Emeryville replaces historic shellmound with street mall

By Mary Spicuzza, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday March 16, 2002

Emeryville Vice-Mayor Nora Davis sat on the steps of City Hall on a recent Sunday morning and offered a preview of the city’s efforts to honor a Native American shellmound as it replaces it with a modern development.  

“They beat Emeryville to that whole mixed-use idea,” Davis said of the Ohlone and their ancestors. “Bay Street will be a gathering place very similar to the use by the Native Americans.” 

Much like Native Americans once gathered at the Emeryville Shellmound to exchange goods, she said, Bay Area residents will come together at Bay Street to shop — at stores like Banana Republic, Gap, Pottery Barn and Victoria’s Secret. But while Native Americans relied mainly on a shellfish diet, modern shoppers will have restaurants like Pasta Pomodoro and Prego to choose from. 

This may sound like an unlikely comparison. But at least, residents will soon get to learn more about what the $400 million Bay Street project replaced. Next month the city will launch a Web site devoted to the shellmound. It will feature a much-awaited report about what archeologists found there, and include educational Web pages for children and adults. 

The battle over the plans for the Bay Street project, a combination shopping center, 12-screen movie theater and condominiums, began in 1999 when the city found human remains while digging a pit to keep toxics in the soil from washing into the Bay.  

Most thought years of industrial use, toxic contamination, and a brief stint as an amusement park had destroyed what was left of the mound, but when the burials were discovered Native Americans, conservation activists, and archeologists started packing city council meetings to protest destruction of the site.  

The number of burials found recently still remains a mystery. 

"We did find a lot of intact burials," said Oakland archeologist Sally Salzman Morgan, who was hired by Emeryville to study the site. "It’s too inflammatory to say how many there were. But most (burials) were disturbed." 

Morgan, who works for Oakland-based URS Corporation, said she found artifacts, animal bones, and tools in addition to human burials. But dangerous toxic waste made for serious problems at the shellmound, she said. 

"I do think the city did the right thing," Morgan said. "People have to understand that time marches on." 

Emeryville may face criticism from those who say they did the Ohlone wrong. But city staff said when the shopping center opens next to Ikea this fall, it will honor the Native Americans who once lived, died, and remain buried at the site. 

The city and developers from Madison Marquette are now planning exactly how they will celebrate the past as they move on the future. DeeDee Taft, a project spokeswoman who works for Tiburon-based Spin Communications, said Bay Street developers are committed to "commemorating the cultural and natural history of the Emeryville site."  

Taft declined to provide details because developers haven’t made any final decisions about commemoration plans. But in an emailed statement, Taft said Bay Street will feature sculptures, artwork, and a community room with Native American exhibits and artifacts. 

Lynn Tracy Nerland, assistant city attorney for Emeryville, said a commemoration committee has discussed a "water feature" to honor nearby Temescal Creek, and possibly an open model of a Native American-inspired home, know as a ghost structure. 

"They may do a ghost structure," Nerland said. "But they don’t want to call it that." 

Several streets in the project may have Ohlone-inspired names. 

Nevertheless, Native American activists and advocates say the city should have done more to preserve the shellmound, or at least a portion of it. 

"Why look at the Taliban when you can look at the Emeryville City Council?" said Perry Matlock, who has volunteered with the International Indian Treaty Council for 10 years. He compares building over the shellmound site to the recent destruction of Buddha statues in Afghanistan. "They’re both destroying cultural resources." 

Matlock, who’s grandmother was a Chippewa Indian, began working with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Society to protest development. He calls the developer’s commemoration plans "pathetic."  

"I’m very disappointed that Emeryville decided to destroy its most precious resource," said Stephanie Manning of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Society. She said the worst part was the pile drivers, which she could hear from her West Berkeley home. "It’s going to make me sick to think of those mothers and babies buried there, with those piles driven through them." 

Emeryville said any remains excavated during construction are being treated respectfully, and will be reburied near the shopping center.  

But Rosemary Cambra, tribal chair of the Muwekma Ohlone, calls the city’s new, culturally-sensitive development the legally-permitted erasing of a culture. 

"We’re still living in the world of politics of erasure," Cambra said. "It’s just an old way of racism. Nothing has really changed for tribal groups in the Bay Area." 

Vice-Mayor Nora Davis said the emotional attachment people have to the land makes it impossible to please everyone. And that becomes quickly apparent while Bay Street opponents talk passionately about the importance of the site. 

"There is no question," said long-time Oakland archeologist Allen Pastron, who quit the project after a few weeks. "Even the remnant of the Emeryville Shellmound that I saw had to be one of the most significant, if not the most significant, archeological site in the Bay Area. If not all of Northern California."  

Pastron said thousands of bodies, and hundreds of artifacts, were buried at the site over the 2,500 years Native Americans lived there, making it one of the oldest mounds and "crucial to understanding early cultures in California." 

"The portion of the shellmound that I saw in 1999 was a large intact remnant of that," he said. He urged the city to delay construction for several months, but they refused. 

Archeologists already removed more than 700 burials during excavations in the early 1900s. Despite early archeologists, and the lead, arsenic and DDT that leached into the soil from paint and pesticide factories on the project, some burials remained. He acknowledged that toxic contamination was a problem, but said Emeryville used it as an excuse to avoid dealing with an important cultural resource. 

Kent Lightfoot, a UC Berkeley anthropology professor, agreed that development has quickly destroyed most of the areas more than 400 sites. So fast, he said, there hasn’t been enough time to understand them before they’re gone. 

"They have a great significance with Native peoples," he said. "but we still know very little about them."