Berkeley, A City in History
by Charles WollenbergCopyright 2002
BOOM AND BUST
The "Roaring Twenties"---bathtub gin, the Charleston, the flappers---these were manifestations of a great consumer-oriented economic boom. During the twenties the United States became the world's first mass-consumption industrial society, and the result was a decade of material prosperity and growth that benefited many, though by no means all Americans. California was the boom state of that boom decade, the population increasing by about 60 percent in just ten years. Berkeley also boomed, its population growing from 56,000 to 82, 000, a rate of increase almost matching that of the state as a whole. But after the stock market crash of 1929, the boom turned to bust, for the nation, the state, and for Berkeley. Precisely because it was a mass-consumption economy encompassing so much of the population, the Depression had a broader public impact than any previous economic downturn. In the midst of that two-decade roller coaster of boom and bust, the Berkeley that we know today began to emerge. Physically, at least, the Berkeley of 1940 looked very much like the Berkeley of 2000.
Fire in Berkeley
Although the 1920s were a period of tremendous material growth, the most dramatic event of the decade in Berkeley was a great natural disaster. In the early afternoon of September 17, 1923, a fire began in Wildcat Canyon, in what is today Tilden Park. It was a hot fall day, and fueled by a strong dry northeasterly wind, the fire crossed the crest of the hills and raced down the canyon of Codornices Creek into populated parts of North Berkeley. The fire proceeded in an irregular southwesterly direction, reaching as far as Hearst Street on the south and, in a few places, Shattuck Avenue on the west. The blaze was more than a match for the Berkeley Fire Department, so Chief G. Sydney Rose called in help from Oakland, Richmond, Emeryville, Piedmont and San Francisco. The San Francisco units, arriving by ferry about 90 minutes after they were called, stationed themselves at University and Shattuck Avenues and were credited with saving downtown. Hundreds of university students were massed along Hearst and kept the flames from crossing into the campus. But the fire continued burning until the wind shifted to the southwest. The cool ocean breeze blew the flames back on themselves and allowed fire fighters to finally extinguish the blaze.
Fortunately, the conflagration resulted in no deaths or serious injuries. But it destroyed 584 buildings and seriously damaged more than 30 others. Total economic loss was about $10,000,000, and approximately 4000 people were left homeless. The city government and Red Cross struggled to find temporary quarters for the homeless, and, in a reversal of the 1906 experience, many refugees found immediate shelter in San Francisco. Four days after the fire, the city planning commission met to organize the rapid reconstruction of the area. Displaced residents and community groups demanded a considerable role in the process, Bernard Maybeck even proposing that neighborhoods do their own planning on a block-by-block basis. This was a bit too much for the commission, but in the end, the city agreed with residents' wishes to maintain the north campus district primarily as a residential neighborhood of single family homes. However, the business block on Euclid Avenue was rebuilt, and in the area immediately adjacent to the campus, substantial numbers of apartment houses rose out of the ashes.
After seeing the flames quickly spread from roof to roof, Bernard Maybeck vowed never to build another wood shingle house. The City Council followed suit, unanimously voting to outlaw shingle roofs. But lumber industry trade associations, fearing a precedent that might spread to other communities, vehemently objected to the ordinance and in 1924 sponsored an initiative that repealed the council action. Nevertheless, most property owners had learned a painful lesson and rebuilt with stucco siding and non-shingle roofs. Not until the 1970s, did wood shingle houses come back into style in Berkeley.
Today, the fire's erratic course can still be easily charted by walking north from the UC campus on streets like Arch or Spruce. Blocks of stucco homes built after 1923 are interrupted by older wood-sided buildings that escaped the path of the blaze. For several years after 1923, the city operated a fire lookout station on Grizzly Peak during the summer. But most of the lessons of 1923 were gradually forgotten, and the even more destructive 1991 East Bay hills fire found the community about as unprepared as it had been in the early twenties. While most of the damage was in Oakland, the 1991 blaze also destroyed several Berkeley hillside homes in the southeastern corner of the city. One important lesson that had to be re-learned in 1991 was the need for effective communication between the Berkeley and Oakland Fire Departments, as well as between those departments and the fire fighting units of the East Bay Parks and the Lawrence Berkeley Lab.
