Putting the ‘Alameda Park’ Name in Context

Putting the ‘Alameda Park’ Name in Context

Jessica Santone

When I joined Alameda Recreation and Parks Department’s Park Naming Committee last summer, I liked the name Alameda Park, which I read online was the park’s original name. Given the name’s popularity and perceived neutrality, I assumed Alameda’s first park was named after the city. It seemed fitting to return to it.

I was wrong, about the park’s history and the name’s neutrality. As a trained historian, I should have known better. But my whiteness was preventing me from seeing the whole truth through the whitewashed mythology of local history. Examining the evidence closely in the context of landscape design history, I hope to help correct some persistent myths.

Contrary to popular belief, the park was not named Alameda Park in 1895 and was not directly named after the city. It is true and not true that it was initially named Alameda Park. It helps to understand the form of the garden square, an English design strategy where a square of homes surround a jointly owned garden. Popular in London in the 1700s-1800s and imported to few US cities, developers used them to expand urban green space and increase property values. By the 19th century, they conveyed exclusivity, with gardens often fenced or hedged.

As enticement to prospective property-owners and to raise lot prices, English immigrant Alfred A. Cohen planned Alameda Park as a garden square. Historian Woody Minor cites San Francisco’s South Park, another garden square, as model, but Cohen was likely already familiar with this form.

Cohen’s story is too complicated to address here, but it’s worth nothing that he took every advantage as a white man of means in the 1800s (his family’s fortune came from investments in a Jamaican plantation, mostly lost when Britain abolished slavery in 1833). Formerly historians might have called him a “self-made man,” but we now see how his achievements were built on exploiting others. The name Alameda Park was related to the city, but only as part of Cohen’s development of the railroad and Alameda Park Hotel — it was about branding, and amassing wealth.

Garden squares were, and still are, typically labeled on maps such that both garden and square have the name. Robert L. Harris’s 1867 “Map of Alameda Park” shows this ambiguity: the green space is labeled Alameda Park, but map title and the amount of detail specifying property lines make clear that this is a map of the residential square called Alameda Park and its garden — not a map of a park.

The park was never officially named Alameda Park, though it was popularly referred to that way, as was typical of square gardens. Court findings regarding 1894 transfer of land to the city say it was, “known as and called ‘Alameda Park,’” citing Harris’s 1867 map.

This is not a formal naming but acknowledges a private name already in use. As further evidence, the May 1909 plan for Jackson Park does not refer to Alameda Park, but describes the streets that border it. If the park had an official name, this document would use it.

Neighbors favoring renaming Jackson Park to “Alameda Park” have often cited the park’s original name as reason, but it’s not so sim¬ple. To name this place Alameda Park now is to honor Cohen and his ambition to make this place exclu¬sive. It would also celebrate the public park’s early history, which was hardly democratic

To understand this, we look again at its landscaping, which in the 1890s followed the City Beautiful movement. The city later expanded this approach with the opening of additional parks in 1909, as Rasheed Shabazz notes (“Did Alameda Name Its First Park ‘Alameda Park?’” Jan. 7), citing a June 1909 article that uses this precise language.

City Beautiful was a turn-of-the-century design strategy respon¬sible for many of America’s urban green spaces, made famous by Daniel Burnham’s White City at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park, Chicago.

Its designers sought to hide evi¬dence of poverty, including immi¬grants and communities of color, and elevate the masses through beautiful design — Beaux-Arts architecture and landscaping that, to borrow Woody Minor’s description of John Becanne’s 1894 design of Alameda Park, “combined formal and picturesque elements.” Picturesque theory proposed that landscaping should recall 18th century European paint-ings, enlightening the masses.

A City Beautiful park meant beautification, but also accultura¬tion. Symmetrical designs and wide lawns added order to dense cit¬ies, but also passively controlled women, immigrants and people of color increasingly using public spaces. Despite its blithe name, City Beautiful design entailed cul¬tural genocide, aiming to eliminate the specificity of residents’ diverse cultural habits; unsurprisingly, many adherents also supported the growing eugenics movement.

In sum, through a history of exclusivity, exploitation and era¬sure, Alameda Park was a monu¬ment to whiteness. We can be grate¬ful today for the park’s open lawns, but we should acknowledge this history. To name this place Alameda Park would erase that history by elevating the name of the garden square, we would deliberately forget the park’s formation and design. Should there be an Alameda Park named to honor the city? Maybe so, but given its history, not this park.

In December, the Parks Commission voted to advance to City Council the name Chochenyo Park, a name supported by a com¬munity-driven process and gifted with permission of Lisjan Ohlone leaders in trust and hope for a more equitable, inclusive future. It is the right name for this park.

Jessica Santone holds a Ph.D. in art history from McGill University. She is an Assistant professor at Cal State University, East Bay.