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.
In Berkeley, when the women who founded the Hillside Club to advocate naturalistic planning in the hills needed men in their organization to give it political clout (this was before women had the vote), Keeler became president and molded the group into an activist organization and political force. The club fought for winding streets that followed the contours of the land, for tree preservation, and for architecture that blended with the landscape. The club’s principles were based on Maybeck’s architecture and Keeler’s theories. Keeler’s ambitions, as ever, were huge. He saw the club becoming a statewide movement. It never did, but its principles and successes still inspire anyone who visits the Berkeley Hills.
Like most of Berkeley’s artists and writers, Keeler was stylistically conservative. “The great problem with regard to beauty as I see it today,” he wrote a friend in 1929, “is that the so-called ‘new art,’ modernistic art, encourages and glorifies ugliness in the name of art.” About modern artists, Keeler added: “They are in fact psychopathic schizophrenics in whom the normal standards of beauty in nature have been swept away and their grotesque fantasies have supplanted them.”
After Louise died in 1907 — she had been ill and weakened after spending weeks helping San Francisco earthquake refugees in Berkeley — Keeler found himself raising three children by himself. (He finally remarried in 1921, after staving off his wife-to-be for years, pleading poverty.) His mother watched the children while Keeler took his show on the road, attracting 250 Europeans to a reading at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel in 1911, followed by successes in Hong Kong and Manila. He appeared in Paris and London, met every literary figure he cared to, and settled in New York. But Keeler had little luck outside Berkeley, as revealed through his letters to family and friends. He spent his days hustling after his one big break and his nights writing in a series of increasingly shabby rooms. “My days are so very full that I go from one appointment to the next with the regularity of a machine,” he wrote home. “It is all in the line of making my work known, but so far without decisive result.”
Keeler had successes now and again. His poem “The Enchanted Forest,” which he wrote in three nights between midnight and 2 a.m., attracted a full audience to the Waldorf-Astoria. His daughter, “poor little Eloise,” fainted from the excitement. Still, without his mother’s checks, he would have been unable to pay the rent, and by 1917, Keeler “really feared I might find myself here with no money to pay for my room or to buy food.”
Returning to Berkeley by the start of World War I, Keeler was back to form, involving himself with the Rotary and Bohemian clubs, attending salons, and writing incessantly. For seven years Keeler had the unusual experience, for a poet, of managing the Chamber of Commerce. It was a job he handled well, boosting dues while quadrupling membership and tackling such divisive issues as the future of the Berkeley waterfront, which he hoped to preserve largely as open space. His stance cost him the job.
“The work was most uncongenial to me in many respects,” he wrote several years later, while seeking work as the city librarian, “but I stayed with it for seven years and was finally unceremoniously turned out by a minority group who wished to extend the industrial zone in a manner that seems to me and to many others a great misfortune to Berkeley.”
Keeler had already embarked on a project he hoped would gain him worldwide acclaim, or at least a dependable salary — the Cosmic Society. “If civilization is to survive, a new religious consciousness must help to unite the world,” he wrote. His religion was based on “the common religious bond in which all religions share,” “the trinity of love, truth and beauty.”
Keeler based the society’s organization on that of the Chamber and the Rotary Club, and expected to serve as its paid director. He tried to start branches in Los Angeles and Washington, DC, and insisted, “If Cosmic Religion societies are organized, they will be required to receive their charters from the Berkeley headquarters.”
The society often met before the fireplace at Charles and Sulgwynn Quitzow’s Passmore studio or at Mary McHenry Keith’s hillside home. Evenings featured piano, violin, or vocal recitals. Members — about fifty, including Berkeley police chief Gus Vollmer — would also talk about their lives and would patronize each others’ businesses. Keeler’s plans for a Cosmic Temple were characteristically ambitious. “Within such a temple would be the magic of modern lighting producing strangely beautiful effects falling upon moving water, stained glass designs, mural paintings symbolic of Cosmic Religion, sculpture and carvings,” Keeler wrote. “There would be organ music, chamber music, a symphony orchestra and choir, dramatic pageants and allegories rendered.” The temple, in other words, would not have been brown shingled.