In 1923, as city officials had hoped, reconstruction was rapid. The number of building permits issued by the city grew from a healthy 2,182 in 1922 to an extraordinary 4,293 in 1925. By no means all of this construction occurred in the fire area. Acres of new homes went up on the northern and southern edges of the city. By the 1930s, Berkeley was essentially "built-out," with undeveloped open space pretty much limited to a large university-owned tract in northwest Berkeley and Park Hills, adjacent to Tilden Park. These areas were developed after World War II, the city annexing Park Hills in 1958 in what was Berkeley's last territorial expansion.
There was plenty of commercial construction as well, particularly in downtown and along Telegraph Avenue. Included was the 1925 American Trust Building, the city's first skyscraper (now the Wells Fargo Building). And the boom also affected West Berkeley's manufacturing sector. The number of plants grew from 113 in 1919 to 193 in 1928, and the total annual value of goods manufactured in the city increased from $28,000,000 to over $60,000,000 during those years. Substantial growth also occurred in North Oakland and Albany, so that by the early thirties, Berkeley was part of a continuous urban corridor extending from East Oakland to El Cerrito.
Regional Water and Park Systems
The 1923 fire revealed some serious shortcomings in Berkeley's water system. When homeowners turned on their hoses at the same time that fire fighters unplugged their hydrants, water pressure dropped to near zero. This simply reinforced the complaints about water service that had been expressed for decades. After Henry Berryman sold his original Berkeley water works in the 1880s, the city had been integrated into a series of privately-owned regional systems that included Oakland. The most ambitious of these, the Peoples Water Company, controlled by the former Smith-Havens syndicate, went bankrupt in 1914 in the midst of a serious drought. New investors hastily organized the East Bay Water Company and took measures to increase supply, including building San Pablo Reservoir and developing the Wildcat Creek watershed, but these were short-term solutions at best. By 1920 several firms, including the Goodyear Tire Company, had decided not to locate in the East Bay because of the inadequate water service.
East Bay business and political leaders concluded that if the region was to continue its rapid economic and population growth, it had to follow the examples of Los Angeles and San Francisco and develop a publicly-owned system that tapped the apparently inexhaustible watersheds of the Sierra Nevada. Some Berkeley politicians favored buying into San Francisco's Hetch Hetchy system, but Oakland leaders viewed this as another plot to bring the region under San Francisco control. Instead, East Bay movers and shakers finally agreed to a plan long advocated by former Oakland mayor and California governor George Pardee. Pardee argued for a separate water district that would build a Sierra system for the urbanized parts of the East Bay, including Oakland, Alameda and Richmond, as well as Berkeley. The state legislature authorized the establishment of the East Bay Municipal Utilities District in 1921, and two years later, the new EBMUD board chose the Mokelumne River as the source of supply. In 1924 voters approved a bond issue to pay for the project by a three-to-one margin. Five years later, Mokelumne River water from Pardee Reservoir about 100 miles east of Berkeley flowed into East Bay taps for the first time.
The new district purchased the assets of the old East Bay Water Company but had no use for the Wildcat Creek watershed. Conservationists led by Berkeley resident Robert Sibley, director of the UC alumni association, revived a plan, first proposed in the 1860s by Frederick Law Olmsted, to preserve the East Bay hills as parkland. But EBMUD refused to participate and prepared to sell Wildcat Canyon to private developers. As a result, Sibley and his supporters successfully lobbied the legislature to establish still another regional district, this time for park purposes.
The East Bay Regional Park District was created in 1933. In the following year, in spite of the deep national depression, East Bay voters agreed to tax themselves to operate the new district and purchase the former watershed land. Two thousand acre Tilden Park, named after the park district's first president, was the beginning of what today is a 100,000 acre regional park system in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. District land, combined with adjoining EBMUD watershed, gives the East Bay a remarkable urban greenbelt that is one of region's most important public amenities. But the two regional authorities, EBMUD and EBRPD, are powerful government agencies whose elected boards operate with little media attention and almost no public scrutiny.
