EVERY YEAR, Lake Merritt beckons visitors to its waters and parks. In spring, feathered travelers make the Oakland stop along the Pacific Flyway. In summer, Bard-lovers flock to Duck Pond Meadow.
The lake had been a natural tidal lagoon, a marsh when the tides receded and a saltwater lake when the tides were high. In 1853, a toll bridge the San Antonio Slough, a precursor to 12th Street crossed the creek. In 1869, Oakland Mayor Samuel Merritt, who owned a goodly amount of land in the area, paid out of his own pocket for the 12th Street dam that converted the estuary into an 150-acre lake. Then, according to a California State Coastal Conservancy book, the mayor convinced the state legislature a year later to make Lake Merritt a game refuge and therefore the first state wildlife refuge in the country.
Today, canvasback ducks, Canada geese, black-crowned night herons and other birds make up the fowl populace, which dip into the waters and strut about the 30 acres of parklands. The appeal of this bucolic setting also accounts for the annual return of the Shakespeare Festival. “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” a play written in two weeks to please Queen Elizabeth’s fancy to see Falstaff in love, opens the 2001 season and commemorates the festival’s 10th anniversary in the East Bay city.
Formerly restricted to daytime weekend performances, the shows now include 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday times. Twilight gives way to darkness, lit softly by the necklace of lights that encircle the lake. (The energy crisis has dimmed that background illumination for now, although popular demand might win it a reprieve.) Trees shield the stage and audiences from the frantic urban pace, but the waters to the right provide expansive, shimmering cityscape views. Warm days demand suntan lotion and cool evenings two blankets one to spread out, another to wrap oneself in.
The lake still connects to the Bay. A channel burrows beneath the elevated 12th Street, passes the Henry J. Kaiser Center on 10th Street, heads through the flood control station next to Laney College’s athletic fields and empties into the Bay about a mile south of Jack London Square.
Situated as it is near downtown Oakland, Lakeside Park lies amid many urban conveniences. The festival moved to its later 4 p.m. Sunday time so patrons could listen to the afternoon performances at the 71-year-old band shell, recently renovated. Children’s Fairyland next door allows a family day of puppetry, rides and an afternoon of words. Besides the festival concession, nearby eateries such as the Lake Merritt Bakery and Restaurant locally noted for its gravy and fried chicken offer fare for picnics (you may want to reserve a crumb or two for the ducks and geese, ornery and well-fed as they are). As for public transportation, the 19th Street BART station is about a 30-minute walk. AC Transit buses also drop passengers directly at the park: The No. 12, daytime service only, connects to Lake Merritt BART and No. 58 connects to 12th Street BART.
Despite the surrounding activity, stepping from 21st-century Oakland into 17th-century England is hardly strenuous at all.
Vera H-C Chan
** For more information, call 415-422-2222, www.sfshakes.org