Berkeley Was Special From the Get Go 

History professor Charles Wollenberg considers the city's DNA.

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Q: Before Berkeley became a city, there was a community called Ocean View. In the book you describe the diversity already present in the 1800s in Ocean View. Already this community was at the forefront in terms of diversity in the United States. And then on the following page you compare Berkeley to San Francisco's Mission District, again citing both locations' diversity. Talk more about how Berkeley began life as such a milieu of different nationalities and ethnicities.

A: The Gold Rush created this huge diverse population in California almost overnight. So the day California became a state in 1850 it was already the most ethnically, nationally diverse state in the United States, and so obviously communities that were formed around San Francisco would reflect that. A big chunk of the working class of the Bay Area were people who were either European immigrants or in some cases Asian immigrants, Latino immigrants. So Ocean View was like the Mission District since the Mission developed as a working-class community, too.

Q: Are there still divides between the east and the west parts of Berkeley, divides that were once so pronounced here?

A: They're less visible today — they were very visible until recently. Big parts of the flatlands were predominantly African American, but one of the things changing now is that the African-American population is declining and you have more middle-class whites moving into the flats. So the east-west split is to some degree a class difference and even a racial difference whereas in the 19th century it was about nationality differences, about Catholics versus Protestants, native born versus immigrant born, and so on. But right now the price of housing is changing Berkeley. You have upper-class people able to afford a house in the hills and middle-class people able to afford a house in the flatlands, rather than middle-class in the hills and working-class folks in flatlands. Back when I started at Cal, my friends lived up in the hills. Now my friends who are professors live in the flatlands. Back then, working-class people lived in the flats. So there still are these class differences but they're changing as the ethnic population of Berkeley changes.

Q: Many of the trees — the flora and fauna here generally — are not native. Berkeley was all grassland like the backside of the hills.

A: Of all the facts I learned the one that amazed me the most was this quote from a nursery owner who says that by 1870 he'd already sold 50,000 trees in Berkeley. The population of the city then was 2,000. People just moved in and start planting trees. These hills would have been grasslands. So almost all the trees now, when you look up at the hillside, were planted by settlers. Very few are native. They may be native California trees but — like Monterey pine — they're not native to this exact location. Eucalyptus trees were brought in from Australia during the Gold Rush.

Q: Your book points out that Berkeley has been built out since the '30s. Pictures of the city from the hills from the '40s show that it didn't look much different then. Talk about Berkeley and why it's so damn crowded.

A: Berkeley in 1940 already had 80,000 people. Now it's got 100,000. In the 1970s it had as many as 120,000 people so the population's actually less now than it was thirty years ago. It feels more crowded because the composition of the population is different. Now a much higher percentage of the population is young adults. So you have a lot more cars and a lot more demand for individual units. Whereas before a family of five had one house and maybe one or two cars, now you have five people looking for individual units each one driving his or her own car. Berkeley's also interesting because it sends many people out — commuting to San Francisco or Oakland or elsewhere — but it also takes in lots of people, people who work at the university or go to school there — each day. So it's both like a suburb and a central city at the same time.

Q: Oakland's always been afraid of San Francisco turning it into a borough as part of some larger Bay Area conglomeration plan. Meanwhile, Berkeley's always kind of eyed Oakland with suspicion. What's the relationship between Oakland and Berkeley?

A: One of the major reasons Berkeley even incorporated as a city was to stop Oakland from annexing it. As early as 1878 Oakland had this idea of moving its borders north so that the university would be in Oakland. In order to stop that, Ocean View and the campus community got together to incorporate as one city. And simultaneously Oakland has always been fighting off this idea of making a larger San Francisco Bay Area. There was a borough plan in the early 20th century that would have in effect made Oakland the Brooklyn of the Bay Area. And Oakland fought that hard. Oakland led the fight, for instance, to establish a separate East Bay water system so that the East Bay would not be tied into the city. And Berkeley was always somewhere in between. There were leaders in Berkeley who were willing to buy into the borough system a little more — Berkeley's always kind of looked to San Francisco more fondly than it has to Oakland.

Q: The term Yuppie — coined, as you point out, by an Express writer — arose in the '80s in reference to Berkeley. It went on to become a widely used term that's applied casually to various cities or neighborhoods or people today. Why did that word come out of Berkeley in particular?


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