Keeler never flagged. Although a novel about a chamber of commerce, “Bayville Boosters,” failed to find a publisher, his radio plays — Skipper Brown’s Yarns, Tales in a California Garden, Around the World with Keeler — proved popular. Still, the Keeler household, which remained at his wonderful studio in the hills, required regular checks from his son Leonarde. “I have lost influence in the last few years,” Keeler confessed to Leonarde a year before his death in 1937, “and not many people who count in the world are anymore interested in me.”
How Berkeley Pioneered Modern Crime Fighting
Thieves “have learned that they can work in this city without molestation by the police,” the Berkeley Gazette reported in 1903, citing a recent jewelry heist at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Morgan. “Realizing that it was useless to ask the local police to apprehend the marauders, the Morgans telephoned the occurrence to the Oakland department.”
“Strictly speaking,” the Courier wrote in 1905, “the town has no police force.” There was one marshal and four officers, none of them professionally trained. For a time, none of them worked at night. That all changed in 1905, when August Vollmer — a Marine veteran of the Spanish-American War’s bloody Philippines campaign and a town firefighter — was elected marshal. He was already a local hero for averting disaster when a loose railcar threatened to plow into a passenger train.
The 25-year-old “boy marshal” looked silly when he raided several Chinese opium dens and found himself in court “up against the old difficulty of being unable to identify the Chinamen,” the Courier wrote.
And Vollmer’s face turned red at a party during his first months in office. Surrounded by a gaggle of pretty girls, Vollmer decided to show off his handcuffs — snapping them around one miss’ wrist — before realizing he didn’t have the key. But Vollmer wised up. Although he claimed to have no education, education is what he based his policing on. That, plus technology and science — sometimes, pseudoscience. By 1906, Berkeley had its first bicycle patrol, a centralized record system that tracked criminals’ modi operandi, and a system of electric lights spaced throughout town to communicate with officers. It was said to be the first electric police communications system in the country.
By 1913, Berkeley had the nation’s earliest all-motorized police department, and by 1919, the city equipped some of its cars with radios. In 1915, Berkeley had its own crime detection lab. Vollmer subjected would-be recruits to intelligence tests and, in 1908, started the Berkeley Police School — also an American first. By 1917, the school — run in conjunction with the university — taught physics, chemistry, biology, “criminology, anthropology and heredity,” and “criminological psychology.” The force was known nationwide as “Berkeley’s College Cops.”
A fan of Cesare Lombroso, who believed criminals could be identified by such characteristics as large jaws, Vollmer provided instruction on “race degeneration,” “eugenics,” and “hereditary crime and criminal tendencies.” Students learned about such “indirect factors” in crime as saloons, gambling, prostitution, “dime novels,” and “daily papers.” They also learned about preventing crime through education, art, sanitation, and “intelligent police.”
“Criminologists know that a policeman’s energies should be devoted to removing causes of crime, not to pursuing criminals,” Vollmer said. “But the average policeman doesn’t know that.”
“We must deal with the child in the early and plastic period of his life, when his attitudes, his religious, social, and personal ideals are being developed,” he told the Gazette in 1930. Vollmer sent policewomen into Berkeley schools to inculcate the young.
One of the first lie detectors was developed in Berkeley by John A. Larsen, a Ph.D in physiology whom Vollmer brought to the department. The machine was improved in 1920 by Leonarde Keeler, the son of Berkeley poet Charles Keeler, who was a friend of the chief.
Eloise Keeler, Leonarde’s sister, watched as seventeen-year-old “Narde” first tried out his machine, “a strange contraption consisting of tubes, wires, glass bulb and a wide strip of black smoked paper which moved.” The “suspect” was Eloise’s best friend, Chickie.
“Do you love Charlie?” Narde asked. “The needles recording Chickie’s blood pressure and breathing had suddenly lurched.”
“It’s true. I do have a kind of crush on Charlie.”
Eloise revealed why Vollmer was interested in such a machine: “The chief would not tolerate third-degree methods such as beating with a rubber hose.”
