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Ridgelands! The Closing of a Frontier

Sherman Lewis, 487 pages, 2021, large format, many color photos, Hayward California.
Hard copy: On Amazon, search for “Ridgelands! The Closing” $57.07
PDF: Go to play.google.com/store/books. Search for “Ridgelands!” Click on “Free sample.” Scroll down to see pages. $20

Note from the Author

This book has too many facts. It has many great stories, so the reader should skim through all the tedious details about meeting after meeting. The author wants you to know the full story and to show that he knows what he is talking about, so it may be good for you to read it all, but you don’t have to.

The book covers a great diversity of topics, revealing the complexity of cultural history over 60 years as the area shifted from suburbanization to preservation. The subtitle, “Closing of a Frontier,” is used ironically to contrast with Fredrick Turner’s famous history on the closing of the frontier in the American west, where he meant running out of land for settlement. Ridgelands! is about closing a frontier by stopping settlement. Most of the area described in the text, 26 square miles, are now permanent open space.

Ridgelands! is not written in an academic style and has terrible footnotes. The conversational, readable, and often compelling narrative interweaves many kinds of history, with exposition followed by analytical insights relevant for history in general. Topics include values and ideology, advocacy campaigns, elections, environmentalists, locals, local government, laws, litigators, courts, staff, and above all the complex interaction of many characters over time. The book has many maps, tables, and other graphics.

Compared to The Sunset Limited, Dick Orsi’s great social history of the Southern Pacific, Ridgelands! covers a smaller area at a more personal level, personal accounts of how the actors came to be motivated. The author had reasonably good access to his protagonist, himself, and interviewed others. Such deep roots of behavior are often left out of histories and are interesting and important. The Sunset Limited has more pages but in a smaller format, while Ridgelands! is in a big format to do justice to the many beautiful photographs of, well, ridgelands. Also, my book is a lot heavier.

Review by Linda Ivey

Professor of History, California State University East Bay, May 2021

Lewis’ book joins a body of wonderfully detailed local histories, self-published and semi-autobiographical in nature, that are invaluable records of real people and moments in a community’s past. This story is rooted in the influx of population to the East Bay in the years following World War II, along with the zeal to develop housing and infrastructure. But situated in a naturally stunning and political active part of the country, the Ridgelands! story is a historically significant chronicle of competing cultures of settlement and civic goals. So, while in one sense has Lewis provides an encyclopedic overview of the politics of land use in Hayward and Pleasanton, CA, he ultimately has delivered a personalized story of a community of activists, and the journey they shared in a very specific moment of environmental activism in an urbanizing, and suburbanizing, place.

At the mid-20th century, the Hayward/Pleasanton regional area covered in Ridgelands! (along the San Francisco Bay shoreline south of Oakland) was transitioning from what was a largely agricultural area before the war. As in much of the greater Bay Area, WWII had brought industry and significant demographic change. In response to the rapidly growing population, local governments tapped into a national impulse to improve infrastructure and shore up American communities for prosperity (not to mention shield them from potential Cold War instability). Like many communities at this time, Hayward and Pleasanton developed general plans that became the platform from which struggles over land use emerged: each step of approving roadways, water supply systems, agricultural plans, utilities, business development and parks was a complicated and thoroughly debated process. Lewis guides us through the various plans for the region’s expansion up through the current day, sharing the ideas lost to history as well as the successful ones. In each case, he describes the ecological, economic and political facets that shaped civic discourse. And while the city leadership in the region did not appear to be single-mindedly advocating to bulldoze the countryside, conflicts between city and local environmental coalitions were intense.

To be sure, in the pages of Ridgelands! specific players are singled out as foil, perhaps to be expected in this personally relayed narrative. In one point of the text, the author himself is called out for “dirty politics” (almost quaint in a 2021 context!) in promoting a particular group of pro-open space candidates in the local elections. The sentiments in play were not just political – but cultural, reminding the reader of the significant cultural meanings attached to land and nature. Lewis’ book was surely a labor of love – the author is a self-proclaimed environmentalist and open-space advocate, with a long personal history of involvement in such local politics. He writes through a John Muir-adoration of the untrammeled and these sentiments are throughout the chronicle of this fight for open space. The author’s perspective on open space is specific – greenspace is not found on the 7000+ yard championship golf course currently gracing the Hayward hills, nor the playgrounds or planned urban parks. Rather, it is the land left undeveloped, unmanipulated by human imprint and culture.

Lewis’ narrative is engaging due to obvious passion behind the words, but also funny, at times snide, immersive storytelling. The story of fighting off the gobbling up of open space is an emotional one – where the participants within the pages are thankful for their victories and crushed by the losses they can never reverse.

Lewis treats us to a chronicle of work – those who fought without glory or compensation for the benefit of the land. They took on local politicians who did not necessarily have opposing views, but rather at times different priorities, making each struggle personal and thorny. Perhaps the most valuable take-away from Ridgelands! is seeing up close the struggle, found in conversations on what constitutes appropriate use, as to how to navigate diverse perspectives, potential benefits and communities served. Regardless of the competing visions for the future, ultimately Lewis and his compatriots were desperately trying to slow progress to, at the very least, reflect a measured, thoughtful pace. Is this a traditional scholarly history? No. But I have no doubt that someday a scholar researching the local politics of development and land use will find a treasure in these pages: frank and engaging prose, rife with personal insight, experience, and passion, telling the story of some people and their place.

Comments by Protagonists

Comments from many of the advocates reported in Ridgelands! who attended a celebration luncheon on June 19, 2021, at the Chouinard Winery.

We didn’t start off as leaders–we just saw the need to do something about a place we cared deeply about. We were environmentalists, local residents, local elected officials, Greenbelt Alliance staff, employees of East Bay Parks, and lawyers. We learned as we went. We did what we could, squeezing out the time. We were doing it for the public good, for what we felt people wanted and would enrich their lives. People, given a chance could vote our way-and they did, and it mattered. Voters were the confirmation of months and years of work. Reading the book not only brought back memories, but oddly enough we learned much more about everything else going on before, during, and after what we were doing. We got to relive and appreciate our own stories, great stories, and we now commend them to others. You can Iearn from us and go out and make a difference. Be sure to enjoy the beautiful photographs of ridgelands which inspired us and many others. The land is there today, owned and protected for all to enjoy, 26 square miles of parkland and many miles of trails.

Signed by Mark Evanoff, Janet McBride, Ann Wieskamp, Jerry Kent, Larry Orman, Michael Sweeney, Zach Cowan, Becky Dennis, Leonardo Bowers, Glenn Kirby, John Woodbury, and Dennis Waespi.