This week, when the Berkeley City Council majority moved closer to approving new zoning that could line the edge of Berkeley’s Aquatic Park with up to 100 foot high industrial buildings, was also, ironically, the seventy-fifth anniversary of a massive celebration that opened the park in 1937.
At that time it was regarded as a new civic gem, with the apparent expectation that the park might soon be expanded into the same territory now slated for intensive private development. Aquatic Park would be, civic leaders said, further improved and augmented with a municipal swimming pool to help firmly establish the place of public recreational facilities on the Berkeley waterfront.
Some 5,000 people came to the official park dedication on Saturday, May 8, 1937. They watched and applauded as civic leaders planted over 100 trees around the lagoons of the new waterfront open space, and more than a thousand homing pigeons were released. “This day will be long remembered as one of outstanding importance in the history of Berkeley”, City Councilmember Carrie Hoyt, emcee of the festivities, told the crowd.
“The world will little remember what we say here, but here will remain these great recreation projects on our waterfronts by which the world may judge our work,” said City Manager Hollis Thompson, who was praised as a central figure in bringing the project about. “Recreation is an important part of living and I want to call attention to the fact that the people of Berkeley now have opportunity for the recreation that makes for sound, wholesome living.”
Berkeley was dedicating two new facilities that week; not only the waterfront park, but also the adjacent yacht harbor, projecting out into the Bay from the base of University Avenue. The yacht harbor had actually opened to use in November 1936; by May 1937, “all of the slips already are filled with boats and now a considerable number are going to moorings in the harbor.”
Both park and harbor had been funded in 1935 after a City request for Federal funding. The project was accelerated by the construction of the East Shore highway approach to the Bay Bridge, which sectioned off a more than mile long stretch of the Berkeley shoreline and provided a convenient western edge for the new park. Together, the two developments firmly established recreational space as a primary feature of the Berkeley shoreline.
Partial impetus for the projects came from the construction of the Bay Bridge and the early stages of the East shore Freeway offshore from Berkeley’s waterfront. With the freeway as a western edge, the City successfully developed plans to create a spectacular linear park between highway and original shoreline, south of University Avenue.
East from the base of University Avenue a massive, “L” shaped rock breakwater was constructed extending some 4,000 feet into the Bay and providing sheltered space on its northern side for docks for hundreds of sailboats.
Those two public projects provided a barrier between privately owned property inland and the Berkeley tidelands beyond the highway, which had long been coveted for this or that municipal or private development scheme.
It would take another several decades (and numerous defeated proposals for airports, subdivisions, industrial tracts, and other developments on landfill) but Berkeley’s waterfront would eventually be almost fully protected from development beyond Aquatic Park—except, of course, for the recent proposals for huge laboratory or office complexes that have been made for the northern edge of the City limits adjacent to Golden Gate Fields, and for the eastern edge of the park.
Federal WPA Role
An essential player in this land use evolution was the Federal government, which contributed both funds and Works Progress Administration (WPA) labor to the construction of both Aquatic Park and the new Yacht Harbor. Largely Republican Berkeley took full advantage of Federal stimulus funding in the 1930s, financing numerous civic projects and placing thousands of local unemployed in temporary WPA jobs. The Aquatic Park and the yacht harbor together, for instance, were estimated to have cost one million dollars to develop; of that amount, Berkeley put up only about $12,000.
Congratulations came by telegram from Harry Hopkins, Federal administrator of the WPA, who wrote “The City of Berkeley has shown vision and enterprise in taking full advantage of the facilities of the Works Progress Administration for such an outstanding improvement as your aquatic park and yacht harbor. It is my hope that the new waterfront area will prove as useful and enjoyable to your own citizens as its beauty will be appreciated by all visitors to California.”
“This is indeed a proud day for the speaker” said Walter P. Koetitz, one of the dignitaries at the ceremony. “As director of WPA District No. 8, I have a right to be proud to represent one of the finest projects that has been executed in America. This project is the people’s project. It was paid for by the people of the United States and by the people of Berkeley.”
A New Bay edge vision
Berkeley’s Aquatic Park project was—along with San Francisco’s Aquatic Park developed around the same time and also built with WPA support—one of the first major expressions of permanent public recreational values on the San Francisco Bay shoreline. Prior to the development of these two parks, there was no place I know of where a large, permanent, public park with developed recreational facilities extended along the shoreline of San Francisco Bay (although there had been private amusement facilities on the Bay shoreline, such as Neptune Beach in Alameda).
Today, it’s assumed that shoreline parks and protected wetlands will be almost everywhere around the Bay, with assured public access. But in the 1930s most people took for granted that the Bay shore was a place for industry, commercial shipping or fishing, dumping garbage and sewage or, at best, duck hunting and fishing. The development of the two Aquatic Parks started to tip the balance towards the presumption that the Bay edges should be protected, public, open space.
In the run up to the 1937 official opening, the Gazette said the development would evolve into “a combination of Lake Merritt in Oakland and a miniature Golden Gate Park. It will offer the people an opportunity for aquatic sports in an area perfectly safe for children and will have a definite effect on the future growth and development of the city.”
