2005 ‘Shellmound’ Documentary Exposes the Truth Behind, and Under, Bay Street Development
Another Holiday season came and went for our town and the shopping “purge” safely behind us. I’ll have to admit that doing my own holiday shopping without having to set foot in a car or navigate the gridlock because of our proximity to retail makes it bearable.
But with Black Friday comes another tradition that may not get the same exposure: The Annual Bay Street protest by Native American Tribes. Every year, dozens of Ohlone descendants and supporters gather at the Shellmound Memorial Park to protest what they consider desecration of a former burial site.
Every year the crowds get thinner though, those voices get quieter. The 2005 Documentary “Shellmound” by UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Alum Andres Cediel sought to expose the truth behind the Bay Street development project by examining “the decisions made during the toxic cleanup, excavation and construction of the Bay Street mall through the eyes of the city of Emeryville, the developer, the archaeologists, and the native Californians who worked on the site.”
First off (so as to not sound like a hypocrite) I frequent Bay Street. I go to the movies, buy gadgets, dine on occasion. I guess I’ve accepted what Emeryville has become … but I’m not in denial of what it was.
Acknowledging its history is important to me as a Hispanic American with Indian Blood. I hope to catalog our city’s history through this news blog and even learn something about my own. We live in a region that has undergone several transitions. From City of Industry, to City of Vice to Commercial-Mecca. But before all this, Emeryville was home to the Muwekma Ohlone Nation.
The Ohlone Culture was established in these parts as far back as 400 AD. For thousands of years, the Ohlone people lived, fished and hunted along the shores of Temescal Creek where it flowed into San Francisco Bay. The Ohlone Shell mounds were a massive man-made “Mound” of shells, tools, bowls, animal bones and human burials created over the course of 2,500 years that rose 60 feet above ground and was as wide as a football field.
The mounds weren’t religious sites while in use but served as community cemeteries for the Ohlone population. The Ohlone abandoned the Shell Mound approximately 1400 BC and they lay dormant until encroached upon in the late 19th century for recreation, then finished off around 1924 to make room for industrial development. As The Lord of the Rings narration goes … History became legend. Legend became myth …
The Pigment plant, built in the 1920’s, was abandoned in the 1990’s leaving behind vats of toxic chemicals and polluted soil containing arsenic & acid. Emeryville’s redevelopment agency stepped in and stripped the ground of dirt “so toxic that anyone treading it had to wear a moon suit.” They then hired Madison Marquette to plan & develop the “Main Street Village” urban lifestyle center.
Today, the only remnants of these Shell Mounds that survived for 2,800 years are a Street Name and a memorial park that was built primarily as a goodwill/PR add-on to appease critiques of the project. Archaeologists and Ohlone tribe members were hired to oversee the remediation & construction of the site. $2 million was spent on archaeological work alone on what had been the largest of 400 Indian burial sites in Northern California.
It was anticipated that little would be left after over a century of development but in the end about 300 bodies were reburied on the site during the construction period. About 100 were taken from the metered parking area behind Victoria’s Secret. “There really wasn’t any expectation that they would find anything below ground level, and of course there was, and that’s where the controversy arose. It was a shocking surprise.” said longtime Emeryville Councilmember Nora Davis.
“To (focus on) the Bay Street project itself is to (ignore) what really is the violence that was done to the shellmound, which really occurred last century … and the 60 to 70 years of contamination. To me, that’s the tragedy,” said Eric Hohmann, then VP of project developer Madison Marquette “I actually think this is a tremendous resurrection of the site, which was fenced off, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes and putting the property back to use.”
“One of the main purposes of the film was just to let people know what was there and what’s still there” said Cediel, who made the film as a grad student at Cal. Cedial currently works for the PBS Frontline series where he has produced segments including “Rape in the Fields” and “The Judge & the General.”
Film traces destruction of Emeryville shellmound
By Cecily Burt
For thousands of years, the Ohlone people lived, fished and hunted along the shores of Temescal Creek where it flowed into San Francisco Bay. Their visible legacy — a huge mound of shells, tools, bowls, animal bones and human burials that rose 60 feet above ground — was desecrated, first for a dance hall in the 1870s, then for a pigment plant in the 1920s. Still, people involved in building the Bay Street shopping mall in Emeryville expected to find some ancient skeletal remains during construction. After all, the project was built directly over what was once the largest and most extensive American Indian shellmound lining the Bay. But as Andres Cediel reveals in his short documentary, “Shellmound,” nothing prepared the workers or the archaeologists overseeing the construction for the emotional discovery of hundreds of intact burials — or the extent of toxic contamination found at the site. The Bay Street shopping mall on Shellmound Street draws hundreds of visitors every day, but few realize the cultural significance of the land that lies beneath it, or venture into the shellmound memorial park tucked into a corner of the mall, Cediel said.
Read more on InsideBayArea →
The Documentary is available for rental online at New Day Films →
Andrés Cediel on IMDB →
Historic images from “Images of America – Emeryville” available for purchase on the Arcadia Publishing Bookstore.
Further Reading & Resources
The Native Legacy of Emeryville | EmeryvilleHistorical.org
Save the Shellmounds! | Indian People Organizing for Change →
Urban renewal atop sacred past / Ohlone protest Emeryville project | SF Gate →
Filmmaker tells story of forgotten Indian burial ground disrupted by retail | SF Gate →
Emeryville’s History | Indigenous People
Discovering the Invisible Bay Street: Uncovering Emeryville’s History and Understanding Our Own | Yale.edu