Long before the dawn of the Nobel Prize, Cal and even the city of Berkeley, on this bayside section of land we students call home nine months out of the year existed a very different type of civilization.
Before us, the indigenous Ohlone people once resided amidst our Strawberry Creek and dealt with our pesky rattlesnakes, until they were overtaken by conquering Spanish missionaries in the early sixteenth century. Much of their influence on the region was lost as a result.
As for these Spanish missionaries, they too had come, colonized and gone once Mexico won its freedom in 1822. And as for Mexico, once Washington caught a whiff of California gold mid-century, the briefly independent California Republic gained full American statehood.
Years went by and as the mines ran dry, miners moved to an area more hospitable to civilization: the Bay Area! Here they took advantage of rich soil and set roots farming. Eventually, Bay Area agricultural farmland gave way to a settlement called Ocean View, which is better known today as Berkeley. Now, turn-of-the-century Berkeley wasn’t quite yet the activist mecca it evolved into mid-century, but it did house a diverse group of settlers. In the post-Gold Rush era, tensions were high between white farmers, ex-slaves and new Mexican and Chinese immigrants.
Even today, racial tensions have a lasting presence on the community. Demonstrated by recent protests over the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, two unarmed black men shot by police, the people of Berkeley continue their fight to achieve racial equality.
Curtis Estes, an advisory committee member at the North Berkeley Senior Center, shared with us some of his experience with the progression of race relations here since his arrival in 1966.
Estes was born in Texas, but after receiving his teaching certificate from Wiley College, couldn’t find a job. He became active with sit-ins, striving to be offered the decency of being able to sit down and eat a meal.
He came to came to California in 1963 and was finally able to teach. He describes Berkeley as inspirational: The protests that were going on and the issues people voiced actually held weight, and so the progress people were making was amazing.
Today, although the radicalism of the ’60s has died down, Estes still continues to see and involve himself with the evolving community. For the past three years, Curtis has been the speaker at Black History Month at the senior center. In the past, he had even been president of the event, as well as taking part in engagement at other centers.
“I’m honored to inform people of the progress black people have made, especially in my lifetime. But there is more progress to be made; we have to continue protesting courageously, with dignity,” Curtis told us.
Getting back to the history, this quarreling influx of settlers eventually gave way to the advent of the very institution of higher education we now refer to as the University of California. After the stock market crash in 1929, vocal students felt it their duty to advocate imminent change to the idealistic American dream where all can succeed in the land of freedom and equal-opportunity, thus sparking Cal’s long history as a hotbed for reform and student activism.
Lucky for us, some key players in the infamous tumultuous Berkeley days still reside right here in the Bay Area:
Current Redwood Gardens resident, Miriam, has lived in Berkeley for 62 years. Although more recently regarded as an esteemed local folk dance instructor, Miriam originally set root here, as so many others have, seeking a degree at the University of California.
Before earning her Masters in sanitary engineering in 1963, Miriam busied herself playing tuba in the Cal Band, playing string bass and bassoon for the orchestra and even dabbling in theatre, landing roles in Winter Wedding and Othello. She also was an active member of SLATE, the premier activist campus political party. Among other valiant displays of free speech, Miriam recounted for us with pride that amidst her return to Cal in ‘64 to obtain her teachers’ certificate, she found herself drawn to the breakthrough of the Free Speech Movement and passionate eloquence of Mario Savio.
She later adds with a chuckle a memory of Savio running up the stage to grab the mic at the Greek Theatre in the middle of the university’s attempt to soft-pedal protests. Not only did Miriam work in close proximity to Savio and other leading figures of the Free Speech Movement, she also personally testified on behalf of students’ grievances at a faculty hearing following the commotion of the police car blockade, with which she was involved.
“I climbed on top of the police car and lead the crowd singing ‘Blowing in the Wind,'” Miriam recounted.
She later went on to become active with the Berkeley Friends Society, partaking in the 1969 candlelight vigil to save People’s Park. Berkeley Friends organized the vigil to peacefully protest the university’s intervention of the transformation of a vacant university-owned block into a community park.
Following the Free Speech Movement, both the university and the city of Berkeley continued their progressions as a hotbed of advocation for change. Kent Kroth, a retired particle physicist and frequenter at the North Berkeley Senior Center, described for us how he was personally affected living and working in Berkeley in the ’70s.
“As a working chemist, living in Berkeley definitely affected me. Although I didn’t share the radical views of the times, I was an observer. I’ve seen a lot of change here. Putting an ethical judgement on it doesn’t matter, but going from the flower children of the ’70s, dog poop on everything, People’s Park, the Black Panthers, it used to be chaotic as opposed to sedate,” Kroth said. “Although Berkeley’s still got a political left wing lean, I don’t see the radicalism and action that used to be present. Now what you get … is a discussion of the good old days. I’m trying to raise this place up from the intellectual deadheadism that it is to something that has a little bit more class.”
In fact, Kroth is still an active academic, like so many others in Berkeley. He is very involved with the astronomy and philosophy groups at the senior center, and even still tries to devote himself to his true passion: physics. Following his publication of multiple particle physics papers, Kroth continues to study physics, and is specifically fascinated by rest masses of subatomic particles.
The history of science in Berkeley is one of the most influential realms that the city exists as, especially considering the number of discoveries and game-changing scientists who have lived right here in the Berkeley Hills. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is home to more than 4,000 UC scientists, including professors, graduate students and undergrad researchers. Originally the site of the first particle accelerating cyclotron, the lab has grown to house 57 National Academy of Science members, is affiliated with 12 Nobel Prizes and, interestingly enough, is the resting place of the world’s most powerful laser.
Today, as we look back on all that our city has gone through, it is hard not to get a little nostalgic for the good old days most of us weren’t around to experience. But this place continues to be a haven for intellectual growth both as a campus and community. We wrapped up our interviews with a treat, a discussion with renowned pianist and Cheeseboard Collective’s The Betty Shaw Quartet’s front woman, Betty Shaw herself.
Since 1971, Cheeseboard has been rolling out first-class pizza pies, in addition to various cheeses and other pastries, in a democratic and worker-owned environment.
Betty Shaw first moved to Berkeley twenty years ago to set root as a musician. She began playing solo piano at Cheeseboard a few days a week. The co-op moved locations a few years ago, which allowed Shaw more space to expand her one-woman show into a quartet.
Shaw wrapped up with nugget of Berkeley inspiration: “I’m an eighty-three-year-old woman and people show up at Cheeseboard weekly to see me play. I’m still able to play because I want to, and I want to encourage other old women to do the things they want to do. You can, and should, be active and involved as long as you want to be.”