City Celebrates 125 Interesting Years

Tuesday April 01, 2003

Berkeley, known around the globe for its strident political activism, will celebrate its 125th anniversary today with a series of quiet, apolitical events. 

A walking tour of downtown Berkeley, a community photograph on the steps of Old City Hall at 4:30 p.m. - with the entire city invited to take part - and an exhibit honoring the city’s namesake, the Irish bishop George Berkeley, will be among the signature events (see page 2 for a full listing). 

Organizers say a busy city staff and a late start to the planning process contributed to the modest scale of the celebration, arguing that there was no conscious decision to downplay Berkeley’s history of political activism. 

“We’ve just been very busy lately,” said Arrietta Chakos, chief of staff for City Manager Weldon Rucker. “If we had a lot of time to deal with this, and an events coordinator, we would have remembered everything we should have remembered.” 

Cisco DeVries, chief of staff for Mayor Tom Bates, suggested the city might benefit from the focus on other aspects of its past. 

“I think people are much more familiar with Berkeley from 1963 on,” he said. “We wanted to make sure this wasn’t just about the sixties.”  

Berkeley’s 125th anniversary celebration actually began in Newport, R.I. 

In November 2001 Steven Finacom, an amateur historian who works in UC Berkeley’s planning department, visited Newport’s International Berkeley Society, which honors Bishop Berkeley, during an East Coast trip. 

Finacom’s visit resulted in an exhibit on the bishop, which began Jan. 9 and runs through April 26, at the Berkeley Historical Society. 

Planning for the larger 125th anniversary celebration grew out of that exhibit when the historical society joined with the city, merchants and the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association to form a birthday committee. 

The architecture group will lead an historic house tour on May 11. This week, some 40 to 50 merchants will offer their customers deals this week, including various items priced at $1.25 or $12.50 in commemoration of the 125th anniversary. 

Centering the event around Bishop Berkeley has generated a small-bore controversy in this town. In 1726 the churchman and philosopher, as part of a failed bid to construct a college in Bermuda, penned a poem called “On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America” that included the line: “Westward the course of empire takes its way.”  

The phrase, on its face, doesn’t seem to square with the city’s current anti-imperialist bent. But Finacom said Berkeley probably didn’t have visions of conquest when he wrote the poem. 

“He was probably talking about a perfect civilization as opposed to political and military domination,” Finacom said. 

The bishop, Finacom contends, is apt for the city because his philospohy was one of tolerance and anti-materialism. 

Whatever the meaning, it inspired Frederick Billings, one UC’s founders, to name the local campus after the bishop in 1866. Twelve years later, the city incorporated under the same name.