Berkeley at 100

A city takes a historic look at itself, and a writer takes a look at his own - and his city's - ghosts

Berkeley telegraph avenue centennial
AP Photo/files
National Guardsmen with bayonets keep a downtown Berkeley street closed to demonstrators
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Berkeley celebrated its one hundredth anniversary as an independent city the week of April 1st, and typically, the only one of the many centennial events to receive any coverage in the media was the most obvious: a free "Sixties Rock Concert." Less easy to pin down was the county-fair-style carnival at Peoples' Park – that half-block of land won in May of 1969, but not until one man had lost his life, another his eyesight, and (since, after the first day of fighting, Berkeley was occupied by the National Guard) the city its last vestiges of sovereignty. A rented, overnight affair, the carnival came complete with Ferris wheel, bumper cars, shooting gallery and fun house; several yards of grass had been crushed to make room for the midway. It was very incongruous, given the history that was, supposedly, at issue; a lone park volunteer, weeding shrubs a hundred feet from the crowds, did his best to seem indifferent. Just down the street, at the corner of Haste and Dwight – a corner that has likely seen more tear gas than any in the United States – you could follow that history in a wall mural, "A Peoples' History of Telegraph Avenue" (covering the years 1964-1970, it was completed in 1976), and discover why some of us cannot walk past the park, or Moe's Bookstore, or any number of campus battlegrounds that are now merely buildings, without feeling chased by our own ghosts.

Settled by Anglos shortly after the beginning of the Gold Rush, Berkeley is not old as California towns go; that I've lived in the city for one-seventh of its official tenure, or that my house has stood for more than half of it, means that history should be within easy reach. On the other hand, so much history was made in Berkeley, from the Free Speech Movement to the last bitter demonstrations over the invasion of Cambodia, that everything else that has happened here – be it the opening of the University, the founding of the city itself, or the brilliant flowering of Berkeley architecture at the hands of Bernard Maybeck, John Galen Howard and Julia Morgan during the first third of this century – seems more than a little spectral. At least for a time, the Berkeley of the Sixties utterly replaced the past, blotted it out. But that time too is now the past, and since Berkeley is now more than "where I live," it's where I come from, I took its one hundredth birthday as an opportunity to learn more about the place: to come from more.

The centennial event I liked best was the parade, held in the business district (the last parade I'd attended there took place the day after the Peoples' Park shootings, in the teeth of the Guard; it was bigger) on Saturday, April 8th. If ever there was an affair the theme of which was "Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom," this was it. The reviewing stand was an affirmative-action Utopia – it was balanced perfectly between old and young, men and women, whites, Chicanos, blacks and Orientals – and the parade followed suit. Anyone could march. There were bands (Berkeley High, the University), horseback riders, lots of vintage cars, classes of schoolchildren, but there were also families pushing strollers, a full-dress contingent of black cowboys and cowgirls, a huge group of Hare Krishna shouters, a dozen men from the American Legion, Ronald MacDonald (a big fight was waged last year to keep him out of town), a steel-eyed black man with a homemade T-shirt that read "Bikers Are Human Too," and a fellow dressed as an eighteenth-century divine. That was Bishop Berkeley, from whom the town took its name. Berkeley was a philosopher; it was his belief that the material world existed only in the perceptions of the beholder, which is as good a premise for a city that also calls itself the Athens of the West as any other.

What I liked about the parade was the idea that Berkeley was a city in which – to which – anyone could belong: an idea much richer than "tolerance." Everyone seemed appropriate in the parade, and that suggested a city that by some magic (attributable in part to the interplay between the town's architectural and natural beauty, the University as a continual source of novelty, and the hundred-year-old antagonism between the working-class residents of the flatlands and the professional-class residents of the hills) has resisted taking final shape. The parade said that Berkeley was still a place to be made; that it could be founded over and over again – just as it had been founded in municipal and commercial terms in 1878, in aesthetic terms by architects and intellectuals in the Teens and Twenties, and in political terms by students in the Sixties. There was, the parade announced, room for anyone willing to persevere long enough to be accepted and valued as part of the daily reality of the place, be he or she Hubert Lindsay, the campus evangelist who for years railed with great good humor at the sinfulness of student life; John DeBonis, the inescapable rightwing city councilman who in the Sixties drove his opponents mad with rage; the woman who has walked down Telegraph Avenue blowing bubbles for more than ten years; or the waiter at my favorite Mexican restaurant, who still refuses to admit he recognizes me even though I have eaten at his table for fifteen years and have never changed my order once. Stagnant as Berkeley often seems to be – and what place would not, after what this place has been through? – I was sure, watching the parade with a grin, that the city had surprises left.

That night, at a party, I talked with a professor whose course in political theory I'd taken during the wondrously exuberant semester that followed the Free Speech Movement – a time when, with no fakery at all, the ideas of Plato, Rousseau, or whoever else one might be reading were linked with astonishing power to the political choices we considered every day. "I almost quit after that," the professor had told me once. "I knew it could never be that good again."

This night he was talking about a city and a college at which he had just spent a term as a visiting teacher. "It's a meanspirited place," he said – and he described a community open only in its contempt for those deemed not worthy of membership in it: a college unashamedly anti-Semitic, a town that held its shape to the degree that it could keep its Chicanos and Indians outside its limits. A place, in other words, where repression was not even an embarrassment, but indeed the basis of public life.

Given my state of mind, what I heard described was a city that was in every obvious way not Berkeley – and whether it was not Berkeley because Berkeley is better, or in some sophisticated, hypocritical way worse, I didn't much care. It's a question not simply of where you are at home, but of where you choose to make a home.

The day after the parade I went to the exhibit on Berkeley history. There were panels about Berkeley's long-vanished Indians, about the aesthetes of the Twenties: one woman had Bernard Maybeck build her an insane Greek temple and was photographed in the manner of Isadora Duncan. Then I watched a slide show. Half of it concerned old Berkeley: the first businesses, the ruinous fire of 1923 that burnt a path right down to the foot of Euclid Avenue. The second half was about Peoples' Park; I saw, as Berkeley's official history, slides of what, almost ten years before, I had seen in the flesh. I remembered taking the class I was then teaching to watch the police erect a fence around the park lot; I remembered thinking it odd that the cops were wearing flak jackets. I remembered how my wife, then pregnant, had a short time later walked down Telegraph Avenue, trying not to look at the county sheriffs who were aiming shotguns at her from the windows of their cars; I remembered standing in my bank when a man rushed in to announce that people were being shot down in the streets only blocks away; and I remembered, in a flash of faces and explosions, the fights that followed. What I learned, watching the slides, was that, as is not true everywhere in this country, the history of the place where I live was history that by the plain fact of presence I had been allowed to help make.

Like all places, Berkeley offers a special kind of oppression and a special kind of freedom: here, the oppression of those too sure they know what's good for others, and the freedom always to start over from what looks like a beginning. The blazingly personal houses left by the architects speak for that no less than the photos of Peoples' Park – speak for the reality that in Berkeley anyone can be a founder, can leave a mark. In doing so, one does more than become part of a history that someone else will collect in the future; one joins a history and accepts the burden of continuing it.

This story is from the May 18th, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.


 

From The Archives Issue 265: May 18, 1978
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