“The Keeler Polygraph” became one of the most used in the country, and Leonarde became a leading criminologist.
Vollmer, “an iron-gray man,” according to Colliers magazine, “with iron in his face and gray in his hair,” opposed capital punishment, and treated panhandlers leniently. Police officers, he said, need to possess “moral impregnability.” He also believed in free speech, backing the YMCA’s decision to open its meeting rooms to everyone, even Communists, whose philosophy he had no truck with. Believers in socialism, bolshevism, and “IWW-ism” he consigned to the “paranoiac” and “mentally twisted” personality types.
By 1924, according to Colliers, Vollmer was “the most famous policeman in the world.”
Vollmer, who retired as chief in 1932, continued teaching at the university until 1937. He remained active in the community, helping create the East Bay Regional Park District. In 1955, nearly blind and suffering from cancer and Parkinson’s disease, he took his own life after telling his housekeeper, “Call the Berkeley Police. I’m going to shoot myself.”
How Berkeley Went Socialist
Today, outsiders may call Berkeley “the People’s Republic.” During its early-20th-century heyday, however, the city was run primarily by Republicans. But Berkeleyans — even then — were not immune to the call of the Socialists for a more equitable divvying of life’s spoils.
In 1911, when Socialist J. Stitt Wilson ran for mayor, even a paper not known for its radical opinions supported his cause. “His well-rounded sentences, polished rhetoric and telling logic drove home the truth with great power,” the Gazette said of his kickoff speech.
Wilson, then a boyish 43, called for public ownership of lighting and electricity, streetcars, water, and phones, and a public kindergarten, with all these services provided at minimal cost. The battle, he said, set private citizens against “a mere handful of individuals who control the resources of the nation.” Wilson, a backer of women’s suffrage, already had the support of Berkeley’s progressive women.
“You know what I am standing for,” he said to rousing cheers, “cheaper water, cheaper gas, cheaper lights, cheaper phones.”
It was five years before the Bolshevik Revolution, and “socialism” had yet to become a dirty word. The years before the Great War were a high time for Socialists in America, with seventy or so cities electing Socialist mayors, and Eugene V. Debs, the perennial presidential candidate, providing the party with a charismatic face.
Wilson, once a preacher in Canada, made his name in town in 1905 as a leader of the Berkeley Anti-Vaccination League. Wilson took the stump against small-pox vaccinations, claiming they caused disease. He did so effectively. “Vaccination an evil,” the Courier trumpeted in a headline.
His socialist exhortations often took on biblical overtones. Consider his lecture “The Barbary Coast in a Barbarous Land: Or the Harlots and the Pharisees.” “Prostitution,” he intoned, “is the rotten pus running out of your respectable, legalized church-sanctioned capitalist system of industry.”
As mayor — he won by a mere 281 votes — Wilson fought his first battle with his own party. The Socialists required party members to sign resignation papers upon taking office and put them in the hands of the party so it could turn those out of office who disobeyed its edicts. Wilson told them to take a hike.
Wilson paid heed to his constituents’ quotidian needs. When folks in West Berkeley complained about the fire danger posed by a lack of water, in two days Wilson made sure they had access to a water tank.
His ally on the city council, John A. Wilson, proposed to ban smoking in any “restaurant, waiting room, office, store, streetcar or any other place used by the public” — a measure whose time didn’t come for another ninety years. “Berkeley smokers who like to take a puff of the fragrant weed are in for the most uncomfortable time of their lives,” the Berkeley Independent warned.
Another failed initiative was the mayor’s plan to build a municipal lighting plant. Wilson and city attorney Redmond (“Reddy”) Staats also failed in their attempt to block the merger of Home Telephone and Pacific States Telephone companies.
Wilson didn’t mind making enemies. When the realty men asked the city to ease their tax burden, he faced them at a public meeting and said, “A laundryman is more valuable to the community than a real estate man.”
By 1912, Wilson was ready for bigger things — Congress. His chances looked good. After all, he’d pulled in 12 percent of the votes in his try for governor in 1910. The Independent got into his corner, painting incumbent Rep. Joe Knowland as a pawn of the monopolists and the trusts, and printing Wilson’s exhortations in their entirety.
