Centennial Exhibit Tracks History of Berkeley Parks

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

The newcomer visiting the Berkeley Marina for the first time, the long-time local sunbathing on the lawn at Willard Park, the dog walker at Ohlone Park, the sunset viewer at Indian Rock, the softball player at San Pablo, the romantic in the Rose Garden, or the new mother watching the children at Virginia-McGee tot lot—all may be excused in the midst of their enjoyment, for perhaps imagining that such places have been around as long as Berkeley itself. 

In fact, Berkeley’s park and recreation spaces are the complex physical expression of an uneven, decades-long, tapestry of civic and neighborhood effort, planning, cooperation and struggle. That story is set forth, starting this week, in a history exhibit. 

“The Legacy of Berkeley Parks: A Century of Planning and Making” opens this Thursday, Nov. 29, at the Berkeley Art Center in Live Oak Park, at 1275 Walnut St. The free event will start at 7 p.m. and includes a talk about Berkeley parks and the exhibit by Professor Louise Mozingo, one of the organizers. Thereafter the Art Center is open Wednesday through Sunday, 12-5 p.m. 

The exhibit was conceived and assembled by Mozingo and Marcia McNally, her colleague in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at the University of California, working with one of their graduate students, Sadie Mitchell (né Graham). 

“We were contacted by members of the Parks and Recreation Commission in 2004, asking for some assistance in thinking about new ideas for Berkeley parks,” says McNally, also a long-time West Berkeley resident. 

After initial research, they realized that the city was on the cusp of meaningful park anniversaries, particularly the centennial of the 1907 acquisition of the 12-acre San Pablo Park site from developer Mason-McDuffie. 

“Let’s think of it in broader terms of where we’ve been, and also look at the future,” became the new motivation, McNally says. She and Mozingo enlisted Mitchell who had approached them seeking a research theme. 

As park history research began, McNally and Mozingo also used Berkeley park issues, particularly the future of the Santa Fe right-of-way, as the focus of studios and classes they taught at Cal. 

After considering a park fair or centennial banners, they finally settled on planning the current exhibit. After it closes at the Berkeley Arts Center, it will move to the City’s Addison Street windows downtown for a display starting in April 2008. Then, hopefully, a third venue in West Berkeley or the waterfront area will exhibit it. 

The exhibit, McNally says, isn’t meant to simply revisit past events and accomplishments, but challenge Berkeley to think more comprehensively about its park future. 

“We haven’t had a real park plan for nearly 50 years,” she notes. “Let’s think about the whole city.” 

One of the early impediments to a Berkeley park system was the fact that many residents viewed the State University grounds—the current UC Berkeley campus—as a public park that they didn’t have to pay for. 

But, as the exhibit text notes, “when Berkeley grew by 30 percent after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the prospect of a city without open space loomed.” 

The next year the San Pablo Park site was acquired. In 1909 a municipal Playground Commission was organized. In 1914, initial improvements to San Pablo Park were finished, and the city also acquired the beginnings of Live Oak Park. 

Codornices Park acquisition came in 1915, along with the first of Berkeley’s comprehensive park planning documents, the “Report on the City Plan for the Municipalities of Oakland and Berkeley” by planner Werner Hegemann. 

Hegemann, an exponent of the City Beautiful Movement, laid out in lavish written, graphic, and visual detail a vision for better residential neighborhoods and business districts, transportation networks, and open spaces in the central East Bay. 

He proposed an elaborate bay shore park (albeit on landfill, and separated from mainland Berkeley by a dredged ship channel and industrial zone) and park corridors following the natural creek channels from hills to bay. 

“The Hegemann plan was completely spatially related to the geography of the place,” McNally says, praising “the remarkable ecological sinuousness in it.” 

Berkeley didn’t immediately realize any of those visions, but did work hard at more modest park development for the next decade, adding the Grove playground and James Kenney Park in the flatlands and several small hill parks, and populating them with elaborate public programs. 

“If I could live in any era of park making in Berkeley, it would be the late ’20s and early ’30s, McNally says. Despite the arrival of the Depression, “there was so much exuberance, so much commitment to making happy families, happy children.” 

There were thousands of schoolchildren in Berkeley then, outnumbering the older student population at the university. Berkeley had robust recreation programs, playgrounds, and activities and nearly two million recorded user visits annually to its parks programs by 1939. 

“The Depression was catastrophic, but the New Deal was a boon to Berkeley’s parks,” the exhibit text notes. “After years of modest municipal allocations, federal money provided for physical improvements and new recreation staff to organize an amazing range of activities—everything from team sports to pet shows.” 

