In The Mix

Field of Dreams

Oakland Parents Pitch in and Score a Diamond

    Dream it and you can do it is a maxim we hear preached more often than we see realized. Now, thanks to the can-do attitude of a small group of parents, Oakland has proof—in the form of a state-of-the-art baseball field—that even when a dream approaches the realm of fantasy, achieving it is possible.
    You might have watched the movie Field of Dreams. In it, an Iowa corn farmer (played by Kevin Costner) hears a voice telling him to construct a baseball diamond in his fields. For Oakland dad Paul Brekke-Miesner, there were no voices. There was simply a need; and when he accidentally came upon a possible solution, as he puts it, “the light bulb went on.”
    Two years ago, Oakland Technical High School students had no baseball field to call their own. Castlemont High alumnus Brekke-Miesner knew this because his son was an Oakland Tech baseball player.
    One day, while driving past Oakland Tech’s near neighbor, Carter Middle School—closed after a dive in enrollment—Brekke-Miesner spotted an empty field flanking an unsightly asphalt lot. Guessing that the space might be big enough for both the much-needed baseball field and an also-needed softball field, he went on a measuring expedition with Tech’s baseball coach.
    Having determined that size-wise the defunct Carter school facilities could work, Brekke-Miesner mustered a group of about 20 parents, and the project began. “It took us about a year to convince the school district to let us use the space. Politics, presentations, meetings, liability concerns—I won’t bore you with the details,” says Brekke-Miesner, who, when not volunteering his time, works in the Oakland Police Department’s neighborhood services division.
    They got the OK to begin in September 2007. The parents by then had raised about $400,000, mostly in small amounts. “Quite honestly, we didn’t know what we were getting into,” says Brekke-Miesner. “When you build a baseball field, you have to have the right dirt; the right topsoil; the right grass. We had to put in a sprinkler system and fencing.” They wanted grass infields and a dirt warning track “like the pro fields.” Where they could, they recycled. Bleachers, for example, were purchased from a field that was closing and fixed by one of the parents.
    From the start, they did much of the work themselves, “with our own hands—sweat equity if you will—and with guidance and advice from the Oakland Coliseum ground crew,” says Brekke-Miesner, who is quick to credit the team, not himself, with the success of the venture. The team included Oakland professionals—architect, construction company and others—who donated their services.
    “We were committed to having the baseball field ready for the March 2008 season,” he notes. “A lot of people laughed and didn’t see how we’d get it done in time. But, each time we were frustrated with the weather, the skies turned blue. About the time we ran out of money, a foundation gave us a check. Really, it was a miracle.”
    The result is a state-of-the-art field built in five months. And the cherry on the top? The home team, Oakland Tech, won the first home game.
    “A lot of Little League teams and others are using the field, so it’s turning into truly a community facility,” says Brekke-Miesner, who has now turned his attention to the softball field and—given that dreams have to be kept alive—to raising money for field maintenance.

 —By Wanda Hennig
—Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover Photography

Labelwatch

Where Consumers Go to Decipher Product Ingredients

    Diane Manning awoke with a start at 3 a.m. The name “labelwatch.com” popped into her head. “I got up, turned on my computer, did a search and bought it, and then I went back to bed,” says the ad agency veteran-turned-Internet health-information maven. With a domain name safely in her possession, all she had to do was figure out what she was going to do with her new Web site.
    It didn’t take long. An Alameda resident for the past decade, Manning had been considering ways to help consumers decipher the information crammed onto food product labels and make sensible judgments about what they eat. In her ad agency, Manning had worked with food producers and packagers and restaurants, including purveyors of natural and organic products. “I realized that if people could compare the ingredients in products, and if we could connect those ingredients up with a glossary, we could help people understand what is beneficial and what isn’t.”
    Launched in mid-August 2008, Labelwatch (www.labelwatch.com) has assembled a database of more than 25,000 name-brand products, a glossary that color-codes ingredients in green (“beneficial”—“appear to promote health”), orange (“OK”—“appear to be safe”) or red (“cautionary”—“appear to be problematic”) according to scientific information culled from multiple sources.
    Manning’s mission began when she identified enriched wheat flour and modified food starch as the dietary culprits in her long-standing battle with irritable bowel syndrome. She became “an avid reader of labels” and carried that over to LABELWATCH, which, she explains, “is about ingredients first, nutritional facts second. It used to be that the nutrition facts label was everything, but the health community is now saying we’ve got to look at the ingredients first and then find the nutritional profile that meets your needs.”
    LABELWATCH, headquartered in downtown Oakland, currently allows users to research food products and create personalized shopping lists, but the business plan developed by Manning and fellow officers Andrew Nantkes and Guy Needham calls for the creation of sites for pet care products and services, baby care products over-the-counter supplements and nonprescription drugs, beauty and skin care products, and home care and cleaning products. With revenue anticipated from advertising (by manufacturers of sanctioned “smart ingredient” products) and licensing of the database (to healthcare institutions), Manning sees LABELWATCH achieving a global reach and growing to “capture most of the grocery story experience.”

