People & Places: History
Taking a Trip Through East Bay History
My ten-year-old daughter attends Chabot Elementary School in the Rockridge district of Oakland. She just finished her first year of California history studies, but I think it's safe to say that the story of the city where she lives has seldom surfaced in those classes. History is necessarily taught to fourth graders in broad strokes: the Spanish missions; the Gold Rush; the San Francisco Earthquake. If the focus were more narrow and local, nuance would inevitably increase; a textured narrative is far more difficult to teach.
The unique history of the East Bay is yet another civic asset that's frequently lost in the glare of our illustrious neighbor. But our region has always had its own separate, albeit complementary, part to play. While our neighbor's identity was based on extraction — of minerals, of lumber, and of capital — and the accumulation of political and financial power, the East Bay was devoted to harnessing and projecting that power. I was thinking about that as my daughter and I drove past the acres of hangers, warehouses, and empty tarmac that was the Alameda Naval Air Station, now ghostly and deserted in the shimmery haze of a late spring afternoon. We were bound for the permanent anchorage of the USS Hornet Museum (open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily).
"Westward the course of empire takes its way": George Berkeley's words were read from the University of California's Founders Rock in 1855, but would be the middle of the 20th century when the task was truly shouldered. The East Bay, as we know it today, was forged in the great furnace of World War II, yet there are few official sites to mark the years that changed everything here. The city of Richmond now hosts a Rosie the Riveter Memorial, commemorating the contributions of women in Henry Kaiser's sprawling shipyards during the war. The nearby National Homefront Museum offers a self-guided auto tour of the former shipyard's few remaining industrial sites. Also under restoration is the SS Red Oak Victory (open by appointment), one of the 747 "Liberty" and "Victory Ships" that were produced here at a rate that, by late in the war, would approach an incredible level of one a week.
And then there is the Hornet. We climbed up the gangway and stepped into the former attack carrier's cavernous hanger deck where we were greeted by a cluster of old sailors who were serving as docents, their jackets and caps bedecked with embroidered insignia marking the ship's service in three wars: the South Pacific in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. There were also NASA patches on the jackets; it was the Hornet that welcomed the Apollo 11 astronauts back from the moon, after their command capsule splashdown in the Pacific.
The museum offers both guided tours of control tower and bridge, and the engine room, and self-guided tours of the living space where 3,500 sailors and airmen lived and worked for long months at a time. My daughter dutifully listened to the engineering lessons but mostly delighted in climbing the steep companionway ladders and catwalks. Despite the devoted elderly docents, this colossal machine was made to be operated by the young. The Hornet is purported to be haunted, one docent told us, and has been featured in television shows exploring the paranormal, but the real ghosts here were the shades of these old sailors' youth.
My daughter has frequented the Lawrence Hall of Science, and she may have looked down from one of the museum's parapets at the vaguely Victorian and Jules Verne-esque domed structure that lies below. As Gray Brechin has noted, when architect John Galen Howard created his plan for the Berkeley campus, he oriented it on a strong axis directly across from the Golden Gate. He intended the axis to be crowned by a large domed grand assembly hall. That hall was never built, but its place atop the axis was taken by another domed building, the one that housed Lawrence's 184-inch cyclotron. The infinitely complex production process that gestated in this building was to bloom in the atmosphere above Hiroshima.
For our final stop on our East Bay history tour, my daughter and I strolled up Haste Street north from Telegraph Avenue on a sunny weekday mid-afternoon. I was searching for a redwood tree my friends and I furtively planted as a sapling one dark night in January 1973, under the watchful eye of an insurgent gardener in People's Park. The troops and police that had guarded this patch of disputed ground were long gone by that evening, as was the chain-link fence that had still surrounded it when I first arrived here as a student in the fall of 1970. But even in early 1973, contributing to the park's landscape was probably still an illegal act.
While the creation of People's Park was not itself linked to the effort to end the war in Vietnam, the reaction of then-Governor Reagan's administration enshrined it as an enduring political symbol. And it would transform the character of the region once again. There's nothing like being occupied by its own country's troops to sour a community on the mission of empire building.
I couldn't tell which of the handful of young redwood trees still growing in the eastern end of the park is the one we planted that night. I hope it survived and is one of the trees shading the many homeless people whose sleeping bags were scattered like half-buried boulders throughout the property. But there were other people there in the park that day. These park veterans, like their contemporaries on the hanger deck of the USS Hornet, are still drawn to the site of their youthful exploits. Both quietly tend to, and keep watch over, what for them will always be sacred ground. Their efforts keep history alive. — John Raeside