Arts Listings

Books: How Berkeley Changed the World

By Steven Finacom Special to the Planet
Thursday September 25, 2008 - 10:10:00 AM


By Dave Weinstein. Published by Gibb Smith. $24.99.  

Berkeley’s history is not a joke, but that’s no reason not to have fun telling it.  

Dave Weinstein accomplishes that in his new book, It Came From Berkeley: How Berkeley Changed The World, just out from Gibbs Smith.  

In around 200 pages of article-length essays, each title beginning with “How Berkeley…” Weinstein turns the soil of local history and hits pay dirt—or, perhaps, this being Berkeley, rich, organic, literary compost.  

There are 57 short chapters, telling stories that stand-alone and intermingle. “How Berkeley Went Socialist” (in 1911, that is), “How Berkeley Got Good Taste,” “How Berkeley Invented the Bomb,” “How Berkeley Women Grew Uppity,” “How Berkeley Got Religion,” and so on. 

On Sunday, Oct. 19, Weinstein will give a talk about the book at the Berkeley Historical Society (see sidebar for details, and other local events). 

Although the book ranges from the mid-19th century to 2008, he doesn’t set out to record all of Berkeley history. Rather, he extracts from the past illuminating examples of how Berkeley’s culture, politics, and predilections evolved, and also had a genuine impact on the region, nation, and world.  

He also brings back to public notice some of Berkeley’s more unjustly overlooked historical figures, like William Frederick Badè —Divine, and Biblical archaeologist—and our first African-American legislator, William Byron Rumford. 

Berkeley has indeed had an impact, sometimes even extending beyond the imagination of its proudest citizens. It was the first large American city to voluntarily de-segregate its schools and the wellspring of “scientific policing,” “free speech,” and the wetsuit. The Jacuzzi and the atomic bomb alike had their birth here. 

It’s a rich past: the origins of the disabled rights and independent living movements; conservation and environmental efforts, including the role of Berkeleyans in the Sierra Club, pioneering regional parks, and saving bays and estuaries; listener-sponsored radio, and a multitude of cooperative movements; “Wonder Teams” and world saving religious endeavors.  

Berkeley’s experience with the internment of Japanese Americans in 1942 and checkered history of racial relations, both with Asian immigrants, and African Americans, receive considerable attention as well as the complex controversies and conflicts of the 1960s and ’70s. 

The book is also infused with a very important message to Berkeley’s detractors. No matter how strange and bizarre and out of the mainstream Berkeley seems, a lot has started here that has later resonated, and improved life, elsewhere.  

And Berkeleyans through the generations, Weinstein argues, have struggled for the same things most people, whatever their political persuasion, cherish: good homes, jobs, schools, neighborhoods and neighbors, workable government, a spiritual and meaningful life, a community to belong to. 

“Do Americans believe in individualism, living the good life, and participatory democracy? That’s what Berkeley is all about … This book suggests that, rather than existing outside of America, Berkeley exists at its heart.” 

Those fighting today to once again protect Berkeley’s residential neighborhoods will particularly appreciate Weinstein’s analysis of “How Berkeley Preserved Its Neighborhoods.”  

He writes, “One of Berkeley’s greatest contributions to America is its promotion of neighborhood preservation. The city’s efforts to preserve its neighborhoods through rezoning, traffic-calming, and historic preservation have been much emulated elsewhere.” 

The 1960s exerted such a powerful influence on the image of Berkeley—and lured so many people here—that they are a demarcating line in history that often blinds contemporary locals to the lessons and experiences of Berkeley’s past before the Free Speech Movement. 

Weinstein works expertly on both sides of that divide, as does historian Charles Wollenberg in his Berkeley: A City in History, also published this year. 

A recurrent theme among the essays is that much of what happens in Berkeley now has precedents and parallels in early Berkeley history.  

For example, do Berkeley’s current cultural mavens feel smug that they created a nationally recognized regional theater and are planning for a new Berkeley Art Museum downtown?  

Berkeley’s been there, done that, and before they were born. Cal alumnus and theatrical impresario Samuel Hume and others established a well regarded community theater and art museum here in the 1920s, although they eventually expired in the Depression. 

Do locals pride themselves on how Berkeley became a leader in equal rights in the 1960s and later? They have reason to be proud, but, Weinstein reminds us that, in 1902, there was “a club of 200 suffragists going over in Berkeley,” reportedly the largest such organization for women’s suffrage on the West Coast.  

However, Weinstein is also careful to document the demographic and political changes that have indeed changed the town and distinguish recent eras from the more distant past. From a self-satisfied, and fairly successful, semi-suburban, largely Republican, community, leavened with freethinkers, Berkeley had morphed, by the 1970s, into what everyone understands today as Berkeley. 

