by C. J.Hirschfield
You really could call communications/public affairs professional Isaac Kos-Reed the ultimate Lake Merritt lover. He lives on its shore and, for 13 years, he’s been dancing by it. And now? He’s taken a sworn oath to protect it. But the current weekend craziness at his beloved Lake threatens to upend plans to expand a popular salsa-fest, where people of all ages and cultures have come together to celebrate the joys of Afro-Cuban music and dance.
“The lake is a daily source of healing energy,” says Isaac, referencing its water, people, birds, sounds and smells. Years ago, he fell in love with the lake as well as dance culture after returning from a trip to Cuba, where he won a salsa dance competition. Looking for a way to recreate that country’s dynamic water culture and its “tidal energy,” Isaac looked for a place closer to home to share his love of outside dancing. Armed with a boombox with eight D batteries, he and his life/dance partner Mary Massella invited friends to join them by the pergola at Lake Merritt. Over a decade later, Salsa by the Lake boasts over 7,500 Facebook followers, live music, and a spirit of spontaneity, where Sunday afternoon dates are not regularly scheduled. Now co-produced by Isaac and partners DJ-Dark Rum and Alvaro Batista, SBTL is trying to plan its future in the middle of a worsening pandemic.
Isaac will now be part of planning the future of Oakland’s citywide parks as a newly appointed member of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission (PRAC), which is charged with “advising the Mayor, Council, City Administrator, and the Oakland Parks and Recreation Department on all matters relating to the general policy and operation of the parks and recreation system.”
As we’ve seen lately, Lake Merritt on weekends has become an increasing challenge for the city, as large crowds, vendors, and unmasked visitors enjoy the great urban outdoors. Isaac knows that Lake Merritt’s not the only park in town; that it’s just one of many beautiful Oakland assets, and that parks represent a microcosm of society. Homelessness, equity and adequate funding will be issues that Isaac and his fellow commissioners will have to tackle, but he’s ready. “I have the civic bug,” he says, and expresses appreciation for those who’ve come before to create and maintain the public spaces that make Oakland so special. But having served at one point as the City’s lobbyist, he’s not naïve, and realizes that parks can quickly become politicized. He quotes his dad as he acknowledges the many dynamics always at play in our city: “Oakland: it’s all true.”
But at Lake Merritt right now, just the things that make social dancing so powerful make it a risk for the virus. The exchange of chemical energy (sweat, breath, multiple partners) is what makes it “so amazing,” says Isaac, who estimates that he’d typically dance with fifteen different people at each salsa session. And then, there’s the crowds and the need to negotiate with other users of the popular lakeside property.
While a real Salsa by the Lake event has not happened this year because of the pandemic, Isaac recently took some baby steps to explore how it could be done again in some form. Inspired by Cuban trombonist Obrayan Calderon, who recently started lakeside jamming, Isaac invited local dancers back out as long as participants practiced social distancing, pod-grouping, mask wearing and dancing alone. He fears that all of these precautions will be part of any near-future outdoor dancing, which he points out is MUCH safer than indoor dancing.
The future of SBTL, however, is in doubt. From a recent SBTL Facebook post: “The overall craziness around the lake that has been crescendoing of late may in time lead to a total and complete shutdown of any such gatherings. If so, that would be a sad condemnation of our society right now and inability to enjoy things responsibly, self-regulate, govern, etc. We’ll see.”
Isaac says that he believes the group will emerge “stronger and better.”
But for now, he’ll continue to dance by the lake, in sneakers that Ike’s on Lakeshore customizes with leather soles (“best breathability and slide”), whether it’s by himself, or as part of an exercise routine.
“Stay tuned,” he says, and we will.
To do so, follow Salsa by the Lake on Facebook or Instagram.
C. J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel, and advocated on behalf of the industry. She has penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, and now writes regularly for EatDrinkFilms and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently lives in Adams Point and serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
Editor’s Note: For more biographical information, we highly recommend the superb profile of C. J. that David Gans wrote for the December 2017 Splash Pad News titled We’re in the Memory Making Business.