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Berkeley History in Brief

(to 2000)

Ohlone in a tule boat by Louis Choris, 1816

Before Colonization

c. 3700 BCE-1769 CE        
Prior to Spanish colonization, the entire East Bay was the home of the Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone people. The area from present-day Richmond to Oakland was known as Huchiun. The Ohlone benefited from abundant natural resources, which they husbanded through processes such as controlled burning. At the mouth of Strawberry Creek, Indigenous people built the first of some 425 shellmounds that eventually surrounded the Bay.

Pedro Fages

Spanish Period, 1769-1821

Spanish soldiers led by the Catalan Gaspar de Portolá, Governor of the Californias, first explored the Bay Area.

Pedro Fages, another Catalan, led an exploration of the area including Berkeley.

Juan Bautista de Anza founded the San Francisco Presidio and Franciscan friars founded Mission San Francisco de Asís, proceeding thereafter to convert and essentially enslave the Indigenous people of the entire area.

Don Pablo Vicente de Sola, Governor of Alta California, granted almost 45,000 acres of land in the East Bay to Luís Maria Peralta in recognition of his forty years of military service and his work in establishing the missions of Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and San Jose. The northern border of this Rancho San Antonio was Cerrito Creek.

“A reminiscense of 1842, bullfight after high mass at Mission Dolores in celebration of the Patron Saint, San Francisco de Asis,” by Edward Vischer, 1876

Mexican Period, 1821-1848

With Mexico’s independence from Spain, California became Mexican territory. The missions were secularized, ending control by the Franciscan order. Most former mission land became incorporated into large private ranchos.

Luís Maria Peralta formally divided his rancho among his four sons, with José Domingo Peralta receiving title to the northernmost portion, including present-day Berkeley and Albany. José Domingo had already built an adobe home by Codornices Creek (near the present St. Mary’s College High School).

Heywood Wharf, 1860s

New Settlements, 1850s-1900

José Domingo Peralta’s land was gradually lost to Anglo speculators including Francis Shattuck, William Hillegass, George Blake, and James Leonard. The former cattle ranch turned into small family farms. The area of settlement close to the Bay was known as Ocean View. William Bowen built Ocean View House, West Berkeley’s first stage stop, hotel, saloon, and grocery store. James Jacobs built a pier nearby, popularly called Jacobs Landing. John Everding and A.A. Rammelsburg established the Pioneer Starch and Grist Mill in 1855, beginning West Berkeley’s heritage as an industrial district. Ocean View School opened in 1856.

The College of California decided to move from Oakland to the area where the UC campus is now. They created the College Homestead Association to buy, subdivide and sell land in the Southside area and to name the emerging town Berkeley. In 1868 the University of California was chartered and took over the assets of the private College of California to become part of the new public, land grant university. 

The UC campus opened in 1873. All of Berkeley was considered part of Oakland Township until the citizens agreed to merge the very different communities of Ocean View and Berkeley and incorporate as the Town of Berkeley in 1878. Candidates of the anti-Chinese Workingman’s Party won the first town election.

Steam rail line from Oakland built on Shattuck Avenue, helping to establish a central business district and downtown that was to serve both working-class and heavily immigrant West Berkeley and the largely middle-class and native- born campus community.

Berkeley’s first official Town Hall was built in 1884 at Sacramento and University Avenues, midway between East and West Berkeley. In 1891 East and West Berkeley were finally connected by a narrow-gauge horsecar line, the Claremont, University and Ferries Railroad, along University Avenue. In 1899 the Town Hall building was moved to Grove Street (now MLK Jr. Way) at Allston Way.

Center at Shattuck, 1920s

Rapid Growth, 1900–1930

Berkeley’s population tripled 1900–1910, due to new neighborhoods created by the Key System and Southern Pacific electric rail lines, dynamic university growth, and San Francisco refugees from 1906 earthquake and fire. Growth continued in the next two decades, though at slower rate, as Berkeley was transformed from a rural town into an urban community. 

Voters approved bond issue to build Berkeley High School, ending the practice of teaching high school level classes at elementary school sites.

The Berkeley Town Hall was destroyed by fire. In 1909 a new town hall was completed (later called City Hall and then the Maudelle Shirek Building), designed by Bakewell & Brown.

August Vollmer became town marshal and later police chief and led national campaigns for police reform and professionalization.  

Berkeley received Carnegie Foundation funds to build a public library on Shattuck Avenue. Previously, the library occupied modest quarters donated by the Shattuck family. The city built the current main library in 1931 and greatly expanded it with an addition in 2002.

There was an unsuccessful campaign to make Berkeley the capital of California.

This was the heyday of Berkeley’s three greatest architects, Bernard Maybeck, John Galen Howard, and Julia Morgan. Iconic city buildings include Maybeck’s First Church of Christ Scientist (1910), Howard’s Sather Tower or Campanile (1914), and Morgan’s Berkeley Women’s City Club, now the Berkeley City Club (1929).

The city was home to a Berkeley Bohemia of early countercultural pioneers, particularly in the North Berkeley neighborhood that came to be known as Nut Hill.