Wilson’s program for the United States much resembled his program for Berkeley: collective ownership of rail, wire, wireless, phone, mines, quarries, oil wells, forests, water power, steamboats, stockyards, “and all large-scale industries.”
He called for the conservation of timber, the reclamation of swamps, and the creation of new highways and waterways. The Supreme Court should no longer be allowed to overturn legislation. Children under sixteen shouldn’t work. The workweek should be shortened to six and a half days, and there should be a minimum wage.
Knowland won by 9,100 votes. Wilson lost his hometown by 419 votes. Wilson, who chose not to run for reelection as mayor in 1913, ran unsuccessfully as a Socialist for Congress in 1932 and for governor in 1936 and 1940.
Berkeley had to wait 66 years — until Gus Newport in 1979 — to have another socialist (small “s” this time) mayor.
How Berkeley Invented Regional Parks
Berkeley dearly loved its hills but wasn’t always willing to pay for them. Back in 1908, a plan to turn much of what became the Thousand Oaks neighborhood into a 98-acre wilderness park was defeated by 560 votes — even though the park was supported by everyone from real estate developer Duncan McDuffie and the Chamber of Commerce to Benjamin Ide Wheeler and Mary McHenry Keith.
Stakes were higher twenty years later when rumors circulated that the East Bay’s publicly owned water company planned to sell to real estate speculators its land along the Berkeley-Oakland hilltops — land that provided the East Bay with its natural backdrop.
The property — 11,000 acres stretching from Oakland’s Chabot Reservoir in the south to Richmond in the north — had been squirreled away by a series of private water companies to ensure the cleanliness of creek water that flowed into their reservoirs. The East Bay Municipal Utility District no longer needed the acreage because it was replacing local water with purer stuff from the Mokelumne River in the Sierra.
Hill lovers quickly united to make sure that “Keep Out: Beware of Arrest” signs became a memory. “If we allow these properties to be subdivided and sold to private individuals,” Robert Sibley, the chairman of the new East Bay Metropolitan Park Association wrote, “we will have lost forever an opportunity to build a chain of parks as beautiful as any owned by an American city today.”
His letter went out two weeks before Black Thursday marked the start of the Great Depression. But that put no damper on park proponents. Samuel C. May, a Cal administrator, took the lead, hiring the Olmsted brothers’ landscape architecture firm and Ansel Hall of the National Park Service to survey the potential parkland.
Founders and early leaders of the effort, who were mostly from Berkeley and Oakland, included McDuffie, Robert Sproul, Gus Vollmer, city manager Hollis Thompson, Major Charles Tilden, and Harold French, a pioneer conservationist with the Contra Costa Hills Club.
Through a canny campaign, largely run by Harlan Frederick, an associate of May, the group convinced virtually every civic association to sign on.
But for years, despite public support, the proposed park seemed to some “a wild dream.” EBMUD, which still owed money to bondholders for some of its land, refused to use it for parks. “Parks are a luxury compared with a proper water supply,” said George C. Pardee, the utility district’s president and a former governor, “and the cheaper the water can be furnished to our people the better it will be for this community.”
If outdoorsmen want a park, he advised, they should create a park district and buy the land from EBMUD. Park proponents squawked, but that is what they wound up doing.
In 1933, the state passed a law that provided for such a beast as a “regional park district.” The concept itself was new. In 1934, in a campaign that involved free visits to parks, parades with floats topped by children in rowboats, and federal funding for one thousand jobs for people on relief, East Bay voters agreed to create the park district: 93,405 yeas, 37,397 nays.
After much hashing, the new East Bay Regional Park District bought its first 2,166 acres from EBMUD — today, part of Tilden Regional Park. By the start of the 21st century, the district owned close to 100,000 acres and had its eye on thousands more.
Besides ensuring greenbelts around cities in two Bay Area counties, the park district has served as a model for urban and suburban park districts and for open space districts nationwide.
