How Berkeley Became Berkeley 

How Berkeley took to the hills, promoted the good life, pioneered modern crime fighting, went Socialist, invented regional parks, rescued the bay, and more.

It Came From Berkeley, Dave Weinstein's lively history of one American college town's contributions to American society, tells the story of how the city played a principal role in the following innovations: the atom bomb, the wet suit, the hot tub, yuppies, listener-sponsored radio, California cuisine, school integration, women's rights, prohibition, the commercialization of LSD, and more. In 57 separate chapters, Weinstein charted Berkeley's course from Republican-leaning "Athens of the Pacific" to the infamous "People's Republic of Berkeley" so hated by Fox News. Here is some of what he came up with. The rest is in his book, It Came from Berkeley: How Berkeley Changed the World, published by Gibbs Smith. 

How Berkeley Took to the Hills

No one considering the history of Berkeley can ignore the hills — because nothing had more effect on the city's development, nor on its social and cultural life, than the hills. Without the hills, Berkeley would never have become Berkeley — a town that glories in the beauty of its wilderness and in wilderness everywhere.

The founders of the University of California knew they'd lucked upon the most beautiful site in the world, better than the Italian lakes and closer in spirit to the Olympian home of the gods. Poet Joaquin Miller agreed. "It sits in the lap of huge emerald hills, and in the heart of a young forest," Miller wrote in 1886, "with little mountain streams bawling and tumbling about, wild oats up to your waist in the playgrounds and walks, and a sense of largeness and strength grander than I ever felt in and about any university before."

And every house built in the town's upper reaches, residents bragged, had a view through the Golden Gate. Berkeleyans could sit on their porches and watch buildings going up in San Francisco. The Berkeley Hills were wilderness. Bears roamed and salmon spawned in Strawberry Creek.

Berkeley became a city of hikers. Cornelius Beach Bradley described some favorite hikes in the 1898 book A Berkeley Year. "The quiet saunter up Strawberry Canyon, the long afternoon ramble over the hills to Orindo Park, the all-day tramp by the Fish Ranch to Redwood Canon and Maraga Peak, or more strenuous still, the cross-country trip to Diablo."

Twenty years later, the lively coed Agnes Edwards headed for the hills whenever she could. "I don't think there's another place in the world where you can see so many different kinds of scenery," she wrote her folks in letters that have been collected in the delightful book Student Life at the University of California Berkeley During and After World War I. "The Bay is all spread out before us, the hills rise out of our yards almost, and altho' we're within an hour's distance of as citified a city as you could want, in ten minutes' walk we can get so far from civilization that we'd never know we were near a city."

Perhaps nothing — not bohemianism, free speech, citizen activism, spirituality, nor good food — defines Berkeley so much as its beauty, which attracted the men who first made up the faculty and the poets, artists, architects, business people, real estate developers, and scientists who followed. In 1903, when President Teddy Roosevelt came to speak during commencement, the university's beloved president, Benjamin Ide Wheeler, invited him to gallop on horseback through the hills. Over the years, Berkeley's thinkers did their thinking while walking in the hills — none more so than physicists Ernest Lawrence and Robert Oppenheimer. It was on these strolls that they hashed out details for Berkeley's biggest contribution to history, the atomic bomb.

William Keith, argubly Berkeley's finest painter and certainly its most successful, walked every day through a forest of campus oaks on the way to the ferry and his San Francisco studio. Many of those oaks turned up later in paintings of the Sierra. The Sierra Nevada itself was no stranger to Keith. He hiked there often with his friend John Muir.

Thanks to Muir, Professor Joseph Le Conte and his son, Professor Little Joe, as well as biblical scholar William Badè and other Berkeleyans who helped found the Sierra Club, the Sierra became a Berkeley outpost, with locals like Bill Colby leading trekkers on monthlong stays, complete with mules and slabs of bacon.

Colby recalled one of those trips with Little Joe. "Joe bought a mule and it was black. He called it Blackie. And before he got through with his trips, that mule was white — perfectly white. Everybody said that Joe would take the mule up to the top of a pass and put his head over the edge. When the mule looked down and saw where he had to go, he got so frightened that it scared him white."

Another Berkeley mountain man was artist and professor Worth Ryder, who introduced modern art to Berkeley in the 1920s, later bringing in the abstractionist Hans Hofmann. Ryder loved the outdoors. "There is something primordial in the joy it gives me," he wrote of the Sierra. "Standing naked and alone in the wilderness, facing the sun and the wind. And such a wind it is. Hurrying across vast untrodden spaces, ozoned by fragrant forests, and cooled by crystal ice fields. It ripples across my back like joyous laughter."

How Berkeley Promoted the Good Life

Few men set their goals so early or stuck to them so consistently as Charles Keeler, who decided as a boy to become a naturalist and poet, and spent the rest of his life pursuing both goals — despite notable failures.

Although he wrote one book, The Simple Home, which helped define the Berkeley look and remains a classic, Keeler's other poetical productions — ballads, pageants, children's verse (Elfin Songs of Sunland), novels, nature books, journalism, and radio plays — are forgotten. And though his homes in Berkeley were showpieces of his harmonious natural lifestyle, Keeler often lived hand-to-mouth.

Still, no one came closer than Keeler to formulating or acting out a Theory of Berkeley: Life is best when lived out of doors. Your home should belong to nature. Fine art should be inhaled like air. Figure out what is best for your community and make it happen. Study nature but don't ignore spirit. An evening is best spent with friends listening to music or attending the theater, or making your own music and theater. Ready for bed? First pull out your pen and describe your day and your thoughts and your dreams.

Bernard Maybeck designed a brown-shingled home for Keeler in 1895, helping set the rustic yet playful and sophisticated look of the Berkeley Hills for decades to come. Keeler put Maybeck's Arts and Crafts aesthetic into words and turned it into a crusade.

Keeler made his mark at Cal by establishing the Evolution Club to promote Darwin's theory, which was so controversial it split friendships. For Keeler, though, evolution led to love. After spotting the club's leader, with his long hair and intense brown eyes, coed Louise Mapes Bunnell developed a sudden interest in Darwin. She and Keeler married a few years later and collaborated — Louise as designer — on some of the best Arts and Crafts publications produced in the Bay Area.

By 1892 Keeler was working at the California Academy of Sciences and exploring the fauna of the Farallon Islands. His first book came out the next year, The Evolution of Colors of North American Land Birds. In 1899, he accompanied Muir, naturalist John Burroughs, and other scientists on the Harriman expedition to Alaska, forming friendships that would last. He hiked with Muir in the Sierra and helped form the Sierra Club.

Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Latest in Feature

Most Popular Stories

Special Reports

The Beer Issue 2020

The Decade in Review

The events and trends that shaped the Teens.

Best of the East Bay


© 2020 Telegraph Media    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation