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Anonymous artist makes Oakland his gnome town

Thanks to a mysterious man who wanted to do something nice for his neighbors, about 2,300 gnomes now populate Oakland. Until recently, they had pretty much managed to keep their presence a secret.

February 03, 2013|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • A woman walks past a hand-painted gnome and mushroom on a utility pole in Oakland. About 2,300 gnomes with pointy hats and white beards now live in the city. Yet until late last month, they had pretty much managed to keep their presence a secret.
A woman walks past a hand-painted gnome and mushroom on a utility pole in… (Eric Risberg, Associated…)

OAKLAND — This is a story about Oakland.

It has nothing to do with crime, or the rivalry with its flashier sister city across the bay. It's not even about medical marijuana.

This is about gnomes. Gnomes and community.

More than a year ago, a mysterious man wanted to do something nice for his neighbors near Lake Merritt. So he got some small wooden blocks, about 6 inches tall, and painted the fanciful creatures on them. Then he screwed them to wooden utility poles, at sidewalk level.

Some people took notice — the ones who looked down or were close to the ground (i.e., children).

Wonder ensued.

Oaklander David Colburn blogged about the beings, saying they "offer yet another occasion for pointing out how much we miss if all our transit time is spent inside a car."

Emily Colter, of fairyroom.com, observed that gnomes close to the lake wore pants, while those up the hill donned kilts. "The gnomes of Oakland's higher elevations are plainly Highlanders," she wrote last summer.

About 2,300 gnomes with pointy hats and white beards now live in Oakland. One resembles Santa Claus in a monk's robe. Others wave or appear to be doing a little disco dance.

Yet until late last month, they had pretty much managed to keep their presence on the down low. Even Pacific Gas & Electric, whose poles are gnome homes, was unaware of their existence.

Then San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carolyn Jones blew their cover. PG&E spokesman Jason King said he had never noticed them, although he jogs around the lake. Sticking to the company playbook, he told her a crew would be dispatched to remove them.

His exact words: "We can't have anything that would compromise the integrity of our equipment. The concern is that the gnomes could inspire additional people to place things on our property."

A "Save the Lake Merritt Gnomes" Facebook page popped up. Calls poured in. The Twittersphere exploded. Negotiations ensued.

"We saw an opportunity," King said, a gag gift of a foot-tall garden gnome on his desk. "Oakland is such a cool, quirky city.... We were trying to find a way to keep them part of the neighborhood."

A summit with the gnomes' creator took place Tuesday in "a secret mushroom patch in the rose garden near City Hall," said Zac Wald, chief of staff to Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney.

(The artist, whom King described as a "dear man," has insisted on anonymity, saying he was just trying to do something to make residents happy and didn't want the focus to shift to him.)

Wald said the city wants to "keep the gnomes in their existing homes." King said PG&E is open to that, but also hopes residents can come up with gentle ways to relocate them. They could be moved to fence posts, for example, or affixed to benches. Suggestions can be submitted via Facebook or Twitter: #savethegnomes.

For now, "we've declared the poles 'gnome man's land,'" King said.

In a community known for its grass-roots art scene, the phenomenon and the man behind it have been widely embraced.

The artist is cranking out 100 gnomes a week "out of nothing more than love for the positive impact he's having on the community," Wald said. "And I think there are a lot of people working every day for nothing but the love of Oakland and Oaklanders. They are all to be commended.""

Staffers at Fairyland, a storybook theme park that opened in 1950 on the shores of Lake Merritt, are gleeful. The park's credos: no straight lines, and a surprise around every corner.

The gnomes embody the latter.

Shannon Taylor, Fairyland's director of arts and restoration, had designed tiny wooden doors to place around the park even before she came across the gnomes. Now their creator has been invited to place some of the little guys inside the gates.

"We'll have our little doors, and our little gnomes," said Fairyland's executive director, C.J. Hirschfield.

Despite all the recent publicity, some residents in solid gnome territory are surprisingly oblivious to them. One young man in a baseball cap lowered his sunglasses and stared in confusion when his attention was directed downward.

Others hold them dear. Fernando Sanchez, a DJ who wheels an amp around town playing music for strangers, noticed the gnomes as soon as they appeared and has tracked their outfits of varying colors and styles.

"I really love them," he said. "Someone took the time to touch people. Oakland is that way. … Underground .… Equalizing."

lee.romney@latimes.com

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