Watching Barbara Newcombe toil in a garden evokes certain images: Barbara Flowerseed, Sod Goddess, Lady of the Loam, Oakland’s horticulture heroine.
Newcombe is all these things, but, for sure, she is the queen of the Cleveland Cascade, the dried-up waterfall across Lakeshore Boulevard from Lake Merritt.
Next time you’re running or walking up and down the steps of the Cleveland Cascade’s terraced garden, you might notice an 88-year-old lady who’s planting and watering flowers and who also scares off what she calls “rabble-rousers.”
And if you’re wondering why someone who’s nearly 90 is working so hard, well, the city of Oakland isn’t doing all that it can to keep up the Cleveland Cascade. So someone has to take charge.
“I’m a troublemaker,” said Newcombe. “I can’t stand to see a problem that can be easily cured.”
While the city isn’t doing steady gardening at the Cleveland Cascade, it hasn’t completely ignored Newcombe’s octogenarian inspiration. Thus, it’s slowly adding handrails along the Cascade’s steps, while also providing trash containers and tree-pruning.
“It’s not Barbara’s influence,” fellow volunteer David Bolanos said of the city’s occasional interest in the Cascade, “but her bullying.”
Bolanos, 69, is a retired architect who lives, like Newcombe, near the Cascade. He credits her bullying or “ordering people around” for his getting involved.
Newcombe admits to being pushy, but, all kiddingaside, “it’s in a very effective and diplomatic way,” Bolanos pointed out.
The Cleveland Cascade is worth preserving — with or without city assistance — because it’s a magnificent part of Oakland’s past.
Designed by Oakland architect Howard Gilkey, the Cascade was dedicated in 1923 — the year Newcombe was born — and is a sight to behold: Water flowing nonstop down 20 concrete bowls and illuminated at night by varicolored lights.
The Cascade continued in that spectacular form until the 1940s, then fell into neglect and disrepair. The water and lights were shut off sometime in the 1950s and haven’t been turned on since.
Newcombe and Jim Ratliff, starting in 2002, assembled a posse of 20 volunteers to assist in their green-thumb efforts. Newcombe’s thumb is the greener of the two, as Ratliff basically has withdrawn from Cleveland Cascade doings.
“I came in at the beginning,” said Newcombe, a retired newspaper librarian at the Chicago Tribune, “because (the Cleveland Cascade) was obviously a center for minor criminal activity. I had to make sure the resident bums wouldn’t stay around because they made it a smelly, awful place.”
Armed with only a weeder, this little woman entering her 80s succeeded in ridding the Cascade of its bad element without ever feeling threatened.
“Now they know that they’re not welcomed,” she said. “What has happened, families with children now come here who never used to.”
But imagine being confronted by a mother of four, a grandmother of five and Oakland’s 2010 Mother of the Year honoree. Watch out, rabble-rousers!
Newcombe also confronted the weeds and garbage — drug paraphernalia, sex objects, liquor bottles and cans — with vigor, realizing this beautification project would require patience and muscle.
“To bring it back to life again,” she said. “Nature does a great deal. Neighbors bring in a lot of things. Everything works together.”
She doesn’t believe the city will take over maintenance of the Cascade “in my lifetime.” So look for her to be weeding and planting into her 90s.
“This sounds bitter,” said Bolanos, “but, in many ways, Oakland is a dysfunctional city. And I would rather have Barbara taking care of the Cascade then the city of Oakland.”
But Newcombe insists Oakland will need “some kind of a program” to preserve the Cascade after she’s no longer involved. The program she has in mind will cost the city $2 million to restore water at the Cascade.
A pipe dream? Well, water takes pipes.
Dave Newhouse’s columns appear Monday, Thursday and Sunday, usually on the Local page. Know any Good Neighbors? email firstname.lastname@example.org.