History: No Time Like the Present

By Steven Finacom, Special to the Planet
Thursday August 21, 2008 - 10:33:00 AM

History is getting better and better in Berkeley. I don’t mean the daily accumulation of new history—current events—but the preservation and education of the public about local history. 

It may be that today there are more people, organizations, and programs working to preserve and promote Berkeley history than at any point in the community’s past. 

Here’s a summary of some of the groups and people who are busy—mostly as volunteers—seeing that Berkeley’s past will still be around when the future arrives. I’m not attempting a comprehensive list, but it’s a start if you want to put Berkeley’s historical activities in context. 

Let’s begin with two community groups with especially deep roots in the presentation of Berkeley history. 

The Berkeley Historical Society, founded in 1978, the year of Berkeley’s Centennial, operates the Berkeley History Center downtown in the landmark Veterans Memorial Building. Three afternoons a week visitors can visit a reference library, archives, and changing exhibits in a spacious room overlooking Civic Center Park.  

The organization also stages two or three popular walking tour series each year, and special events including oral history presentations and lectures. BHS has published a number of books, including Exactly Opposite the Golden Gate, a collection of historical essays about Berkeley, and co-published Picturing Berkeley: A Postcard History. 

The Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, founded in 1974, has a mission both educational and activist. With a membership of well over 1,000, BAHA has been a civic force for decades, not only conducting research and education, but engaging in advocacy to save important endangered buildings. 

BAHA grew out of successful struggles in the 1970s to save from demolition buildings like the current Julia Morgan Theatre on College Avenue, and Senior Hall and the Naval Architecture Building on the UC Berkeley campus. 

BAHA’s signature event is the annual House Tour, which focuses on a differentneighborhood each spring. There are also periodic lectures, and walking tours. BAHA has published several books and monographs, and the office is open for research most Thursday afternoons. 

A robust BAHA website, built up in recent years, carries numerous essays and photographs about Berkeley buildings and history, most written by researcher Daniella Thompson. BAHA also has, like BHS, an extensive research archive. One strength is the Donogh collection, with photographs of thousands of Berkeley houses taken by local realtors in the 1930s. There are also “block files” for neighborhoods throughout the city. 

Each BAHA house tour is accompanied by a well-researched booklet describing not only the featured houses, but also neighborhood history. Both BAHA and BHS sell books, postcards, and other historical materials at their offices. 

Before discussing other organizations, let’s address two misconceptions about these two groups. The first is that BAHA is interested only in buildings, and the Historical Society is interested only in people and events. Not so.  

The collections and interests of the two organizations are quite diverse. The only surviving photo of a building may well be at the BHS collection. An unpublished oral history of a leading community figure may be at BAHA. Both groups care about, and study, people, events, AND buildings. 

The second myth is that BAHA designates local buildings as landmarks. Not the case. Landmarking is a municipal government function, undertaken by the appointed Landmarks Preservation Commission, and appealable to the elected City Council.  

Local preservationists and organizations can and do advocate for the creation or protection of official landmarks, but their local designation and regulation is one-hundred percent a function of Berkeley’s elected government. 

A third foundation stone of Berkeley’s historical repositories is the Berkeley History Room at the Central Library. Since the library was renovated and expanded several years ago the History Room, with its own distinctive quarters, has been especially busy augmenting its collections. 

They include the Berkeley Daily Gazette newspaper on microfilm, from 1894 to 1983, and clipping files with information organized under about 1,500 subject headings. The History Room also has Berkeley History Online, an excellent Internet-based resource of photographs going back to the 1870s, which is part of the Online Archive of California.  

Another welcome development of the past decade or so is the emergence of new volunteer groups filling niches in local history. The Berkeley Path Wanderers is a great example. It’s an enthusiastic group of community volunteers interested in preserving, improving, and enjoying Berkeley’s network of public paths, stairs, and walkways.  

Regular walks and talks are organized by the Wanderers, and the group also has a good website and publishes a detailed map of Berkeley. 