J. Stitt Wilson was elected mayor, the only Socialist Party mayor of a large California city.

California established women’s suffrage, due in part to the efforts of many Berkeley activists, including Mary McHenry Keith, first female graduate of UC Hastings Law School.

Claremont Hotel opened.

Berkeley became the first city to adopt single-family zoning. Combined with racially restrictive deed covenants, this reinforced segregation of Berkeley neighborhoods, keeping virtually all Asian and Black residents in south and southwest Berkeley.

During World War I, UC President Benjamin Ide Wheeler, who had studied at German universities and greatly admired that nation’s culture, was criticized by some for pro-German sympathies. Once the US entered the conflict in 1917, however, Wheeler supported the war effort and made the campus available for various military training programs. 

UC President Benjamin Ide Wheeler retired and regent and patron Phoebe Apperson Hearst died. During the previous two decades, these two had led a process that transformed Cal into a major U.S. university.

Berkeley adopted city manager form of government.

Wildfire destroyed nearly 600 homes and other buildings in North Berkeley and for a time threatened the whole city.

Berkeley Pier was built to accommodate new automobile ferry to San Francisco. Symbolized the growing importance of cars in the city and in the lifestyle of Berkeley residents.

Berkeley Rose Garden under construction, 1930s

Bust and Boom, 1930s-50s

The 1930s were a depression decade, with unemployment and poverty especially affecting flatlands neighborhoods. Although the university experienced serious budget cuts, President Robert Gordon Sproul managed to fight off disastrous reductions, and this in turn helped Berkeley survive the economic hard times. World War II brought tremendous economic expansion and dramatic changes to both the city and the university. One important change caused by both the Depression and the war was a significant increase in federal programs and spending that directly affected everyday life in Berkeley. Local history could no longer be separated from policies and politics in Washington, D.C.

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies like the WPA created numerous local projects including the Rose Garden and the Berkeley Marina, as well as providing employment for jobless Berkeleyans.

Voters approved funds for the establishment of the East Bay Park District. Workers from the federal Civilian Conservation Corps planted trees and built infrastructure in the new Tilden Park.

Successful San Francisco General Strike promoted union organizing campaigns throughout the Bay Area, including in West Berkeley manufacturing plants. Strike also promoted conservative fears of radical revolution.

Completion of the Bay Bridge (built with federal funding) resulted in the end of the Berkeley ferry and the transfer of the Berkeley Pier to city ownership. Key System began shifting some rail lines to busses. 

Professor Ernest O. Lawrence won the Nobel Prize for physics. He was the first of dozens of Nobel winners at UCB.

World War II brought great changes to Berkeley. Wartime defense industry, particularly shipbuilding, produced a new migration of war workers and the establishment of the Codornices Village federal wartime housing project. Migration included new Black residents in South and West Berkeley. The Black migration continued in the postwar period. 

UC Berkeley scientists, particularly Ernest O. Lawrence and J. Robert Oppenheimer, played leading roles in the Manhattan Project, inventing and developing atomic weapons. The UC Radiation Lab moved to the hill behind campus where it remains today as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

UC campus was the site of a large wartime Navy officers candidate training program. In southwest Berkeley, Camp Ashby housed a battalion of African American military police.

President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, providing for the removal and incarceration of all people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast. About 1500 Berkeley Japanese American residents were affected. The policy had widespread support from the public and politicians, including state attorney general and future governor Earl Warren. But a small group of Berkeleyans, including UC president Robert Gordon Sproul, formed the Fair Play Committee to support Japanese American rights.  

UC began an era of dramatic growth, including physical expansion into the city outside of the traditional campus boundaries. This often created community backlash and town/gown conflict.

Consumers Cooperative of Berkeley was established, combining earlier institutions including a co-op founded during the Depression by Finnish Americans. By the 1960s, the co-op was Berkeley’s largest retail enterprise and was expanding into other Bay Area communities. 

Berkeley pharmacist William Byron Rumford elected first Black member of the state legislature from northern California.

KPFA, the first listener-supported radio station, began broadcasting in Berkeley.

Loyalty Oath controversy at UC, as many faculty and staff objected to signing an anti-communist oath required by the Board of Regents. Several dozen people, including some distinguished professors, were fired for refusing to sign. Eventually, the original university oath and the broader statewide Levering Oath were ruled unconstitutional.   

Key System shut down, succeeded in 1960 by the public AC Transit. AC ended all remaining rail service. Meanwhile, the planning for the new BART system had begun.

Increasing numbers of white Berkeley residents moved to the all-white suburbs, while Black migration to the city continued. In 1940 Black people made up about 4% of Berkeley’s population; by 1970 the figure was almost 25%. The city became increasingly segregated, with portions of southwest Berkeley virtually all Black and the hills essentially all white.

Confrontation at People’s Park, 1969

Activism, 1960s-70s

No northern American city was more affected by the sixties than Berkeley. Events in Berkeley not only reflected much of the national and international history of the decade, but the city made important contributions to the ideas and movements of the era and thus made national and international history of its own. During the seventies, many of the activists left the streets and participated in the city’s electoral politics, establishing policies and practices that persist today.

