Events Listings

Berkeley Historical Society Walking Tours Start March 27

By Steven Finacom
Thursday March 18, 2010 - 03:06:00 PM
Berkeley’s historic, hand-built, Finnish Hall will be featured on the March 27 Berkeley Historical Society walking tour.
Steven Finacom
Berkeley’s historic, hand-built, Finnish Hall will be featured on the March 27 Berkeley Historical Society walking tour.

The history of two of Berkeley’s early ethnic communities, an elevated residential enclave, a North Hills neighborhood viewed by a Berkeley native, behind the scenes visits to two notable performing arts spaces, and trees of the UC campus—the Spring 2010 walking tours season of the Berkeley Historical Society offers a varied and enticing palette of outdoor opportunities, starting Saturday, March 27. 

All the tours take place on Saturday mornings from 10-12 noon, and all are led by volunteer guides.  

West Berkeley had, by the early 20th century, a vigorous community of immigrant Finns who made important contributions to local heritage, including spearheading the establishment of local cooperative movements in the 1930s. 

Led by Berkeley native Karl Saarni and Finnish-American historian and activist Harry Siitonen, the March 27 walk will explore the cultural and political character of Berkeley’s Finnish community as well as several landmark structures. Buildings to be seen on the walk include both of Berkeley’s Finnish Halls separately created by Finns of “Red” and “White” political persuasions that mirrored pre-World War II differences in the homeland.  

The handmade halls, blocks apart in West Berkeley, were vibrant centers of community life, as was a Finnish Lutheran Church in a house-sized building that still exists nearby. The tour will also visit a site of the Walter Mork Sheet Metal Works, established more than a century ago; Mork was a member of the Berkeley City Council for many years. 

Next up, BHS tour organizer Dale Smith will lead an April 10 “Claremont Heights and its Residents” walk into the enclave of steep, winding, streets and substantial homes behind the Claremont Hotel.  

One notable resident was Stanley Hiller, “an entrepreneur who was one of Berkeley’s very first recyclers and made millions in the process of turning ‘waste’ into food as cosmetics, ” Smith says. He also developed Hiller Highlands, higher up the Hills. The walk will also recall the pre-development Smith Dairy Farm, “where the cows proverbially have two legs shorter than the others.”  

Saturday, May 1, BHS Board member and Berkeley native Buzz Cardoza will lead a ramble through north Berkeley entitled Secrets of North Cragmont Neighborhoods. In this area north of Marin Avenue Cardoza, who grew up delivering newspapers in the neighborhood, will point out eclectic architecture and describe unusual places and characters including “an observatory in a garage, the neighborhood bully, and the crabby lady he taunted.”  

On May 8, Jill Shiraki of the Preserving California Japantown’s project will illuminate the history of Berkeley’s pre-World War II Japanese-American neighborhood, south of Dwight and west of Shattuck. On the eve of Pearl Harbor Berkeley’s Japanese-Americans numbered over 1,300. Although confined by housing discrimination to southwest Berkeley residences, they operated over 70 businesses such as nurseries, florists, markets and cleaning services spread throughout town.  

Unlike most parts of Berkeley in that era, their residential district was an integrated and harmonious mix of Asian, African-American, and Caucasian families. The Japanese community had both Buddhist and Christian churches, thriving businesses, a variety of cultural activities, a younger generation attending Cal, and increasingly deep roots in Berkeley. In 1942, however, they were all forcibly removed to internment camps for the duration of the War, and not all returned to a forever-changed community when the conflict ended. 

Discover what was lost and what remains of the Japanese-American community and cultural heritage in this South Berkeley neighborhood. I have been on a similar tour organized by Shiraki, and it is both a deeply educational and moving experience. The stories of several families and institutions are told, some of them by elders who were children growing up in Berkeley in those years. 

May 22, a Stepping Out in Downtown Berkeley provides a behind the scenes look at two of the major institutions that are part of Berkeley’s Addison Street Arts District, the Berkeley Rep and the Freight and Salvage. Tour the backstage areas; see where costumes are made, and where actors prepare for performances.  

The last tour of the season, Saturday June 5, has the topic of Trees of History and Interest. It’s led by Jim Horner, the University’s Campus Landscape Architect, who also grew up playing on the Berkeley campus. 

The tour will wander up and down the nearly 200-acre UC campus, identifying unusual species and historically significant trees going back to the earliest days. Wear good shoes and be ready to walk a mile or so.  

Most of the walks are wheelchair accessible. However the Claremont walk and the Cragmont walk are steep and hilly and probably not easily accessible in a wheelchair. 


Tour attendance is limited, and BHS tours have often sold out. Make your reservation by visiting the Berkeley Historical Society at 1931 Center Street, Thursday through Saturday, between 1-4 pm (tour flyers are available there), or call 510 848-0181 for information. (BHS does not currently have an active website). 

Tickets cost $30 for a BHS member “season ticket”, $8 per individual tour for members, and $10 per tour for the general public. You can join BHS when you sign up for tours and receive the member discount. Proceeds benefit the non-profit Berkeley Historical Society. 



Steven Finacom is a Board member of the Berkeley Historical Society.