Space Design Back Story: Oakland's Most Dangerous Garden

We've been waiting to get into the design piece of the Shiba Ramen project since we decided to open a restaurant a year ago.  The chance to work on design projects helped push us toward starting this kind of business in the first place.  But this week, when I sat down to write about our design, I found myself writing not about Shiba Ramen, but about the home renovation projects that, more than anything else, expanded our imaginations to the point where we could even conceive of starting a ramen business.  So if you'll bear with me (thanks) let's take a short diversion to my back yard.

  Shibas.   In the garden, taken earlier this morning.  

Shibas.  In the garden, taken earlier this morning.  

A few years ago, we bought a house in Oakland.  In exchange for getting a good deal on the price, we signed up for lots of deferred maintenance (roof, electrical, seismic retrofit, etc.) and much-needed cosmetic work.  We retiled the floor and resurfaced the walls in our sunroom, spending a lot of time thinking about tile and even more time covered in thinset mortar and drywall mud.  We converted the nasty-ass 1960s man cave in the basement (fully equipped with tufted white vinyl wet bar, naked lady ice cube trays, and a sign that said "If you had it last night . . . smile") into a colorful play room.  Before the retile and the man cave, we totally overhauled our back yard, building a pergola, a fence, a patio, rock stairs, raised beds, and planting a botanical garden's worth of the insane array of plants you can grow in the Bay Area.  

A necessary predicate to building our little backyard oasis---still incomplete, by the way, with funds for the glorious deck of our dreams diverted to opening a ramen restaurant---we had to demolish a grand eyesore of concrete and stone; one that combined the aesthetics of the Classical Mediterranean with those of Mordor, with some faded aquamarine paint for a splash of color.  It was a downtrodden concrete pond, over which a concrete floating stair bridge led to a badly decomposed and submerged-in-dirt brick patio.  On the terrace patio, reminiscent of some dilapidated Acropolis, ten white wooden columns were arrayed in a square, but whatever roof they once supported was long gone.  Big brown quartz rocks were cemented all around the concrete pond, and smaller jagged quartz rocks were studded into every step of the bridge.  The bridge was supported by long pieces of rebar anchored into 18-inch thick concrete blocks at each end.  

This fucking bridge survived the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake unscathed.  It was formidable.  It was hideous.  It was dangerous for children.  Like really dangerous for children.  There was actually a sign at the open house warning prospective buyers of the threat to their children that the backyard presented.  Anyone who has taken the California bar exam was forced to learn about "attractive nuisance."  This is an obscure legal doctrine that makes landowners liable for the injuries of trespassing children, where the land contains some feature that attracts unsuspecting children to their doom.  This bridge/pond business in my yard could have been a great hypothetical for bar study.  Fortunately, I got rid of it before the lawsuits started pouring in!

And I got rid of it with extreme prejudice.  It turns out I really love demolition.  So as soon as we closed on the house, I went to Home Depot and got a sledgehammer, and then I beat on the bridge methodically until it was just a bunch of exposed rebar.  But when the sledgehammer proved useless on the thicker concrete, I had to go back to Home Depot.  This time for a jackhammer.  Said the customer service dude: "You ever used one of these before?"  Said me: "No."  Said the dude: "Please sign here."  Said the day laborers hovering around in the parking lot as I wheeled the jackhammer to the car: "That looks like a two-person job."  Said me: "Thanks, I've got it."    

I had it, but barely.  Jackhammers are heavy.  So I brought it home and got to business.  It did the trick on the thick concrete, but that wasn't the end of the story.  There was so much concrete in the yard, in various places, that even after the bridge was gone I was sledgehammering intermittently for months (breaking my first sledgehammer in the process and needing a second!).  I produced a staggering amount of rubble and had to spend $2000 just to get rid of it.

While the demo was underway, Hiroko and I set about designing a new garden.  We spent absurd amounts of time at Home Depot, American Soil & Stone (I seriously love that place), Ashby Lumber, and any number of East Bay garden centers.  We bought 3000 pounds of ledge stone, 10 cubic yards of dirt, 8 cubic yards of crushed lava, black basalt patio stones, Mexican pebbles, and lots of redwood.  We read books on landscape design and construction, figured out our plan, and went out and built our garden.  This was a pretty huge project, and Hiroko was pregnant during the entire affair.  That didn't stop her from mortaring cinderblocks and excavating trenches, though.  We did every bit of the labor ourselves (except the rubble removal).

Three Years In.  Our garden today, getting greener every year.  

I think that, more than anything else, this garden project prepared us to undertake Shiba Ramen.  It showed us that we were capable of going outside of our comfort zones, learning completely new skills, and applying them to a complicated multi-stage effort.  We learned that we loved design and loved building things, although the fact that we both spent years designing and building molecules in the lab suggests that these interests were always there, but just needed the right outlet.  Perhaps most importantly, Hiroko and I learned how to work together really effectively, and developed a much deeper understanding of how our individual skills complement one another.    

Next time, we'll leave my yard and head back to Shiba Ramen.