Roaring Twenties University
As the city and region developed their infrastructure and amenities, the university continued its physical and institutional growth. The student population increased from about 7,000 to more than 11,000 during the 1920s, and John Galen Howard's building program continued, even after he resigned as university architect in 1923. Within the university hierarchy, much of the 1920s was consumed by the faculty's struggle to reassert its power after the autocratic Wheeler era. But while the faculty fought for more authority over academic and budget matters, it was more than willing to give up most of its loco parentis control over students' non-academic life. Freed from old constraints, many students entered into the new liberated lifestyle of the twenties with a vengeance. Fraternities and sororities prospered, and while their members did not comprise a majority of the student body, they often controlled student life and politics. If the twenties actually "roared" anywhere in Berkeley, it was probably among the most free spirited and socially active UC students.
The university was most visible to the general public through its athletic programs. Intramural athletics began on an informal basis in the 1870s and grew in importance after completion of the original Harmon Gym in 1879. Intercollegiate sports developed in the 1880s, and in 1895 the track team traveled east and defeated what were considered some of the best squads in the country. These victories produced an out-pouring of school spirit; English professor Charles Mills Gayley was even moved to write a university song. During the 1899 championship baseball game with Stanford, Cal students stole a Stanford axe, and that trophy eventually became the prize awarded to the winner of the annual "Big Game" football extravaganza.. Benjamin Ide Wheeler outlawed football for a few years, but the sport made a spectacular comeback in the 1920s. Under coach Andy Smith, the "Wonder Teams" were undefeated in fifty straight games between 1920 and 1925, outscoring their opponents 1649 to 139. The win streak included five consecutive victories over hated rival Stanford and two Rose Bowl appearances.
At Cal, as at other major universities, football became big business, an important part of the mass-consumption society of the 1920s. The games attracted tens of thousands of people who had no connection with the school other than an identification with the team. Athletic success brought the university public recognition and warmed the hearts and check books of wealthy alumni and other potential donors. Not surprisingly, Cal fans lobbied for a football stadium that would reflect the new public significance of the sport.
In 1921 a major subscription drive raised more than a million dollars to build the new stadium. It was to be dedicated to the memory of university graduates who died in World War I, giving the project a patriotic as well as athletic cachet. For stadium supporters, the preferred site was the mouth of Strawberry Canyon, one of the loveliest areas on campus and a favorite picnic spot for both students and Berkeley residents. Although many Berkeleyans protested the destruction of the canyon and John Galen Howard suggested another location for the stadium, the proposal had tremendous popular support and momentum. The project went ahead, excavating the canyon mouth to accommodate the new structure. All 76,000 seats were filled at Memorial Stadium's opening, which coincided with the 1923 Big Game (which, of course, Cal won).
Enter the Auto
Perhaps the 1920s development that most affected the daily lives of Berkeley residents was the emergence of the automobile as the major means of transportation for the city and the state. Crude horseless carriages had been around since the end of the nineteenth century, and by 1915 cars were commonly sharing Berkeley's streets with horse-drawn vehicles and electric trolleys. In the twenties, assembly line production methods transformed cars into consumer items affordable even for working class families. During the decade, California led the nation and the world into the Automobile Age. By 1930 there already more motor vehicles than households in California, a car or truck for every three residents. In that year, the state had less than 5 percent of the nation's population but nearly 10 percent of the nation's autos.
Berkeley fully participated in the automobilization of California life. Virtually any home built after World War I had a garage. The North Campus apartments constructed after the 1923 fire were required to have at least one garage space for every unit. Before World War I, residential neighborhoods had corner stores and shopping areas within easy walking distance of every house. But homes built in the upper Berkeley hills during the twenties were a steep mile or more away from the nearest retail outlet. It was assumed that residents could now drive to distant shopping areas. Elementary schools were still built within walking distance of homes; after all, the little kids couldn't drive.
Politically and environmentally correct Berkeleyans of today are at least theoretically in favor of mass transit and opposed to smog-belching autos. But in the early twentieth century, cars seemed to be a technology that liberated individuals from the control of great corporate transportation empires like the Southern Pacific and the Key System. Automobiles gave Berkeley residents mobility and freed them from the transit corporations' routes and schedules. But this came at a cost, since the car was supported by a massive public road and street building program. In 1923 the state legislature passed the gasoline tax, a levy on each gallon of gas sold. A portion of the receipts went for state highways, but part of tax was returned to local governments for use on streets and roads. Thus Berkeley gained revenue to pave most of its streets and lay out new ones. Unlike almost any other state program, the gas tax gave streets and highways a built-in source of revenue that didn't need specific legislative appropriations each year. California had decided to devote the great bulk of its public transportation dollars to the automobile.