“Peninsulas have been constructed and subsequently planted with lawns, trees and shrubs; fireplaces, tables, benches for picnics have been built and in the future, many other developments will be included which will make this an attractive recreational area for the entire city,” the paper said on May 6, 1937.
Two days later on a bright, sunny, day—“fair and warm” was the local weather report—a new silk American flag was unfurled on a 75 foot flagpole at the Park and “upwards of 100 massed flags, carried by the flag bearers of San Francisco Bay fraternal and patriotic organizations, were raised at this time. The poem ‘Trees,’ was read by Miss Elizabeth Borcher of the Berkeley High School.”
Dr. Francis Shunk Downs, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, delivered an opening invocation that praised “our splendid government, its visionary practical wisdom and ability, that has made this day possible.” “Even more we thank Thee for the friendly fellowship, goodwill, and understanding we enjoy in our fine city of Berkeley,” he added.
Berkeley’s Mayor Edward Ament said, “The City has taken on the obligation of providing for its citizens the opportunities our children and our people must have. We hope in the near future to have a fine swimming pool for you—we will not rest until we get it.”
Berkeley’s Postmaster, Frank M. Whiting, delivered his own personal congratulations, noting that “Yesterday, today and tomorrow, Berkeley, California, is celebrating the completion of a Yacht Harbor and Aquatic Park, both of which were made possible by our Federal Government. It is, indeed, stimulating and gratifying to live among a forward looking, progressive and liberal-minded people, and it is perhaps somewhat unique for a community of 100,000 to set aside three days to present to our own people and to the many thousands of visitors the beauty and grandeur of these achievements and in this manner to express our appreciation.”
“I know of no more appropriate conclusion to my remarks than the words of our President: ‘The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
That, indeed, seemed to be the vision for Aquatic Park back then—quite different from the apparent direction today of the Council majority that seems interested in recasting the Park as something like a forecourt to a corporate office or research park.
Three festive days
In 1937, the Berkeley Daily Gazette reported that the more than one hundred trees planted at the ceremonies included “Chinese evergreen elms and Monterey Pines”. (The inclusion of the latter may be a journalist’s mistake. Those who have carefully studied the history of Aquatic Park tell me that Monterey cypresses, not pines were planted and, indeed, some of the oldest trees at the park today are cypresses with trunks several feet thick.)
The planting was only one highlight of three days of celebration. The Park and the waters adjacent to the yacht harbor were used for a tremendous “Land and Sea Pageant” which attracted tens of thousands of celebrants.
At the Park and the yacht harbor, Sea Scouts demonstrated their skills, and scores of races were held involving motorboats, sailboats, rowboats and racing shells. Some of the leading sailors on the West Coast starred, there were special races for “women skippers”, and model sailboats glided in the south basin that had been specially designed for that activity. The basin was soon declared to be one of the best model sailing locations in the country.
On land, the new Park hosted a temporary “Modeltown” exhibit of miniature homes and neighborhoods, sponsored by the Federal government. Thousands “thronged” that event, which remained on display for ten days. (The models were later moved to various Berkeley banks for continued display. Each building was shown with floor plans and “figures on costs and average monthly payments”, the Gazette reported on May 13.)
The second day of the festival, some 60,000 people watched more maritime events and competition on what was described as “the most perfect yachting day of the year.”
“While thousands were viewing the Pacific Coast’s premier sailing craft vie for honors in a crisp breeze off the harbor breakwater, other thousands lined the mile-long aquatic park lagoon to witness speed thrills by outboard and inboard motorboats, stirring battles between oarsmen and even exciting matches staged by tiny model yachts”, the Gazette sports section reported Monday the 10th.
On Saturday night, May 8, 1937, an estimated 150,000 people, stood solidly from Bancroft Way to University on Shattuck, and down University to Curtis Street, to watch a night time, illuminated parade that wound three miles through the streets of Berkeley. “Scores of wonderful floats”, bands, drum and bugle corps, and other contingents, many of them organized by local fraternal and patriotic groups, marched.
The California Marching Band and National Guard units participated. Motorized artillery trundled along with a “Goddess of Liberty” float sponsored by the Mobilized Women of Berkeley, another float depicting “the Claremont Hotel and its gardens in miniature”, and a float celebrating “Albany, Northern Gateway to Alameda County.”
Other civic floats came from as near as Oakland and as far afield as Lodi. Local Elks contributed a float with “two mammoth elks, grazing in a miniature forest surrounded by massive rhododendrons”. A full-sized boat and “three boys in kayaks they had built themselves” topped other floats.
The pageant had, of course, a queen and her court, carried on a float depicting monuments of the City and the University campus. The entire parade took more than an hour to pass reviewing stands built on University Avenue, Downtown.
That same night an elite dinner for some 100 dignitaries at the Durant Hotel formally celebrated the opening of the Aquatic Park.