Much less prominent, but equally important to the dissemination of history on the streets, is the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project, initiated 10 years ago by Robert Kehlmann, a former Chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  

You may have noticed the oval, green, enameled plaques on buildings and sites—mostly city landmarks—all over town; they now number nearly 100. Each plaque has a paragraph or two of carefully researched and written context and background. 

Throughout Berkeley there are also localized history efforts like the McGee Spaulding Hardy Historic Interest Group, a volunteer neighborhood research committee documenting its district west of Downtown, and Save Berkeley Iceland, an organization working to purchase and reopen the historic skating facility in South Berkeley. 

The increase in organizations has also been paralleled by a recent rise in the number of books and other publications about Berkeley. Those interested in Berkeley history can rapidly stock their bookshelves with well-written volumes that not only bring local history up to date, but delve into specialized niches of local lore. 

Just a few examples. Chuck Wollenberg, the dean of Berkeley historians, teaches at Berkeley Community College (where you can take his excellent classes on Berkeley and California history) and, earlier this year, published Berkeley: A City in History, a solid, up-to-date, and much-needed survey history of the community. 

Another active local writer is Dave Weinstein, known for his extensive work on lesser-known architects of the Bay Area, including several from Berkeley. His forthcoming book is It Came from Berkeley: How Berkeley Changed the World. 

Weinstein also worked with Jonathan Chester on Berkeley Rocks, a good example of a book that thoroughly explores a single fascinating aspect of Berkeley character and life. Ed Herny, Shelley Rideout, and Katie Wadell have recently published another such book, Berkeley Bohemia: Artists and Visionaries of the Early 20th Century. Individual websites with local history elements are also appearing. 

On the UC campus, the Chronicle of the University of California, a journal of institutional history founded 10 years ago by an all-volunteer group of alumni, staff, faculty, and students, is now working on its tenth print issue, packed full of essays, research papers, photographs, and stories about the University, primarily—but not exclusively—the Berkeley campus. 

Berkeley history is also often UC history, and vice versa. For example, many notable professors and administrators at UC have also been Berkeley residents, actively involved in community life. Sometimes, though, those working on “academic” history overlook the community connection while community historians make only passing mention of campus involvement. 

The formal repository of university history is the University Archives, in the Bancroft Library on campus. A few years ago an extensive online UC history database was also created, the UC History Digital Archives. 

There’s also an embryonic effort underway to create a history museum for the Berkeley campus. At present, exhibits about UC history can be periodically seen in the Brown Gallery (inside the main, north, entrance to Doe Library) that currently features an exhibit on student attire and fashions over the past century. 

And when the Bancroft Library reopens late this year in its refurbished campus building, it will have a separate gallery for exhibits from its collections and the Archives.  

Individual campus departments have also been assembling their own materials. For example, archivist Bill Benemann has put together an impressive history collection for the Law School. The Environmental Design Archives in Wurster Hall has a magnificent array of research material focusing on Bay Area architecture, with many overlaps to Berkeley history. The Regional Oral History Office has produced hundreds of detailed interviews, many of them with Berkeley figures. 

So how can you connect to all of this? Take a walk, attend a talk, visit a website. Become a member. It’s inexpensive and simple to join groups like BAHA, the Berkeley Historical Society, and the Path Wanderers, and you’ll assure yourself of their newsletters, e-mail announcements, and special member discounts. 

Donate your Berkeley history materials. Berkeley Historical Society, BAHA, and the Berkeley History Room all actively collect local history items that can range from family photographs to restaurant menus to protest flyers. Remember that something that’s commonplace today may well be rare tomorrow, and future historians will thank you for having saved it for a public collection. 

Share history. Helping someone else find the key information or idea to complete a good historical project can be a great personal pleasure. 

Finally, support local history groups with your money and time. Buy their publications, make a contribution, volunteer. Most of the programs and groups described in this article are non-profit, run almost entirely by volunteers, and welcome additional help.  


Steven Finacom is active in several of the organizations discussed in this article and writes a weekly newspaper column on Berkeley events 75 years ago.