While public tax dollars built streets and roads, private transit companies like the Key System still had to build and maintain their own tracks and pay franchise fees to cities like Berkeley. The growing numbers of autos on the road produced traffic jams that caused transit delays, throwing off schedules and making rail commutes less dependable. During the boom years of the twenties, there was plenty of business for both autos and rail transit. But in the thirties, population growth slowed drastically and the bottom fell out of the economy. Private rail systems found it increasingly difficult to compete against the publicly-subsidized automobile. Key System patronage declined and the company, whose finances had never been strong, began to sustain heavy losses.
San Francisco Bay had prevented the final victory of the automobile during the twenties. Even before World War I, the region's traditional transportation system attempted to adjust to the new reality by establishing automobile ferries between Oakland and San Francisco. In 1926 the Golden Gate Ferry Company, a Southern Pacific affiliate, inaugurated service on a Berkeley-San Francisco line, operating from a new Berkeley pier that extended out to deep water three miles into the bay. The new ferry was Berkeley's first direct transit connection with San Francisco in nearly fifty years. Although the company provided bus service along University Avenue for patrons without cars, the 1926 system was primarily an auto ferry. As such, it was obsolete even before it was completed. Big Game days created the greatest traffic jams in Berkeley history, with cars backed up the length of the pier and on to University Avenue waiting to board the ferry. What the new automobile age demanded was a bridge across the bay.
In 1929 the federal government allocated funds to build the Oakland- San Francisco Bay Bridge. Just two years after completion of the project in 1936, Golden Gate Ferry called it quits. The company gave its Berkeley pier to the city, and a small portion of it still serves as a public fishing and recreation facility. Originally, the lower deck of the Bay Bridge was designed to accommodate electric trains. But in 1941 both the Southern Pacific and Sacramento Northern ended electric passenger service, leaving the Key System as the surviving rail transit provider. The company enjoyed some success during World War II because of gas rationing and population growth, but after the war patronage fell like a rock, declining 42 percent between 1949 and 1952 alone.
The system was acquired by National City Lines, a holding company owned by Firestone Tires, Phillips Petroleum, Standard Oil of California, Mack Trucks and General Motors, among others. Given the nature of its ownership, it's hardly a surprise that National City had a preference for gas-powered, internal combustion vehicles that ran on rubber tires. The new management phased out inner city trolleys, replacing the rail cars with busses. Rail service continued only on the transbay routes across the bridge. But the system kept on losing money and in 1958 was merged into the new Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District, a public agency supported by local taxes. AC Transit ended the last transbay rail service, replacing the trains with busses and allowing the bridge to be retrofitted with two one-way decks. Ironically, this occurred just as planning got under way for a Bay Area Rapid Transit District, destined to replicate much of the old Key route with a new rail system.
New Deal Projects
Although the federal government allocated the funds for the Bay Bridge during the administration of Herbert Hoover, construction took place in the Roosevelt years. The project was among the many public works projects that Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal built to promote economic recovery from the Depression. Included was the first bore of the Lower Broadway (now Caldecott) Tunnel, which was also constructed in the thirties with federal funds. Its completion created the first convenient automobile link between Berkeley (and Oakland) and central Contra Costa County. The bridge and tunnel represent the final triumph of the automobile---now every major East Bay commute route had an easy highway connection. If the car came of age during the boom years of the twenties, it took the bust of the thirties to produce the huge public works projects that sewed up the auto's final victory.
In addition to public works contracts let to private firms, the New Deal also created government job programs to put the unemployed to work. The National Youth Administration provided work-study positions that allowed students at Cal and Berkeley High to remain in school. The Civilian Conservation Corps employed young Berkeley men in conservation and recreation projects. One of the first CCC camps in California was located in Wildcat Canyon near the current site of the Tilden Park Environmental Education Center. CCC workers built some of the park's most important facilities, including the dam on Lake Anza, the golf course and many of the picnic grounds. "CCC boys" dug fire trails and hiking paths and planted groves of redwoods and Monterey Pines in the East Bay hills.