Federal New Deal money and labor assisted with the creation of three of Berkeley’s most memorable open spaces—Aquatic Park, what would become the Berkeley Yacht Harbor and the Berkeley Rose Garden. 

The post-war era saw a focus on neighborhood parks, including the creation of the Virginia-McGee Totland in 1948. A Long Range Recreation Plan in 1945 projected playground development linked to the numbers of children in neighborhoods. 

In the 1950s and ’60s there were several park projects and a revised Park and Recreation Plan—Berkeley’s last—completed in 1957. The city undertook house moving and demolition and street closures to create neighborhood parks such as Willard. Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” brought federal dollars to Berkeley for urban renewal, and eight mini-parks and tot-lots were developed in the same era that impromptu and unofficial People’s Park emerged. 

In 1974, Berkeley voters approved Measure Y, which provided $3 million for new parks. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the planning and creation of Cedar Rose Park, Strawberry Creek Park, Ohlone Park on land that had been cleared to build BART through north-central Berkeley, and the purchase of the old Santa Fe Railroad right-of-way. 

The era was marked by considerable neighborhood and community group participation in park planning, a new ecological focus in open space planning, and the germination of one national trend, creek-daylighting. 

Berkeley’s park history also has several instances where opportunities slipped away. In the early 20th century a failed bond election cost Berkeley the opportunity to buy what became the Thousand Oaks residential tract. 

A few years later Werner Hegemann proposed his linear “Midway Plaisance” park stretching through much of Albany and Berkeley. It never came to pass. 

As the 1930s began, another election failed to generate the supermajority necessary to buy Wildcat Canyon from the water district, although a later regional effort in which many Berkeleyans participated brought that land into the East Bay Municipal Park District. 

“People could never get over the fact that Berkeley was so stingy in the early years and missed opportunities to acquire land,” McNally says, but a considerable amount of public open space has actually been preserved through later efforts. However, “if you have the luxury of looking back 100 years, Berkeley has achieved a lot of things,” in park development.  

If jurisdictional labels are set aside, she notes, the open space system within and surrounding Berkeley, including not only the city’s parks but the Eastshore State Park, regional parks in the hills, public school properties, and the university’s undeveloped slopes and canyons, comes close to approximating those early visions of a network of expansive open spaces seaming and embracing the city. 

Park history of course is also, fundafundamentally, the history of people who work to create and sustain the parks. The exhibit brings attention to some of those who have been obscured by time, particularly Charles W. Davis, the city’s superintendent of recreation in the pre-World War II era. 

Often, “the staff is forgotten,” McNally says, although they are largely responsible for the development, operation, and success of parks in the long periods between high-profile plans. 

She also notes, among others, the contributions of current assistant city manager and former parks director Lisa Caronna, creek advocate and longtime Park Commission member Carole Schemmerling, former parks director Bill Montgomery, city and regional planning professor Fran Violich—“such a symbol of park advocacy and play space”—and “the whole group of landscape architects who worked for the city through Measure Y.” 

What of the future? Although much recent attention has been given to physically large park projects, including the East Shore State Park and playing fields for youth sports, McNally believes that opportunities lie with small-scale open space efforts and connectivity in the interstices of the built-up city. 

“We have a lot on our minds as Berkeleyans—public health, pedestrian planning, the quest for a food policy, and the moment in time of a 100-year anniversary of parks,” McNally says. “Surely these things can work together. Why not a plan for the city outside the state’s requirements of the general plan that envisions these things together, and maybe picks up additional agendas of path wandering, community gardens, creek daylighting, downtown design?” 

She cites as examples of recent successes the complex of small open spaces in North Berkeley, including the Karl Linn Garden and Berkeley Ecohouse, that “now read as a park,” and the “completely brilliant infill park idea” of neighborhood activists, including designer Mike Lamb, that resulted in the tiny 0.2 acre Halcyon Commons in south central Berkeley. 

She also admires the small paved area at the west end of recently renovated Martin Luther King, Jr. Civic Center Park that functions equally well as a periodic festival venue and an informal, but heavily used, skateboard area. 

Elsewhere, McNally says, “Louise and I are completely charmed by the traffic roundabouts” that have recently been built throughout Berkeley, each contributing a few hundred square feet of planted space to calm and soften street intersections. 

And future park-like spaces may be equally untraditional. A survey in part of northwest Berkeley found, McNally says, quite a few residents who didn’t necessarily want park space “for the traditional nuclear family or recreation” but would like to have urban “open spaces to hang out, but where you don’t have to pay money to sit in a chair and drink coffee.” 


Photograph: Courtesy Berkeley Historical Society 

Future baseball great Billy Martin (in cap) playing in Berkeley’s James Kenney Park in 1935.