer Walter Hood on Tuesday, Nov. 7 at the Alan Harvey Theater. Hood’s presentation marks the launch of the design phase of the Dearing Memorial project, which was initiated by the City Council in 2022 to honor the memories of Sidney and Irene Dearing, the city’s first Black homeowners. After purchasing a home in Piedmont through an intermediary in 1924, they were subjected to a yearlong campaign of harassment, threats, and violence, including multiple bombs placed at their property. They were ultimately forced to sell their home to the city at a loss under threat of seizure by eminent domain. 

“While what brings us together is collective desire to acknowledge a painful chapter in Piedmont’s history,” said Mayor Jen Cavenaugh. “It is also important to recognize that this is a deeply personal story for members of the Sidney and Irene Dearing family.”

“We are honored to have Dearing family representatives with us tonight. In attendance we have Jordana Jiltonilro, a great-granddaughter of the Dearings. Siblings Joseph, Margot, and Merryl Dashiell are also with us. Their grandmother was Sidney Dearing’s first cousin. The City appreciates the opportunity to collaborate with Jordana, Joseph, Margot, Merryl, Tiffany McCoy, and Robert Price on this important project,” said Cavenaugh.

Over the the last year, a subcommittee of the Park Commission engaged in a series of facilitated conversations with relatives of Sidney and Irene Dearing and community members. This work grew into a set of guiding principles, including a request from the family that the memorial should not be limited to the injustice Sidney and Irene Dearing experienced in Piedmont, but also reflect their lives and accomplishments outside of and in spite of this tragedy. Additionally, the guiding principles ask that the memorial be created by a local Black artist. The city engaged Hood’s firm, Oakland-based Hood Design Studio, to design a memorial for Sidney and Irene Dearing, which will be located in Triangle Park at the intersection of Magnolia and Wildwood Avenues, near the home they once owned.

Mayor Jen Cavanaugh introduces landscape architect Walter Hood.

Hood — whose firm typically takes on larger-scale projects around the country — said the Piedmont project piqued his team’s interest as they learned more about the history of the Dearing family. Recovering lost voices is in the firm’s DNA; its ethos, Hood says, focuses on environmental justice, memory and history, and “embracing the strange.” Hood is originally from North Carolina but his design firm has been located in West Oakland since 1992. He is is the head of UC Berkeley’s Department of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning and the recipient of a 2019 MacArthur Fellowship, among many other accolades.

Hood shared examples of his studio’s work to illustrate how he and his team conceive of ways to surface hidden histories/erased memories. Projects where “joy and sorrow can coexist” are hallmarks of his work, visible in spaces as varied as the African Ancestors Memorial Garden surrounding the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina; a “Curtain of Courage” memorial to victims of a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, and a sweeping landscape design artwork for the 2023 Venice Biennale that incorporated elements of the enslaved Gullah Geechee people, Italian art, and native plant materials.

Walter Hood discusses his design for the Three Trees: Jackson, Obama, Washington for the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial

Local projects include the de Young Museum gardens in Golden Gate Park, the recent Oakland Museum of California gardens redesign, and Splash Pad Park in Oakland’s Grand Lake neighborhood.

Next steps

Hood Design Studio will work with members of the Dearing family and a Technical Advisory Committee to develop designs for a memorial. Two preliminary design concepts including an illustrative plan and eye-level perspective drawings will be shared publicly, with an opportunity for all community members to share feedback that will inform the final design. The City hopes to begin construction of the memorial in Spring 2024.

The reception following the Walter Hood presentation.
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