Biggest of all the New Deal job programs was the Works Progress Administration. In Berkeley, the WPA built the Rose Garden on Euclid Avenue, Aquatic Park near the waterfront and the Yacht Harbor at the Berkeley Marina. WPA workers dismantled part of the Brazilian exhibit at the 1939-40 world's fair on Treasure Island and relocated it in Tilden Park where it became the "Brazilian Room." They also worked on additions to Berkeley High, including the Community Theater (which was not finished until after World War II). The WPA's Federal Writers Project hired Berkeley writers and students to produce a number of books, including a history of the city. The WPA theater project in Oakland provided jobs for East Bay actors and production personnel, and art programs hired painters and photographers. During the thirties, the New Deal dramatically changed the relationship between the Federal Government and local communities like Berkeley. The feds had little direct effect on the first eighty years of Berkeley's existence, but since the New Deal it is impossible to understand Berkeley's history without discussing the role and impact of federal programs and policies .
The presence of the university partially shielded Berkeley from the full impact of the Depression. Although the state legislature cut the U.C. budget in the early thirties, even a somewhat reduced university payroll was an important economic life jacket for the city. Cal's relative prosperity during the Depression was due in part to the political skill of President Robert Gordon Sproul, who took office in 1930. A 1913 UC graduate, Sproul had worked his way up through the university bureaucracy. He was sociable and garrulous (with a speaking voice like foghorn), and over the years, had established friendships with key faculty members. These served him well, as he calmed much of the conflict that had plagued faculty-administration relations during the 1920s. An important figure in the state Republican Party, Sproul had served as the university's advocate in Sacramento and had ties with legislative leaders. After 1937, he was even able to win small funding increases.
One of Sproul's most serious challenges was a proposal by southern California legislators to establish UCLA as a separate state university, with its own board and budget. Berkeley faculty, students and alumni tended to regard UCLA as an inferior "southern branch," an attitude that angered influential business and political leaders in Los Angeles, by 1930 the state's largest city. To counter the possibility of secession, Sproul argued that the Los Angeles institution was a separate but equal university campus. To make his point, he took up residence in the south for a time, running the statewide university from UCLA. Without quite planning it, and much to the dismay of many Berkeley loyalists, Sproul established the concept of a multi-campus U.C. system. He maintained a single state university, but in the process, diminished Berkeley's self-proclaimed role as the center of California's higher education universe.
Sproul also had to deal with activist students. Most UC students remained politically moderate or conservative during the thirties, and the greatest student disorders in Berkeley were drunken riots celebrating the football victories of the 1937 "Thunder Team." Nevertheless, a significant and vocal minority of the student body responded to the Depression with a commitment to radical or reformist political action. Some joined the Young People's Socialist League or the Young Communist League and championed workers' rights and alternatives to capitalism. Others aligned themselves with the less ideological National Student League or the Social Problems Club. The latter sponsored annual "Students Strikes for Peace," large anti-war and anti-ROTC rallies at Sather Gate. Even the official student government, the Associated Students of the University of California, attempted to force local employers to maintain "Fair Bear" standards, including a minimum wage for student employees. The ASUC urged students to patronize only businesses displaying a Fair Bear window sticker indicating compliance.
Some faculty members also became involved in political activism. Physics Professor J. Robert Oppenheimer was one of several young faculty who supported leftist causes and discussed Marxist philosophy. Economics Professor Paul Taylor and his wife, Berkeley photographer Dorothea Lange, documented the terrible conditions of farm labor in California fields and advocated substantial reforms. Powerful agribusiness interests pressured Sproul to reign in Taylor, but the professor reported that his academic freedom was never compromised. Sproul, however, did support a ban on communist speakers and faculty and instituted rules that sharply restricted campus activities of student groups like Social Problems Club.
One place at which activist groups could always gather was Stiles Hall, the off-campus headquarters of the University YMCA. Stiles director Harry Kingman maintained a free speech, open forum policy, allowing a wide spectrum of speakers and organizations to use the facility. The International House was another institution that generally practiced a free-speech policy in its community programs. Harry Kingman was also instrumental in establishing the University Students Cooperative Association in 1933. The organization has provided relatively low-cost, co-op student housing at several facilities ever since.
