Berkeley Historical Society Spring Walking Tours

By Steven Finacom Special to the Planet
Tuesday April 04, 2006

Historic neighborhoods coping with change seem to be an informal unifying theme of most of this spring’s Berkeley Historical Society’s walking tours. 

Set for five Saturday mornings from April 8 through June, the inexpensive two-hour walking tours are le d, as always, by community volunteers and serve both as a public educational activity and fundraiser for BHS. 

The first tour (led by the author) on Saturday, April 8, recalls Downtown Berkeley from the decades after 1906 and before World War II. Downtow n burgeoned then, in the era between architectural and cultural Victorianism and the Modern age. 

The streets were lined with new and handsome masonry buildings from the original Tupper and Reed music store (now Beckett’s Pub) to Berkeley’s first high-ris e—with Berkeley’s first controversial high-rise neon billboard—the Chamber of Commerce building that now houses Wells Fargo Bank.  

The tour will also explore the commercial enterprises and lively cultural life that Berkeleyans enjoyed in a pre-War downto w n “arts district” which included Art Deco movie palaces, a genuine cutting-edge repertory theatre in an old church, and the “Berkeley Art Museum” on Shattuck Avenue.  

Next, on April 22, community historian and photographer Bruce Goodell, who has done sev eral informative and intriguing tours for BHS, brings the catastrophic events of April 1906 home when he leads a tour of sites on the UC Berkeley campus where refugees of the 1906 earthquake were cared for. 

Displaced San Franciscans—many with nothing mor e than the proverbial “clothes on their backs”—boarded ferries for Oakland and Berkeley in the disaster aftermath. 

A tent city on an early football field, open-air kitchens under the oaks, and refugee quarters in gymnasiums, were all part of the camp us picture.  

Fewer and fewer Berkeleyans now seem to remember that, in addition to the tracks near the freeway, a second railroad line cut diagonally across central Berkeley for several decades. 

Trains—including highly controversial troop transports dur ing the Vietnam War—regularly rumbled right behind homes and businesses and across University Avenue, Sacramento Street, and smaller neighborhood streets. 

On May 6, guide Susan Schwartz—a stalwart of the local creek restoration movement, and a board memb er o f Berkeley Path Wanderers—will recall and explain that receding past.  

Her walk traces the history—and future—of some four miles of the Santa Fe Right of Way, part of which has now been transformed into community gardens and linear park space. 

This prom ises to be a vigorous excursion but the terrain is largely flat and the scenery and history varied and interesting (it is also the one walk not wheelchair accessible because of the distance covered over bare earth). 

West Berkeley historian and acti vist S tephanie Manning leads the Saturday, May 20 tour through a more compact but equally interesting area, the “Sisterna Tract: A Small Chilean Ranch Transformed.” 

Never heard of it? Sisterna was a familiar name in early Berkeley, belonging to a Chilea n family that came to the area as early as 1860 and built a house on what is now Fifth Street in 1878.  

Survivors of that era, including Victorian cottages and commercial buildings, still dot the neighborhood just south of University Avenue and east of A quatic Park. 

Back then, Oceanview—the settlement that preceded Berkeley—was a mix of factories, stores, homes both humble and substantial, and open fields. 

Manning will guide the group through “the layers of time represented by the various styles of arc hitectu re and culture present there.”The neighborhood is still alive and kicking; not long ago current residents worked successfully to document and have part declared a historic district, one of only a handful in Berkeley. 

The last tour, on June 3, switches fr om West to South Berkeley, focusing on the Lorin neighborhood around Alcatraz and Adeline. 

An early “streetcar suburb,” Lorin was induced to officially join the City of Berkeley in 1892 and “promised services and stature,” according to historic resources consultant Dale Smith, who will lead this tour “through time, and in and out of the shops and galleries of this original township.” 

The area retains many of Berkeley’s best older houses and a lively community culture. 

Like West Berkeley, it’s also a fo cus of hot development discussion and controversy, including the recent turmoil over a grant to study infill development at the Ashby BART Station parking lot. 

The tours run from 10 a.m. to approximately noon. Each costs $10 for the general pub lic and $8 for BHS members. If you want to have a guaranteed spot on all the tours (which can fill up), it’s $30 for a “season ticket” package for Berkeley Historical Society members only. You can join BHS when making your reservations. 

Those stalwarts w ho purchas e tickets for at least three tours have the opportunity on Saturday, June 10, to take a free “Bonus Tour” providing an inside look at the new Berkeley Community College headquarters building that has risen on Center Street, west of Shattuck. 

For tour reservation information, visit the Berkeley Historical Society (1931 Center Street, in the Veteran’s Memorial Building) Thursday through Saturday, 1-4 p.m., see www.cityofberkeley.info/histsoc/, or call 848-0181. 


Photo courtesy of author  

Downtown Berkeley at Shattuck and Center in the early decades of the 20th century when there was still a train station (at left), an imposing office building (center right) where the Bank of America now stands, and a giant flagpole instead of today’s giant tuning fork.