May 29, 2023

Ensanta Catalina

Aventure et nature

You can take a magical tour of Alameda’s fairy doors with this online map

Set a routine, they said. Get dressed every day, they said.

The advice we received early in the pandemic tried to normalize an abnormal year. But nothing really felt normal.

But there was one piece of advice my family managed to follow: Take a walk. Even on days when we didn’t make it out of our pajamas or eat anything besides cereal, we usually managed to step outside and explore our neighborhood.

Fairies like to picnic too.

Fairies like to picnic too.

Freda Moon

It was during one of these outings that we discovered the gnomes. These small painted characters wearing red pointy hats or modeled after Snow White’s dwarfs lived on nearly every block in our Oakland neighborhood. As the pandemic wore on, we started to spot ones, like a “Happy Mother’s Day” gnome family (complete with laptops) in May and a masked-up gnome doctor, just steps from our home.

But a year into the pandemic, the novelty of spotting our neighborhood gnomes had worn thin. I needed a new quest and a new neighborhood to enjoy.

The rise in fairy doors on Alameda began about seven years ago and is largely attributed to Fred Hogenboom and his granddaughter, Serena. The pair built about a dozen doors from scrap wood in Hogenboom’s wood shop, then installed them on trees and telephone poles near Hogenboom’s home on Oak Street. After that, “social media got a hold of it and from there it just blew up,” Hogenboom said, laughing.

Two years later, the Facebook group Alameda Island Fairy Doors and more was created. No one can remember exactly who started the group, but Hogenboom and Joe Dalipe, another Alameda resident and admin of the online community, are often pegged as the co-conspirators.

The doors can be tough to spot, but when you live in Alameda, you start to see them everywhere.

The doors can be tough to spot, but when you live in Alameda, you start to see them everywhere.

Freda Moon

Today, the group has nearly 3,000 members and regularly posts the location of new fairy doors on the island. Over the years, the doors have only become more elaborate. There are some with hinges, doormats and rock gardens, but the community has adopted such a whimsical spirit that fairy “free libraries,” murals with hidden fairy doors — commissioned by the West Alameda Business Association — and elaborate fairy communities complete with bridges, pools and castles have popped up as well.

Ederlyn Lugue, a self-proclaimed “fairy mapper” and another admin of the Facebook community, has been tracking the location of new fairy doors on the island since the group’s inception. Originally, she and a friend updated the map weekly on PowerPoint, then sent over the updates to Dalipe’s print shop, Island Print Express, who would print them for free.

But with the pandemic-era fairy door boom, Lugue moved the maps online. “The doors started blowing up so fast I couldn’t maintain it on my own,” she told me. The Magical Fairy Map is now updated regularly, thanks to a whole host of fairy volunteers; anyone who spots a fairy door not yet captured on the map can add a virtual pin. Dalipe still prints out the map occasionally, he says, but has found more people rely on the virtual one these days.

The letter K on the Grigg's alphabet map.

The letter K on the Grigg’s alphabet map.

Meaghan Tiernan

Jeannie Jayne Hesse, an experimental artist who designs and creates fairy doors, says Hogenboom may be responsible for at least a third of what folks are seeing on the island. “It keeps the kids connected to the community,” she says. “Rainbows and glitter!”

These days, Hogenboom even takes requests for renovations or repairs to existing fairy doors, though not as often as before. “I have lots and lots of helpers out there,” he says. “It’s a great phenomenon that was embraced by the whole community.”

That community inspired Devin Grigg and his family to create a 26-door letter hunt on Alameda’s Bay Farm Island. “The group is so inspirational and through the pandemic gave my kids a reason to get excited to get out of the house,” Grigg said via email. While working on his son’s ABCs, Grigg’s wife Nikki suggested an ABC scavenger hunt.

Grigg buys the doors unpainted or creates the doors from scratch, sanding and shaping alongside his own father, who introduced him to the Facebook group about a year ago. Grigg’s 3-year-old, Rylan, hand paints all of the doors (with a little help).

Armed with Grigg’s map, layers of clothing and snacks in hand (pro tip from 510 families: layers are essential; you’re along the waterfront the entire trek), we drove from Oakland onto Bay Farm to find some fairies.

Some doors are more elaborate than others.

Some doors are more elaborate than others.

Amber Prewitt

The hunt begins along the San Francisco Bay Trail at Adelphian Way. While the paved path is just [less than 2 miles long, it took us about two hours to finish the one-way trail. Like any good scavenger hunt, you might not find every magical prize. We got lost looking for the first few doors, only to later learn they’d been taken down.

It’s unclear who the “fairy thief” might be, said Grigg, but the letter hunt has lost three doors since he finished the hunt in October. (A similar crime wave hit Golden Gate Park recently.) He plans to keep replacing them as long as kids still enjoy doing it, he said.

Alameda is a whimsical little city, but it isn’t alone in its fascination with fairy doors. San Francisco has seen its own fairy door boom in recent years, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, has mysterious doors that have been around since 1993 (the doors even have their own Wikipedia page). There are notable fairy door communities everywhere from New York and Washington, D.C., to Kentucky and North Carolina.

This door was so small, you could pass it every day and not notice it.

This door was so small, you could pass it every day and not notice it.

Freda Moon

Hogenboom doors have made it around the world as well. Visiting friends and family often ask to add fairy doors to their neighborhoods, and Hogenboom sometimes installs them when he travels. They’re in the Netherlands — where his daughter lives — Australia and Hawaii, that he knows of.

While they may seem like something for kids, fairy doors aren’t only for the young. “We thought it was just going to help out kids,” said Dalipe. “[But we found] the parents were having a whole lot more fun.”