Arts Listings

New Books About Berkeley are Both Handsome and Informative

By Steven Finacom, Special to the Planet
Tuesday March 27, 2007

With surprisingly little fanfare to date, the dry winter of 2006/2007 has brought two important new books exploring the character of the Berkeley community. 

Jonathan Chester’s Berkeley Rocks: Building With Nature, and Jon Sullivan and Contee Seely’s Berkeley One and Only both deserve accolades for their sensitive, creative, and particularly well illustrated portraits of local life and scenery. 

Berkeley Rocks is a smart, handsome volume. It’s an intelligent read and an elegant coffee table book. 

Once visually prominent on undeveloped hillsides, most of the curious rock outcroppings in the eastern part of Berkeley were later absorbed into backyards, pocket parks, gardens and even basements, and can take a bit of searching to locate.  

Chester draws on the expertise of—and gives well-deserved credit to—several local experts and geologists who have parsed out the natural and human history of these remarkable works of nature. 

An early chapter on the origins of the rocks shows the interesting muddle—igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary—underlying the Berkeley landscape.  

Far from being from one geological family, Berkeley’s rocks represent a baker’s dozen of types from “Meta Graywacke” to “Claremont Chert,” all tossed about and shaped by tectonic uplift, local volcanoes (yes, there were several of those), and the inexorable shaking and shifting along the Hayward Fault. 

The natural history section and early photographs of the rocks are first rate but Chester’s primary theme is not how the rocks came to be, but what humans have done with them, particularly when early practitioners of the “Bay Region” architectural tradition began to embrace Berkeley’s boulders rather than blast them out of the way.  

In fascinating and affectionately crafted chapters he guides the reader from native Californian uses of the rocks, to the spread of American-era streetcar suburbs in the early 20th century, to the work of present-day architects and artisans who continue to shape Berkeley’s rock environment. 

The heart of the book is a beautifully photographed series of portraits of Berkeley homes, old and modern, showing how their past and current residents have used and appreciated the rock outcrops that erupt in their yards, driveways, garages, stairwells and even—in one case—bathroom and shower. 

Berkeley Rocks is an elegantly conceived and executed book. The contemporary photographs are crisp and striking and there are readable maps and nicely selected historical images, and an inviting, page-turning, layout.  

If Berkeley Rocks is a polished tribute, Berkeley One and Only is more of a homemade valentine.  

I mean that in a most positive way. Photographer Jon Sullivan clearly loves Berkeley and spent several years documenting not only fixed beauties but ongoing events and ephemeral occasions. 

The interwoven themes of the hefty volume range from The Big Game to in-studio portraits of several local artists and their works to Berkeley neighborhoods in the spring.  

There’s a chapter devoted to aerial photographs of Berkeley, shot by Sullivan from the open window of a small plane. That section alone makes the book worth getting if you want to peer down on the ever changing local landscape from on high. 

A number of Berkeley’s most important architectural edifices and landmarks are fittingly portrayed, but Sullivan also turned his camera on humble homes, one-car garages, cement hoppers, and the innards of complex experimental equipment at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. 

Several pages expansively vignette the annual How Berkeley Can You Be? parade, while local murals—including several now vanished—receive their own lavish photo documentation, including no less than four gorgeous pages picturing the monumental and landmark “People’s Bicentennial History of Telegraph Avenue” on Haste above Telegraph. 

Berkeley One and Only might be considered primarily a picture book, but short chapter introductions and detailed captions provide a fair amount of commentary and background information. 

Neither a panorama of half the city nor a close-up of a picturesque fallen leaf in the UC Botanical Garden escape Sullivan’s camera.  

And he has an eye for turning a mundane setting—a stairwell at the Downtown Berkeley BART station for instance, or the fading paint of the “ghost advertisement” on a brick wall—into surprisingly poignant images. 

Sullivan is catholic in his portrayal of not only the physical character, but also the special cultural life, of the Berkeley community. In the future, this book will serve as important documentation of several aspects of Berkeley’s life half a decade to either side of the turn of the century. 

People—Berkeley High School athletes and graduates, local park and library patrons, the late “Waving Man,” BART commuters, a City Council public hearing audience, churchgoers, teenagers sitting on the curb on Telegraph—figure vividly into his Berkeley tapestry.  

From the upper Russell Street Halloween extravaganza, to the Berkeley Flea Market, to a group of pregnant women exercising in the Downtown YMCA pool, here is Berkeley in all of its quirkiness and special character. 

One small discomfort with Berkeley One and Only has to do with the printed character of some of the color photographs. Here and there colors seem a shade off or too saturated—the oranges too reddish, the greens overly vivid, for example.  

I’m neither a photographic nor a printing expert, but my guess is that something about the production process didn’t measure up to the quality of the original photographs. This may bother some readers. 

Also, I try to be a stickler for local historical accuracy, and neither book passes completely unscathed.  

Both get elements of early UC history mixed up, a fault as correctable as it is unfortunately common in local histories. 

I’m disappointed Jonathan Chester didn’t note or describe three of the most important early rock walls in Berkeley which lie at the edges of the UC campus: Le Roy and Hearst below Memorial Stadium and Dana and Bancroft.  

All are prominent 19th century creations and the third one embraces the old First Unitarian Church, where several of Berkeley’s bohemians and early rock enthusiasts worshiped.  

Including them and their history along with a more thorough treatment of William Smyth, whose Fernwald estate at the top of Dwight Way was one of the earliest and most important places Berkeley rocks were used in landscape architecture, would have made Berkeley Rocks a more complete treatise. 

I hasten to add, though, that none of these flaws is fatal. 

Both of these are fine books, and I anticipate they will represent the current decade well in the future libraries of local history as well as on the bookshelves of today’s Berkeleyans. 


Berkeley One and Only 

By Jon Sullivan with Contee Seely. 

Command Performance Press, Berkeley. Hardcover, $35. 


Berkeley Rocks: Building With Nature By Jonathan Chester.  

Ten Speed Press. Hardcover, $35. 


Much of the North Berkeley rock-integrated territory covered by Berkeley Rocks will also be the special focus of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) annual house tour this coming May.