Sidewalk Flowers by Violet Ross

As people see my photographs, I think it is important to know that San Pablo Avenue is not known for its nature. The avenue runs through a major portion of the East San Francisco Bay Area from Oakland to Hercules, consisting of commercial businesses and densely populated residential areas. Yet the natural landscape is what has formed, and continues to shape, the avenue. For instance, the location of Strawberry Creek was a major part of why UC Berkeley was built where it was. And then there is the nature that’s not really natural along San Pablo Avenue, or in California generally, such as eucalyptus trees, wild turkey, and even pigeons. It is not always obviously apparent how the land shapes us and how we shape it, but this relationship is what has made San Pablo Avenue the road it is today.

While San Pablo Avenue itself does not have many natural spaces, in every neighborhood we walked through from it, we found them. We spent time at Lake Merritt in Oakland, a residential park in Emeryville, Strawberry Creek Park in West Berkeley, Albany Hill Park in Albany, the Miraflores Greenbelt in El Cerrito, Alvarado Park in Richmond, and Fernandez Park in Pinole. I had not even realized the number of parks we visited until I went through Google Maps locating where I took my photos. I originally looked through my series, priding myself on finding pockets of nature in the building-packed and traffic-heavy space that is San Pablo Avenue. Yet, determining the location of my favorite photos made me see how they were actually from places where nature was intentionally accessible. There were shots I liked where I had looked up at a tree as cars flew past me, but I found these were exceptions.

Discovering that the majority of my favorite photos of nature were from parks rather than busy streets caused me to reflect on my personal experiences in these environments. I thought of how sweet it felt to see a yellow flower blooming from a crack in the sidewalk or a field of orange poppies along the BART train tracks. I remembered walking with a classmate and admiring people’s lawns where wildflowers grow over everything, fully messy but in control. Yet, there is something different about my memories of our walks in busy spaces where plants brought me momentary peace compared to feeling more fully at ease in parks. At Alvarado Park I almost fell asleep on a park table basking in the sun. Afterwards, I sat by a stream where I could see the way light touched the ground below the water and sparkled on the surface. I think these personal experiences might show the difference in nature appearing solely through brief accidents compared to being purposely made available to everyone.

Though my experiences with chance encounters versus intentional meetups with nature is an idea I observed, it is not what I communicate through my series. During our walks, I simply set out to take photos of anything that made me happy or curious. I think this resulted in all the places we saw feeling more similar than they truly are. My series does not capture the obvious wealth inequalities, issues relating to gentrification, or any of the people we met along San Pablo. However, I think it would be difficult to usefully say much about every single thing we saw in twenty photos. So, some super broad themes that I hope I communicate are moments of peace in a city, the transition from winter to spring, nature reflecting us, us reflecting nature, and rethinking the binary of humans versus nature.


On San Pablo Ave is an archive of the work that students in GEOG 189: Visual Geography created in the Spring 2023 semester, the very first iteration of the course. 

The goal of the course is to use photography and walking as methodologies for understanding the places we move through and the people we encounter everyday.

Each week of the semester we, as a class, walked a portion of the 23-mile stretch of San Pablo Avenue, starting in downtown Oakland and ending in Rodeo, California. 

Students photographed along the street as we walked but also stopped in businesses, chatted up individuals we met along the way, and generally followed where their own interests took them. 

As a result, each student recorded a very different perspective of San Pablo Avenue. They narrowed their work down to 20+ photographs and sequenced them to “say” something about the built environment and the human experience along this vital stretch of the East Bay. 

Our main inspiration for this project was the work of photographer Janet Delaney, particularly her vital documentation of the SOMA neighborhood in San Francisco in the late-1970s and early-80s.

Janet was gracious enough to visit our class, talk about her work and the SOMA project, and show us some student projects she led while a faculty member in Visual Studies at UC Berkeley. 

This course was created and taught by Lecturer Joel Wanek with assistance from april graham-jackson, PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at UC Berkeley.  

Thanks to Jovan Scott Lewis, Eron Budi, Ambrosia Shapiro, Josh Mandel, and Seth Lunine for their assistance and support!