The Little Buddha That Took on Oakland City Hall

The neighborhood just needed a little divine intervention.

There was a time years ago, when Dan Stevenson would survey the median at the end of 11th Avenue in his Oakland neighborhood, and see nothing but trash. “No Dumping” signs were covered in graffiti. Mattresses and box springs were stacked on stacks of garbage.

“It was just like a dump,” Stevenson said. “And it just got tiring.”

Stevenson reasoned maybe the neighborhood just needed a little divine intervention. So he and his wife enlisted the services of a small concrete Buddha statue, which he installed on the median, beneath a sprawling olive tree. And just in case someone got any ideas, he anchored the Buddha with $35 dollars in epoxy and rebar.

“My wife and I thought we might be able to change the direction of the energy,” said Stevenson, standing in front of his house near the shrine. “We’re not Buddhists so we just liked the little garden guy.”

When he first installed the statue in 1999, the Buddha slowly endeared itself to the neighborhood. People began to leave incense, candles, flowers and small offerings. People showed up to pray at the shrine. And else something unusual happened.

“There’s no garbage now,” said Stevenson. “There’s no graffiti, it’s just a lot of people just respect the area.”

To neighbors the little shrine became a gathering spot. People would meet in front of the statue to chat. Others would clean the area, change the flowers and spruce up the median.

“No one ever touches the Buddha, removes anything,” said neighbor Ericka Huggins. “He is always like an oasis.”

Several weeks ago, someone installed a wooden structure around the Buddha, with a concrete slab for people to pray. Soon after, the city got a complaint about the display. Stevenson said an inspector from Oakland’s Public Works Department showed up to inspect the median.

“He said they’re going to have to remove it,” recalled Stevenson. “And if we can find the people who put it in and everything to remove the parts, then they wouldn’t have to come in and jackhammer him out.”

But before the city could jackhammer the Buddha into the afterlife, neighbors kicked up a fuss. They banded together and sent loads of emails to District 2 City Councilwoman Pat Kernighan.

“There is a potential safety issue,” said Kernighan, “which is that people who come to pray at the Buddha have to be in the street because of where it’s located.”

But Kernighan insists there are no plans to tear out the Buddha just yet. She said the city is merely investigating the complaint.

“My feeling is maybe if there are some downsides to it,” said Kernighan, “ if we could work with the community we could figure out a solution.”

Stevenson said he’s amazed at how much power, a tiny Buddha can yield. It cleaned up the corner, brought together neighbors, and is now taking on City Hall.

“I didn’t realize how big he was,” Stevenson said. “Because to me he’s just a little guy sitting over there changing the energy.”

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