In October, an alternative weekly promising to be a home to literary journalism appeared in the East Bay during an unprecedented blizzard of hard news. The season culminated in the horror of the mass suicides at Jonestown in early November, followed just nine days later by the assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Naomi Wise captured the zeitgeist in a review of John Carpenter's new movie Halloween. "Suddenly all the world's a horror show," she wrote on December 8. "Psychotic murderers stab, strangle, and shoot their ways through Magic, Halloween, and San Francisco City Hall. ... The ultimate realization of the horror genre has come to life."
As bad as the news was on the surface, deeper seismic shifts were occurring. In 1978, the state was experiencing a huge boom in housing prices, leading to increased property tax assessments. The higher taxes, coupled with the era's double-digit inflation, sparked what was arguably was the most important change in civic life in the tumultuous three decades of this paper's existence: the passage of the anti-tax measure Proposition 13 — and Berkeley's spirited response: rent control. Of the former, Mike McGrath would later write: "Jerry Brown [still California's boy governor in 1978] once spoke of an 'era of limits' but in post-Prop. 13 California the limits were all on the supply side." Locally, the politics of rent control proved to be equally large. "It might be called the Universal Field Theory of Berkeley Politics," Dashka Slater mused twenty years later. "Everything that happened in Berkeley — economic booms and busts, political ascensions and declines, earthquakes, solar flares, miscarriages, and the number of naked people on public streets — was somehow related to rent control."
Meanwhile, the price of a BART ticket from MacArthur to the Embarcadero was sixty cents, fifteen cents less than the toll on the Bay Bridge. Dinner at Chez Panisse cost $17.50, while lunch at North Oakland's venerable Italian eatery, Bertola's, cost $1.95. A ticket to see a rock concert at Zellerbach Auditorium had reached $6.50. What critic Carol Hamilton was seeing on local stages was evolving as well: "If Peter Gabriel's concert last week was any indication, costumes and choreography are no longer merely the trappings of rock concerts but are becoming enmeshed with the substance."
It was a fitting testament to a bleak year in the East Bay that on one chilly night in April, 653 fans huddled together like homeless refugees behind the home team dugout and watched the A's play the hapless Seattle Mariners, reputedly the smallest crowd ever to watch a major league baseball game. "The Oakland A's are the Karen Anne Quinlan of sports," wrote John Kritch, referring to the young New Jersey woman who became the center of a right-to-die controversy after living in a coma for three years. "Abandoned by its stars and its fans and its management ... the A's stay alive beyond any reasonable prognosis."
One contributor wrote of hearing on the radio the good news that a major California drought had ended while waiting in a long line at a service station as the state was paralyzed by a gas crisis. Describing plans to recruit Hong Kong investors who were fleeing the end of British rule in the colony, one cover headline asked, "Can the Third World Save Oakland?" Still, even as the housing boom continued, there were bargains to be had: It was still possible to buy inexpensively in neighborhoods such Oakland's Fruitvale district, wrote Eleanor Edwards in a guide to East Bay neighborhoods, where houses "sell anywhere from $20,000 to $80,000."
But there were signs of progress. Roger Downey made his way up to the Lawrence Hall of Science to check out an interesting new exhibit: "If you've never played with a [home] computer ... or seen one demonstrated, it is worth a trip to the Computer Lab ... to see the amazing capacity, simplicity, and convenience of the new devices." And two intriguing new African-American faces appeared in Oakland to join Mayor Lionel Wilson: Calvin Simmons became conductor of the Oakland Symphony and Robert Maynard who took over as editor of the Oakland Tribune, which had recently been described as "arguably the second worst newspaper in the United States."
"With his tinted shades ... and his Fabian hair-do, [Al] Davis may well be professional sports' Doctor Strangelove," wrote John Kritch on February 15. "But however cunning his maneuvers are on the gridiron, he has topped them all with his escape from Oakland." The escape would not be completed this year, but the insult would hang over the city like a pall. Civic leaders put even more energy into remaking the city's gritty image. "Imagine a composite drawing showing all the various construction projects planned for the city to date," wrote Mike McGrath. "You should be conjuring up glinting highrises, pagoded shopping centers, glittering hotels. This is a vision of boosterism run rampant — and it's all on the drawing boards." Maybe, but it's arguable that Oakland's sluggish but steady renaissance could more accurately be dated to the evening that Alan Michaan, the young new owner of the Grand Lake Theater, switched on the 2800 bulbs of the giant rotary contact electric sign — the largest west of the Mississippi — and it once again lit the sky above Lake Merritt: a hopeful, playful gesture in a season where there was a distinct shortage of both.
"A landslide for Reagan," McGrath reported glumly from an election night victory party "while McGovern, Culver, Bayh, and Church are driven out of the Temple by the Moral Majority. If this is a big test of the power of right-wing populism, the verdict is in. It works."
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