How Berkeley Rescued the Bay
Kay and Clark Kerr had always dreamed about living in a hillside home with a view of San Francisco Bay. But when they built such a house in 1949 in El Cerrito, Kay didn’t like what she saw. “We watched the destruction of the bay from our living room windows,” she told a historian. “Where there had been a nice wooded cove at Point Isabel, we watched the bulldozers knock off the trees, and level the area, and fill in the little harbor. We watched the garbage fill at Albany.”
Like every bayside city, Berkeley had been abusing its bay for years. Raw sewage ran untreated into the bay, creating what folks called “the Big Stench,” until the East Bay Municipal Utility District built its first sewage plant in 1951.
The city burned garbage along the shore. It briefly hauled it to sea, until 1917 when its contract with Signal Steamship Co. “was suddenly terminated by the destruction of the garbage vessel just outside the Golden Gate, with the loss of all hands on board,” according to the city annual report. Then it opened a shoreline dump.
Industrialists, meanwhile, had lined the shoreline from the start with soap factories, tanneries, wharves, chemical firms, and even powder works.
Since at least 1922, the year its chamber of commerce vowed to work with the city’s health department to make Berkeley the healthiest city in the nation, people were complaining that the dump was bad for their health. The city denied it. “The fill is not a rat harbor,” Roy W. Pilling, assistant to the city manager, insisted. By 1929, though, the problem was inescapable. Plans to improve Berkeley’s long-popular bathing beach by building a palatial bath house were scotched when the state’s sanitation chief ruled Berkeley’s waters “totally unfit for recreational use.”
Still, in its 1949 annual report, the city crowed about its landfill: “In the 25 years since the plan was begun, the City’s wastes had created acres of useful real estate where only mudflats had existed before.”
By the late 1950s, Berkeley was planning to broaden its industrial base by filling eight hundred acres of the Bay. Similar plans were in the works all around the Bay. Maps showed what the Bay would look like in the future — a river. We would have had a Bay Area without a bay.
By 1961, Kay Kerr had seen her fill, and so had her friends Esther Gulick and Sylvia McLaughlin. Kay’s husband was president of the university. Sylvia’s was on the Board of Regents. That gave them some sway, but not enough. The trio called a meeting of Bay Area conservationists, hoping to hand them the ball. Instead they were told: Run with it.
“I didn’t have much hope,” Harold Gilliam wrote years later. “The odds that such giants” — the railroad-real-estate firms and financial combines that owned much of the bayshore — “with billions of dollars behind them could be stopped by a handful of starry-eyed bay savers was laughable.”
Kerr, McLaughlin, and Gulick began lobbying the Berkeley City Council. And planner Mel Scott produced a report that turned a lot of heads, “The Future of San Francisco Bay.”
Berkeley, thanks to a new liberal council majority, was the first city to drop major plans for bayfill. But one victory wasn’t enough. “Although we had success in stopping the Berkeley fill,” McLaughlin recalled, “it was appalling to find out how many other cities had plans for large bay fills.” One project, Westbay, would have flattened San Bruno Mountain to fill most of the South Bay.
Working with veteran San Francisco assemblyman Eugene McAteer, the trio pushed for a strong regulatory body that later became the Bay Conservation and Development Commission. McAteer called on them whenever a show of support was needed. Kerr, Gulick, and McLaughlin would bring busloads of people to Sacramento — and send bags of sand to legislators.
Governor Reagan signed the act into law. “We had persistence,” McLaughlin said, “and the know-how came by doing.”
Saving the bay inspired conservationists worldwide. Locally, it led to successful efforts to preserve open space and creeks. It was, Gilliam wrote, among the first victories anywhere over the “juggernaut of development.”
The Save the Bay fight also gave the world a term that’s more relevant now than ever. “The first person I heard use the word ‘environment,’ in the sense we now know it, was Kerr,” Gilliam wrote. He watched her approach the founder of Common Cause after he gave a speech to demand, “Why didn’t you talk about the environment?’ Kerr continued, “He was obviously taken by surprise and could only mumble.”
How Berkeley Invented Disability Rights
Berkeley has kinda, sorta invented many things. But among those things that undisputedly were invented in Berkeley, disability rights stands out for its importance. Today it is largely taken for granted that people using wheelchairs or walkers, or those who cannot see or hear, should be able to get inside buildings, ride trains and buses, and attend concerts and films.
