Berkeley Was Special From the Get Go 

History professor Charles Wollenberg considers the city's DNA.

Charles Wollenberg took twenty years to write his 173-page volume, Berkeley: A City in History. That's not because he's a slow writer. He just didn't mean for it to be a book. As a history professor at Berkeley City College, he developed a series of lectures that took shape and gradually congealed into a manuscript over two decades. Several years ago, Wollenberg published a first version of the book as an e-book via the Berkeley Public Library web site.

Familiarity might breed contempt, but it also breeds good, credible writing. The longtime resident's credentials — he's been an oral historian for the Bancroft Library, a history consultant at the Oakland Museum of California and the New San Francisco History Museum, and served on the board and as a fellow of the California Historical Society — make him a qualified recorder and discerner of Berkeley history.

Still, his isn't an academic text or a comprehensive treatise on Berkeley's existence. Rather, it's meant to place Berkeley into a larger Bay Area and California context, highlighting important moments and currents that influence the present. I sat down with him in his downtown office in early March. With the green hills of Berkeley as a backdrop, Wollenberg and I hashed out the still unfolding story of this in/famous city.

Q: In the preface you argue this book is relevant to Berkeley and non-Berkeley residents alike.

A: Berkeley has had a huge impact — much greater than any normal city of just a hundred thousand people. Much of that has to do with the presence of the university. Think about the role Berkeley played in setting the tone of the 1960s. There is a sense in which the city seems bigger than it is. The earlier version of this manuscript came out as an e-book on the Berkeley Public Library's web site and shows up on a lot of Google and Yahoo searches. So I've had this experience over the last couple of years of getting e-mails and phone calls from people all over the United States asking specific questions about Berkeley history. I don't think that would be true about, say, Hayward.

Q: Right. People seem to talk about this small city as an equal in weight to, say, Chicago or San Francisco.

A: But on the other hand, outside of the Bay Area or maybe California, when people use the word Berkeley they are assuming they are talking about a university rather than a city. You know when you send an e-mail to a Cal professor the address he or she uses is, not @UniversityofCalifornia-Berkeley or something. There's that sense in which the university has sort of appropriated the identity of the city, for better or worse.

Q: You mention that the native peoples here — the Ohlone, for instance — were aware of agriculture and agricultural techniques but didn't really practice it except for the growing of tobacco, which I think is kind of funny and somehow fitting.

A: They didn't go the final step of actually planting stuff because they didn't have to. This was an extraordinarily productive area for a hunting and gathering way of life. I think it's unusual in that you have a hunting and gathering people who were at the same time very sedentary in that they lived in a relatively small place and they didn't have to migrate because it was so resource-rich. So they didn't need to grow much in the way of crops. People who write about California Indian cultures say it was fairly common for them to grow a kind of wild tobacco to be used in a ceremonial sense and not just recreational sense. In many places there wasn't enough of it growing wild so the people would cultivate it.

Q: A city remembers its past by incorporating that past into its day-to-day structures. You can walk around Berkeley and the names of streets and buildings might seem meaningless but your book brings these long-dead people back to life, people like Shattuck, Peralta, Kittredge, and so on.

A: That's one of the things I was trying to do in this book was to link the past and the present. People have the sense when they walk around that it's just always been here and they take it for granted, but there are reasons why streets are named this way and there are reasons why things have happened the way they've happened. And it can give you a much greater understanding of the community you live in and a much greater understanding of the way human societies develop if you have a consciousness of your city's history.


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