Cooperative enterprises were self-help alternatives to private capitalism during the Depression, and Berkeley spawned several new co-op institutions. In 1937 West Berkeley Finnish Americans opened a cooperative gas station on San Pablo Avenue. At about the same time, a group of East Bay residents, many with university connections, formed a cooperative food buying club that soon evolved into a small grocery store. In 1940 the two organizations relocated their enterprises to a single shared lot on University Avenue and Acton Street. Seven years later, the two co-ops merged to form the Consumer Cooperative of Berkeley. Over the next quarter century, the Berkeley CO-OP opened several additional retail outlets and a credit union. It grew into the city's largest commercial enterprise and emerged as a powerful community institution in the post-war era. Its bankruptcy and disintegration in 1988 ended the history of what had been the city's largest institutional product of 1930s activism. Today, only the credit union survives.
The university's relative economic strength could not protect West Berkeley industries from the full impact of the Depression, and working class unemployment sharply increased. But the economic conditions also promoted new worker militancy and increased union organizing. New Deal legislation protected the collective bargaining rights of industrial workers for the first time in American history. As a result, unions achieved substantial increases in membership and power during the thirties. In the Bay Area, the key event was the union victory in the 1934 maritime workers' strike, a conflict that included a successful general strike of San Francisco labor. In the aftermath of this impressive display of economic power, unions began organizing drives around the Bay Area, including successful campaigns at some of Berkeley's largest industrial employers like Colgate Palmolive, Durkee Foods and Cutter Laboratories. The Bayer corporation's large Berkeley facility, the successor to Cutter Labs, remains the city's largest unionized private sector employer.
It would be a mistake to assume that all of this leftist activism represented Berkeley's political mainstream. While California as a whole voted for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Berkeley turned out solidly for Herbert Hoover. In 1934 Berkeley voters favored incumbent Republican governor Frank Merriam over leftist Democrat Upton Sinclair. Activist students may have demonstrated in favor of the maritime workers in 1934, but members of the Cal football team volunteered as strikebreakers. Many Berkeley political and business leaders were shocked at the level of union activism, fearing that the very structure of American economic and political life was at risk. The new social environment of the thirties, then, produced far more controversy than consensus in Berkeley.
Civil rights was an especially controversial issue. Equal treatment for non-whites was part of the ASUC Fair Bear standards. The Daily Californian proposed that landlords who discriminated on the basis of race be removed from the university's "approved housing" list. Faced with substantial opposition from property owners, however, the UC administration refused to act. But the ASUC itself had problems. The association's barber shop in the Stevens Union refused to cut black students' hair. The relatively liberal policies of the International House, which opened at the top of Bancroft Way in 1930, became a particular source of controversy. Since the building housed foreign and domestic students of all races and nationalities, director Allen Blaisdell reported that some residents of nearby fraternities argued they should not have to share the neighborhood with "niggers and chinks." The "I-House" also served both male and female students, and some Berkeleyans feared that this policy would promote inter-racial marriage. Blaisdell told of a conversation at the Women's Faculty Club in which his wife was asked, "Would you want your daughter to marry a Negro?"
Author Yoshiko Uchida grew up in a Japanese immigrant household on Ward Street during the boom and bust period of the 1920s and 30s. In spite of the discriminatory atmosphere her family faced in many aspects of Berkeley life, most of her early childhood friends and playmates were white neighbors, sometimes the children of European immigrants. But as she grew older and dating became an issue, social separation increased, and by the time she finished Berkeley High, the majority of her close confidants were fellow Japanese Americans. Uchida graduated early and attended Cal. Although she did well in her classes, she and most of her friends worried that due to racial discrimination, they would never be able to get jobs appropriate to their level of educational achievement. She also worried about growing international tension between the United States and Japan. Of course, the latter fears became reality on December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Still, Uchida was so focused on school, that after hearing the news that Sunday morning, she went off to the library to study. When she returned home, she learned that federal officers had arrested her father while she was gone. Her world, indeed much of the world of pre-war Berkeley, was about to be turned upside down.
End of Chapter 6
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