 —By Derk Richardson
—Photography By Philip Kaake

In The Scene

Burlesque or Bust

Hubba Hubba Ignites Mondays at the Uptown

    Scope out downtown Oakland on a Monday night—dark storefronts, sparse pedestrian traffic and a drowsy vibe. Clubbers are holed up recovering from the weekend; working stiffs are easing into yet another stint at the grindstone; even the barflies seem few and far between. Who knew that this otherwise down-low evening has also become ground zero for bombshells from the East Bay and beyond, dancing with retro-savvy verve and stripping with a reverent eye toward Barbary Coast femme forebears?
    That was the nudie-cutie scene at the Uptown Nightclub’s weekly Hubba Hubba night on a recent Monday. As a grinning, whooping crowd of black-clad rockers, horn-rimmed vintage kids, gloomily resplendent goths and over-the-top burners looked on, the dazzling Devilettes freshened up the lost art of go-go dancing, shaking champagne fringe and doing the Bug, the Puppy Dog, the Monkey and other boot-stomping menagerie moves to classic fun-rockers like “Tequila.” Stripping to the sound of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and “At Last,” Chi Chis Del Fuego and La Cholita evoked memories of all-class performers like Gypsy Rose Lee. But the night’s topper—or rather topless—had to be Lady Satan lampooning Sarah Palin. Off came the ladylike suit to reveal eagle-shaped pasties, but not before the vivacious performer slapped on some lipstick, wriggled with a moose-mangling firearm and puzzled over a copy of The Origin of Species. “There’s your case for offshore drilling,” quipped wise-cracking MC Eddie, née Eric Christensen, to his co-host Jim Sweeney, who goes by the nom de yuk Kingfish.
    Hubba Hubba producers Sweeney and Christensen—veterans of Spectacular Spectacular and Dane’s Dames Burlesque respectively—began their two-year-old Hubba Hubba Revue as a monthly event at San Francisco’s DNA Lounge. They were persuaded to go weekly at the Uptown a little more than a year ago by venue owner Larry Trujillo, who had some success with burlesque at his Blank Club in San Jose.
    When he bought the Uptown, he figured that a burlesque show with a low cover charge and high energy would be a solid bet for getting fans out of the house. “I’ve been in the club business a long time, and Monday is the hardest night of the week,” Trujillo explains. “And I have to say, Hubba Hubba is the most successful Monday night I’ve seen.”

 —By Kimberly Chun
—Photography By Jan Stürmann

About an Actor

Maher Ali Reaches for the Stars

    With two major movies slated for release in December, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, 34, is on top of the world. After spending the last seven years appearing in a variety of television shows, the Oakland-born and Hayward-raised actor jumps to the big screen in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who is born elderly and “ages” in reverse. He also plays a detective in Crossing Over, which co-stars Sean Penn and Harrison Ford and focuses on immigrants of various nationalities trying to achieve legal status in Los Angeles.
    “In Button, I play Tizzy, a cook at a turn-of-the-century convalescent home,” says Ali, whose first name derives from the Book of Isaiah. Tizzy and his love interest, Queenie (played by Taraji Henson) discover Button as an 80-year-old infant. “My character becomes a father figure to Button,” Ali explains, adding, “This is the kind of film that makes you laugh and cry and ponder your own life.”
    Ali’s life story includes his standing out as a basketball player in high school and college, becoming interested in acting while pursuing a degree in mass communications at St. Mary’s College in Moraga and going on to apprentice with the California Shakespeare Festival in Orinda. “I received a lot of positive feedback on my performances and decided to pursue a master’s degree in acting at New York University.”
    Shortly after graduating from NYU, Ali landed a recurring role as Dr. Trey Sanders on the television show, Crossing Jordan, followed by parts on NYPD Blue, CSI, Threat Matrix and, in 2004, the USA network cult classic The 4400.
    “I look for projects that pull the best out of me,” he says, noting that he is currently writing his first screenplay. No matter what comes next, “whether it’s making more movies or starring in another hit television show,” Ali will put up with commuting to Southern California for work: “I recently purchased my first home in Berkeley, and I spend as much time in the Bay Area as possible.” 

 —By Linda Childers
—Courtesy of Mahershalalhashbaz Ali

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