But that wasn’t so as recently as in 1972, when what is probably the world’s first curb cut — “the slab of concrete heard ’round the world” — was installed downtown at the northwest corner of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street.
Many of the federal laws that require accessible restaurants, stores, transit, and housing were devised in Berkeley by people associated with the Center for Independent Living and its offshoots.
Hale Zukas, the center’s public affairs specialist, fought for and helped write regulations that later became the Americans with Disabilities Act, which took effect in 1992.
In the late Seventies, Zukas — a persuasive man, even though his speech could barely be understood because of cerebral palsy — argued as a member of a federal panel on “architectural barriers” that train stations across the country should be remodeled to allow access for wheelchair users. Government officials smiled indulgently. Too costly, they said. Never will happen. But it happened.
The concept behind those laws and the changes in public attitude that have followed were developed in Berkeley by a group of strong-willed “cripples.”
Still, when Ed Roberts, “the Gandhi of the disability rights movement,” spoke about his life in a deep way, it wasn’t about curb cuts or Section 504 of the Rehab Act. It was about sex. To Roberts, after all, as to many of his followers, the struggle was about enjoying life to its fullest — a very Berkeley kind of attitude.
“Do you know that some disabled people have never enjoyed a single success in their lives?” Roberts told reporter Burr Snider of the San Francisco Examiner. “That there are disabled people put away in institutions right now that have never enjoyed the simple warmth and camaraderie of a family meal around a table?”
Roberts, a junior high school athlete, spent two years in an iron lung after coming down with polio. “Maybe we should hope he dies,” a doctor told Ed’s mother, “because if he lives he’ll be nothing more than a vegetable.”
Throughout his life, Roberts spent much of his time in an iron lung because of damage to his diaphragm — “recharging myself,” he said. To accommodate Roberts, the university turned a campus hospital ward into a dorm. Soon other disabled students followed, and Roberts helped create the Physically Disabled Students Program.
At Cal in the late 1960s — the years of protest — he studied political science, having already mastered many of its moves. “Everywhere along the way,” he told the Gazette, “I had to battle. As I won each of those battles I gained confidence in my ability to take on people or systems, and that was pretty important.”
But it wasn’t till years later, he told Snider, when Roberts saw that women could be interested in him as a man, that “I began to really care about myself and feel value about myself.” His occupational therapist, attracted, she said, by “his tremendous ability to reach out with his voice,” was soon showing up for therapy in low-cut blouses and miniskirts. Roberts, whose control over his limbs was slight, flirted by winking. “So much sex is in your head,” Roberts told a reporter. “I can feel all over … so I can have all the normal reactions and get turned on like any man.”
When Roberts wasn’t winking, he was putting together the first organization in America, and perhaps the world, that was run by and for disabled people with the goal of independent living. “Disabled people should run and control any organization created to serve their needs,” the organization announced.
Starting in 1972 in a two-bedroom apartment, the Center for Independent Living helped disabled people find places to live on their own or with attendant care, locate jobs, and obtain job training. Public bus and train operators whose vehicles couldn’t handle disabled people soon heard about it. “Boy, do we work on transportation,” Zukas told a reporter with his devilish grin. “We’re suing everybody in the world.”
The center founded a shop to repair and redesign wheelchairs and other tools of independence, including equipment that let people without limbs drive cars. Vance Grippi, who decried the then-prevalent “Here’s a wheelchair; take it or leave it” attitude, made it his life’s work to design the perfect wheelchair. “Wheelchairs, understand, are their legs,” he explained.
Over the years the center received federal funding as a “demonstration program,” and its programs and philosophy have been copied worldwide. For years, thanks to the center’s tireless efforts, curb cuts, relatively accessible transit, and other programs have attracted many disabled people to Berkeley and its environs.
“People are literally flocking here from all over the country,” the center’s housing director JerryWoolf, said in the late 1970s. “They are landing at the airport and calling us up. About once a month, someone pulls up outside in a taxi and says, ‘Here I am!'”