Jefferson Award Winner Helps Restore, Preserve Oakland Landmark

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — An East Bay grandmother hasn’t slowed down in her retirement. In fact, she rolled up her sleeves to save a little known slice of Oakland history.

90-year-old Barbara Newcombe has helped inspire an entire neighborhood into action.

Newcombe was instrumental in starting the Friends of the Cleveland Cascade, an organization dedicated to restoring and maintaining a once beautiful landmark in the heart of Oakland.

“It was in the Italian style, successful,” said Newcombe of the waterfall that once cascaded down a hillside on the northeastern shore of Lake Merritt.

The lighted waterfall surrounded by parallel staircases was built in 1923 by landscape architect Howard Gilkey. But after World War II, this jewel of the neighborhood fell into disrepair.

“There was this place that needed to be given back to the people who could use it, instead of being held prisoner by homeless people, drug dealers and prostitutes,” Newcombe said.

At a neighborhood crime meeting in 2004, the retired librarian helped start the volunteer effort that not only excavated the cascade, but transformed it.

Dang Nguyen has been volunteering here ever since Barbara saw him running the stairs seven years ago.

“It’s community building. You get to meet a lot of folks you would not normally meet under different circumstances,” Nguyen said.

On the first Saturday of every month, volunteers emerge like flowers to pitch in. Steep planting beds have now been stabilized with drought-tolerant plantings. The excavated fountain steps are now marked with irrigated pots. And thanks to public funding from the city, new lighted handrails create a safer environment.

At 90, Barbara still is a fixture here four days a week.

“I can’t control myself, I pick up the paper, I pick up the little things that annoy me, you know, try to keep it looking clean,” Newcombe said.

Volunteer Yoshi Fujimoto is inspired by Barbara’s passion and stamina.

“Sometimes she puts some of us to shame because we are knocked out in a couple of hours on Saturday and she is still going,” Fujimoto said.

Nguyen agreed, saying, “She is an inspiration and I don’t think they make her like they used to.”

For a decade of cultivating a safe and beautiful space in her community, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Barbara Newcombe.

Friends of the Cleveland Cascade would one day like to see the waters running again. But that will depend on future funding.

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