This is a transition aptly summed up on the back cover by juxtaposing the popular early 20th century motto of Berkeley, “Athens of the West,” with the current sobriquet, “People’s Republic.” 

“Anyone watching Berkeley, from within or without, understood that it had become Berkeley,” Weinstein writes of the 1970s. “The people it attracted, the people it retained, decided in advance that they were Berkeley people. They were a self-selected bunch. Victims of fate.” 

This is a fun book, but not a shallow one. Weinstein, a professional journalist and skilled writer, has also established himself as a solid local historian. He drew his material from numerous archives and sources, and includes a dozen pages of detailed footnotes. 

Much of what he includes has been written about before, but he presents the material in a fresh and illuminating way. He also respectfully credits other writers and local historians in the text, a welcome difference from those who tend to rewrite history as if they completely discovered it themselves. 

Weinstein has a wry turn of phrase. After describing how the wife of the University of California’s president watched, appalled, as dump trucks poured garbage into San Francisco Bay, and was spurred to organize the Save The Bay movement, he observes, “By 1961, Kay Kerr had seen her fill.” 

And his summing up of the way Berkeley’s most noted eccentric bohemians also tended to be upstanding, hardworking citizens: “in Berkeley, la vie Bohemè kept its voice down.” 

He also has the good journalist’s eye for highlighting the inadvertently odd event, such as the night in 1968 when locals could choose between hearing Timothy Leary speak at the Community Theater or Billy Graham at the Greek Theater. 

The graphics are a bit goofy (that’s typically the work of the publisher, not the author), taking their cue from the cover illustration, a modified 1960s postcard showing Sather Tower surrounded by orange and blue psychedelic swirls. Fonts erupt steroidally, text joggles around captions, illustrations, and small boxes entitled “Places” contain a sentence apiece on where to find or see some surviving aspect of Berkeley history.  

Although I had an opportunity to see an early version of the text, I was surprised and delighted with many of the photographs in the final product, and how they support the written narrative. Unless you’re an archivist (and even then) there may not be many pictures in this book that you’ve seen before. Even familiar sights are illustrated with little-used images.  

There are lots of photos from mid-century through the present, from multi-sport 1940s Cal athlete Jackie Jenson lounging on the beach at Lake Anza, to war worker training at Berkeley High School in 1942, scenes of the defunct Berkeley Co-op, still-thriving KPFA, Berkeley’s second socialist mayor, Gus Newport, leading a protest rally in the 1980s and, yes, Stadium oak grove tree-sitters this year. 

Weinstein has also extracted from older writings, and otherwise garnered, a whole sheaf of great quotes about Berkeley that could almost make up a stand-alone narrative on their own.  

“Some of the residents of the town are frequently annoyed by the impossibility of sleep during the time which the caroling bands (of UC students) spend in their vicinity…” (a Berkeley newspaper in 1879). 

“If Cosmic Religion societies are organized, they will be required to receive their charters from the Berkeley headquarters” (Charles Keeler, poet, activist, failed prophet, and manager of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce). 

“This (1960s Berkeley public school de-segregation) was brought about by the largest master plan committee in the world, I guess…” (School Superintendent Neil Sullivan, unconsciously presaging every Berkeley community planning effort since). 

“In two years the political body unique in the nation, the Berkeley City Council, will have choked its producing citizens to death, just as Vesuvius spewed ash and dust upon the people of Pompeii.” (City Councilmember John DeBonis, 1973.) 

“A pinch-in was also planned for last Saturday on Telegraph Avenue. Just letting the guys know how it feels. Keep alert for news of a ‘pee-in’ planned for coming weeks to protest pay toilets for women.” (East Bay Feminist Newsletter, 1970s). 

I’ll leave you to read the book to discover more. 

This would be a good book to have not only in your home library but in your lavatory. I mean that seriously, not slightingly. Long-time locals and their houseguests alike would benefit from regularly reading in the restroom something edifying, intelligent, and light-hearted. A chapter of “It Came From Berkeley” during each sitting would be a good start. 

Sunday, Oct. 19, Weinstein will give a talk on his new book at the Berkeley Historical Society. 2-4 p.m. Free, with refreshments. Veteran’s Memorial Building, 1931 Center St. 

Friday, Oct. 17, Weinstein will talk at Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary and Garden Arts, 7:30 p.m. 2904 College Ave. 

Weinstein also has a website,, with more details about the book, where it can be purchased, and promotional events in and beyond Berkeley. 

Steven Finacom writes periodically for the Planet on local history and feature topics.