Cypress Memorial Park

on January 1, 2019

Three metal ladders shoot out of the ground at Cypress Memorial Park in West Oakland. They stand as a monument to the Loma Prieta Earthquake that shook the entire Bay Area on October 17, 1989. Ladders like these were used that fateful day to rescue people trapped on the collapsed Cypress freeway.

For such an unforgettable display of nature’s fury, the park is small and intimate. It’s nestled at the corner of 14th Street and Mandela Parkway, and easy to miss. There is no one on the streets this morning except for a homeless man relaxing under the shade of oak trees in the park.

The towering oaks’ shadow covers a large metallic sign hanging on a concrete wall. It reads “15 seconds,” which is how long the mighty quake shook the earth. In those 15 seconds, numerous structures crumbled, and countless people fell in utter disbelief.  A medium-sized placard detailing all of this information is placed right next to the sign. Like the rest of the memorial, it’s easy to miss.

The curvy ladders are the main attraction. There is a graffiti tag placed high up the middle one. It says MRDR, possibly a shorthand version of “murder.” Underneath the same ladder is a lone pink flower. It stands out amidst the patchy grass engulfing it.

Large rings etched into the concrete floor surround the ladders. Along the outer ring, quotes are carved into the ground. Each quote fragment is six feet apart, requiring the reader to take a lap around the ladders to read it. “When the quake stopped, a rain of concrete dust obscured everything.” Six feet away: “The smell of lime from the crushed concrete was overpowering.” Damn.

On the ride back to Berkeley, my Uber driver Rey asked me what I was doing in that part of town. I said I was visiting the memorial, and he told me he was 26 years old   and a mail delivery driver when the quake hit. He had just gotten off a bridge when those 15 seconds of shaking caused parts of the bridge to fall apart. Rey has never forgotten that day. Thanks to Cypress Memorial Park, hopefully no one ever will.

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