What Happened to Jungle Hill?

by Diane Harrigan

Many only know Jungle Hill as the site of tragedy, where the body of 11-year old Jaquita Mack was discovered in 1999. But this May, when her convicted killer was sentenced to death by an Alameda County jury, we returned to the hillside between Ransom and Santa Rita Streets to visit her memorial. Gazing out over the one-acre landscape fallen to neglect and graffiti, we wondered what happened to this historic site of community collaboration that once drew so much attention for its beauty and luster.

If Jungle Hill had a voice, it would tell of visits by dignitaries and community collaborations still highlighted in textbooks. You'd know hundreds of people toiled here to put in native plants and trees and join hands in a groundbreaking project that put Upper Fruitvale on the map.

"For a brief shining moment, it [Jungle Hill] was a gem," says neighbor Michael Conkin.

The momentum began in the late 1970s, when neighbors joined to turn Jungle Hill into one of Oakland's first community land trusts.

"We were one of the early inner-city projects of this type," says Regina Chavarin, one of the incorporators of the Santa Rita Land Trust. "What happened initially is it [Jungle Hill] had to be stabilized."

For years landslides plagued the site, spilling mud onto the streets below. In the 1930s a handful of homes literally slid off their foundations.

As documented by former MacArthur Metro writer Kris Wagner, "Neighbors worked to save the land as open space in the 1970s by forming the land trust." Trees were planted, and then-Governor Jerry Brown showed up on Arbor Day 1978. Energy waned in the mid-1980s, but a decade later a shining light emerged.

"The Oakland Museum made all of the difference for us," says Tina Gray, former treasurer of the trust. The museum adopted the hill. There was community organizing, children's programs, and an environmental education project that became a museum exhibit. The story, documented by teenage interns, can be found at www.museumca.org/ourland.

By 1996 Americorps workers, Permaculture Design students, and the East Bay Urban Gardeners (EBUG) cut a switchback trail around hardy perennials. There were barbecues and Easter-egg hunts, and the community brought in a flock of goats to eat weeds and entertain the children.

"We painted a really nice mural. The kids painted it, and everyone painted what they wanted," said Gray.

Eventually the land trust dissolved, and the Oakland Parks and Recreation Department took over Jungle Hill. Many hoped the torch would be passed on to new generation of volunteers. But there were too few. The Department could only coordinate minimal maintenance occasional mowing and garbage removal.

Last summer neighbors discovered that neglect led to an aggressive parasitic plant that killed a pepper tree, two oak trees, and a cherry plum tree.

"The parasite [Japanese dodder] jumped from Jungle Hill to the house down the street," said landscaper Eddie Corcino. "It sucked the life out of them. It was unreal."

Corcino worked to get it cleaned up, and he is one of the few who sees a seed of hope in revitalizing Jungle Hill.

"That hill has a lot of potential. You can see a beautiful sunset from there," he said.

No one we spoke to blames the city for the now-deteriorating landscape; they blame lack ofcommunity interest. But Corcino believes a miracle could happen with a few as 20 volunteers.

"In a month and a half it could be restored," he said.

"I do have hope that one day another group of people will get involved, and new ideas will come in," said Chavarin.

Ironically, this starting ground of environmental education is still documented as a community success story, even though it no longer resembles one. Perhaps someday the backdrop to what serves as a touching memorial honoring a young life lost will be restored to its luster.

Ed. note: You can find past stories on Jungle Hill at www.macarthurmetro.org.