“The success of the Pageant demonstrates conclusively that Berkeley can do things in a big way, that the people of the community are deeply interested in the waterfront developments that have given them a great aquatic park and yacht harbor and that the city will be ready to do its part in helping to entertain the hundreds of thousands of visitors to this region during the great Exposition in 1929”, the Gazette editorialized.
Early evolution of the Park
In the weeks and months after dedication, Aquatic Park experienced further improvement, growing pains, and tragedy.
Less than a month after the dedication the City was planning additional park features. Dignitaries at the opening ceremonies had been reassuring that the largely treeless landscape would be transformed.
“Further beautification of Berkeley’s aquatic park, waterfront from University to Ashby Avenues, will be started at once by the Municipal Park Department under direction of Charles Cresswell, assistant superintendent of recreation”, the Oakland Tribune noted on May 26.
“Permission for planting of the east shore of the park, along the Southern Pacific right of way, has been granted by the railroad company. Under the lease arrangement the city will pay $1 a year for the land and will inaugurate an extensive campaign of shrub and tree planting along the eastern boundary of the new park.”
But by July 1937, the optimistic near term plans were running into the reality of an exposed, waterfront, location. Recall that in that era there was no filled land beyond the freeway and the highway itself was only four lanes wide, so the Bay lay just a few hundred feet west of the park, with nothing beyond except water all the way to Alcatraz.
“Flowers are blooming while trees and shrubs are under constant menace from salt sea breezes,” the Oakland Tribune explained on July 29, 1937. “Difficulties in making a garden spot of the waterfront area, reclaimed as a WPA project from salt mud flats, were related today by Charles Cresswell…Growth may have proceeded faster if original plans for a wind-break of hardy trees had been carried out, Cresswell revealed. Lack of funds for this purpose has put Park Department workers to valiant effort to save what has been planted…”
“Despite progress made, planting of shrubs and trees at the aquatic park will continue to be a difficult problem, Cresswell states, with salt water continually seeping in and an incessant sea breeze carrying salt spray ‘which burns the leaves of most plants and reduces them to creeping shrubs’.”
“Aided by University of California soil chemists, tests were made as to salt content of treated soil before any planting was done, Cresswell stated. In addition, new topsoil was added to counteract the salty menace. Experiments with lawns proved successful…”
“Moreover, Cresswell states that petunias, poppies, nasturtiums, stock, snapdragons, dahlias, calendulas, sweet Williams and sea pinks are blooming in a maze of color. (That paints a colorful portrait of Aquatic Park quite different from today’s drifts of dark foliaged eucalyptus and cypress, rolling lawns, and green-on-green landscape character.)
Despite the initial planting problems, Berkeley forged ahead with park improvements. “New features being installed (included): game bird refuge on island in lake, shrubbery and lawn areas adjacent to Ashby Avenue, yacht landings, picnic places with tables, fire pits, drinking fountains and sandy beaches on the east side.”
In August 1937, the City was asking for additional funds of $280,000 from the WPA “to complete the Berkeley Aquatic park and Yacht Harbor”, the Oakland Tribune reported August 18. “The new appropriation…is for completion of the north and south seawalls at the yacht harbor, for a road around the park…and for additional landscaping.”
And that December the city was able to convert the lease into an option to buy 2.76 acres from the railroad. The City would be entitled to buy that land for $750 an acre. And, the Oakland Tribune reported December 15, 1937, “other privately owned land along the park’s easterly boundary will be similarly secured to carry out landscaping effects.” That implies that all the land west of the railroad tracks—including the privately owned parcels now proposed for development—was ultimately slated for addition to the Park.
When it was officially less than two months old, Aquatic Park also experienced tragedy. June 23, 1937, Stanley Baker, a 12-year-old living on Grant Street, walked down to the park with his younger sister, 8 year old Myrna and a friend, 15-year-old Edith Showers. Despite having promised his mother he wouldn’t enter the water—he couldn’t swim—the boy went into the enticing lagoon and his sister “was a horrified spectator when Stanley, who had waded out too deep, vanished with a cry,” the June 24, 1937 Oakland Tribune reported.
Edith tried to swim ashore and was rescued by a man who pulled her to safety, but Stanley’s body was underwater for two hours before recovered by searching police, firemen, and WPA workers.
Berkeley quickly emphasized a swimming ban in the park and hired a guard to patrol in a motorboat. But there was a morbid moment a few weeks later, in mid-July, when the Fire Department dropped a dummy in the water to practice retrieving it with grapnels. “Passing motorists thought the demonstration was real and more than 200 cars were jammed along the (adjacent) highway before police were called to straighten traffic and explain that no one had drowned”, the Tribune reported July 16.
And a few months later Aquatic Park experienced its first sunken car, a periodic problem since. Roy Cain, an Oakland chiropractor, “drove his car into Berkeley’s aquatic park lake” September 11, 1937. A Highway Patrol officer “arrested him for reckless driving (and) refuted Cain’s contention that a car had forced him from the road.” “There wasn’t another car in sight,” the officer declared,” the Tribune reported September 29. Cain opted for 50 days in jail rather than pay a $100 fine.