On November 15th, 2022 California College of the Arts will hold a ground breaking ceremony for the San Francisco campus expansion over an Ohlone shellmound (named “Project Double Ground”) During legally required archaeological testing on the backlot of the SF campus, CCA discovered fragments of shells, bones and tools located 40 feet below the surface in the bore samples. The samples identify Ohlone activity before the Bay Area was violently colonized dating back more than 7,500 years.
– Hold CCA accountable for building over an Ohlone shellmound (change.org)
A few days a week I work programming websites on Irwin Street across from the California College of the Arts. It is a jovial office of designers who produce very good work. Across from the office, on November 15, 2022, CCA held a ground breaking ceremony for a new campus extension, but this was all simply pomp and circumstance as they have been digging, flattening and scraping the ground for many months on land that last year was a parking lot. You see large equipment that looks like pile drivers (not looking forward to when that gets started) and the area has been flattened and groomed for construction. We all looked out from the second story windows for a few minutes to take in the special event. It was a bright crisp autumn day.
What Really Went Down
Irwin Street, like Wisconsin Street nearby is often a place were the unhoused put up tents and hunker down surrounded always by a strange assortment of personal belongings. A week before the ground breaking ceremony, about a dozen police officers and social workers who do homelessness outreach started clearing out the tents and unhoused folks. It was a major operation complete with bobtail trucks to haul away the stuff. Word had it that they were taking them to a hotel – hot showers and some fresh clothes, a fresh start to life perhaps. I do hope that they find their legs, as it must be a drag to camp night after night on the sordid streets at the base of Potrero Hill..
The following week on November 15th, 2022, Irwin Street, outside the California College of the Arts, was once again closed off. This time there were white canopy style event tents and various tables, chairs organized in rows, a lectern and about a half dozen people milling around. It all began to make sense. You cannot have a ground breaking ceremony next to a homeless encampment – it is just not a good look. The largest canopy faced the new campus extension and there was a lectern. It looked like a set up for a wedding or maybe some sort of graduation ceremony. Caterers were nowhere to be found. Food would not be part of this celebration. The sidewalk where the homeless were was all clear and smelled of bleach.
In the middle of the day, about a hundred people gathered. From our second floor window, we heard speeches which we could not make out. On the periphery there were protesters holding professionally printed signs that said “SHELL MOUND.” They stood and listened and were entirely peaceful. A few round of applauses, more speeches and then a multi-racial and multi-gendered New Orleans style second-line style brass band came marching out of the main CCA building playing a joyous tune. They marched around the crowd and played for about five minutes then returned to the main California College of the Arts building from whence they came. It was all a bit surreal and felt a bit odd. Mercenary horn players are always easy hires for well-paid five minute gigs. The band was indeed very good.
Then you had applauses and the whole thing was over, people mingled for a bit and then the staff started taking down the canopy tents and packing away the chairs.
ORDER OF EVENTS
(For those wanting to do a ground-breaking ceremony on native grounds in San Francisco)
STEP 1: Clear out the homeless encampments the week before.
STEP 2: On the day of the ceremony set up tents and chairs.
STEP 3: Give speeches and thank people. (Not sure what they said about the history of the spot)
STEP 4: Hire a New Orleans style second-line style brass band to make everyone feel better about the whole shebang. Have the band march around to spread the joy.
Who are the Ohlone?
Ohlone is a collective of around 50 separate tribes with related languages that were collectively placed under the umbrella term: Ohlone. The Ohlone are Native American people located in the Northern California Coast, tribes inhabited areas from the coast of San Francisco through Monterey Bay to lower Salinas Valley. The Ohlone family of tribes have been living in the Bay Area for 10,000 years
San Francisco is Ohlone land and over the last 300 years has been completely transformed. It would be amazing to go back in time 300 years and stand at what now is Irwin and 7th Street and just look around. You probably would need a canoe. According to a map from 1853, Mission Creek flowed into the San Francisco Bay (see map above) and the area was probably wetlands and underwater. Humans have completely changed the geography of San Francisco, filling in the bay, making more space for development. This has been going on for hundreds of years. It is Western Civilization’s obsession with conquering, not living in harmony with nature. We see this same ethos today with notion that we must “fight climate change.” Sunrise on Mission Bay must have been a sight with certainly a lot of wildlife and from early accounts huge flocks of birds.
Where the California College of the Arts new extension building is being built is along 7th Street and towering above is Interstate 280. If the Ohlone time-traveled to today, and attended the ceremony they probably would not recognize anything and many would probably be perplexed and perhaps terrified of the brass band. However, that the area in question, the Shell Mound is now the place for an Art School is probably a good thing. It could have been turned into unsold luxury condos, an IKEA or perhaps a headquarters for some tech company with the latest get-rich scheme. Maybe one day the California College of the Arts will make a plaque to acknowledge the Ohlone and their history. Perhaps, a student looking for meaning to their art will stumble upon the Ohlone basket tradition and incorporate the designs and ideas into their work. But one thing is always true. When you are feeling down and out, and perhaps need to smooth over a tricky political situation, or simply want to feel good about something – anything, simply hire a second line brass band. They even do funerals.
EDITED 11/22/2022 – Added images and updated some text for clarity. Fixed typos. Map composite an approximation.