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.

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?

A: The answer is that the "yuppie" concept is reflected in the development of things like the Gourmet Ghetto or later Fourth Street or the way the Elmwood district transformed. It was used to describe a group of relatively young (at that time), not necessarily family-oriented people — singles, really — who were trying to live an alternative lifestyle, a kind of middle-class alternative lifestyle. So we have coffee shops and gourmet restaurants and so on, and people around here take that for granted, but all of that really developed in the aftermath of the '60s. It's the baby-boom generation that spearheaded it as they got a little older and a little more affluent. They didn't want the suburban life but on the other hand they didn't want to spend their whole lives as street people. And given the kind of tone and thinking that's been present in Berkeley for decades, it's not surprising that word was used in Berkeley — and in the Bay Area as a whole — first.


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