UC students protested against a meeting of the House Committee on Un-American Activities at San Francisco City Hall in one of the first large northern student political demonstrations since the Depression. This helped establish Berkeley’s reputation as a place of progressive political activism. 

Save the Bay movement started in Berkeley. Led to the establishment of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a powerful regional agency, which limits bay fill and governs shoreline use. In Berkeley the movement defeated plans for massive bay fill and led to the creation of a largely park-like waterfront. The Sylvia McLaughlin State Park honors one of the three Berkeley women who founded the movement. (Kay Kerr and Ester Gulick were the others.)

State legislature passed bill sponsored by Berkeley assemblyman Byron Rumford, outlawing racial segregation in the sale and rental of housing. The measure was overturned by an initiative in 1964 but restored by court action in 1966. The Rumford Act remains in force today.

The Free Speech Movement exploded on the Cal campus. It was the first of the great campus upheavals that occurred around the country and the world in the 1960s and established a student New Left that was a powerful social and political force during the decade. 

The Berkeley Vietnam Day Committee organized some of the nation’s first large anti-war protests and established the city as a center of anti-war activity.

Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California on a platform that included “cleaning up the mess in Berkeley.” One of his first actions as governor was engineering the firing of UC president Clark Kerr.

The Black Panther Party was organized in South Berkeley and North Oakland. One of the founders (along with Huey P. Newton) was longtime Berkeley resident Bobby Seale.

Berkeley Unified School District began the most ambitious elementary school desegregation effort in the US, including two-way bussing of Black and white students. Junior high desegregation had started in 1964.

UC Berkeley Third World Strike resulted in the establishment of ethnic studies programs at Cal and other institutions around the country. Cal activists invented the term and concept of Asian American as part of the movement.

People’s Park conflict brought together most of the diverse political and cultural elements of the sixties in conflict with the university over control of a 2.8- acre vacant lot. One person was killed and several others seriously injured by Alameda County sheriff deputies. Governor Reagan sent in the National Guard and established virtual martial law in Berkeley. The episode ended with a giant peaceful countercultural march along Berkeley streets.

Berkeley Ecology Center formed. Eventually the center ran Berkeley’s recycling program and farmer’s markets.

Former Free Speech Movement activist Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, establishing“California cuisine” and significantly influencing restaurant menus and the American diet. Along with Peets Coffee and the Cheese Board, Chez Panisse laid the foundation of the district formerly known as “Gourmet Ghetto.”

Ron Dellums began his more than three-decade tenure as the most politically left member of the US Congress. His 1970 election in a district including Berkeley convinced Berkeley activists to participate successfully in local city elections with a slate of candidates known as the April Coalition.

BART began Berkeley service. The city had previously voted to pay for undergrounding the tracks, assuring that a surface rail line would not be a visible boundary between east and west Berkeley.

The Berkeley left created the Berkeley Citizens Action, a grassroots political organization that endorsed candidates, adopted platforms, and ran campaigns. Moderates responded by organizing first around the Berkeley Democratic Club and then a group called the All Berkeley Coalition. In effect, the city had its own local two-party system that dominated Berkeley politics for more than a decade.

The Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Cal student Patricia Hearst, granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst and daughter of a UC regent. Hearst then joined her kidnappers’ violent group, and was eventually sentenced to federal prison.

The most important local laws and policies adopted during this decade were created by popular initiatives approved by voters. Included were measures creating a civilian police review board, establishing “neighborhood preservation,” and enacting rent control. The latter included a 1980 law that was one of the strictest rent control measures in the country, but its scope was considerably weakened by subsequent state legislation.

Shattuck Avenue with original BART entrance

New Demographics, New Economics, 1980–2000 

As the twentieth century came to an end, Berkeley experienced significant economic, social, and demographic changes. The number of large families decreased and often relatively affluent couples and single people took their place. Both the city and the university reflected a regional economy increasingly based on tech and biotech. Housing prices substantially increased, sometimes forcing low-income people out of the city or residents into homelessness. Terms like “gentrification” and “yuppies” began to be applied to Berkeley. 

The decade saw the development and growth of the new Fourth Street shopping district in West Berkeley, appealing to affluent consumers in Berkeley and beyond.    

Berkeley Colgate-Palmolive plant closed. The factory, which traced its origins back to the Standard Soap Company of the 1870s, represented the kind of unionized industrial enterprise that once dominated West Berkeley but was now rapidly disappearing.

Berkeley Co-op closed. Over-expansion, changing demographics and consumer demand, and internal conflict killed what had once been Berkeley’s most important retail business. But collectives and co-ops, including the Cheese Board and the student co-ops, still survive and thrive in the city.

City developed downtown Addison Street cultural and entertainment district, with Berkeley Repertory Theater as its anchor institution.

Pharmaceutical and biotech giant Bayer, having owned the old Cutter Laboratories since 1978, won City approval for a substantial expansion of its West Berkeley campus in return for establishing various community programs. Bayer became the city’s largest private employer, though its workforce is only a fraction of Berkeley’s largest overall employer, the university. 

Berkeley was the first city to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.

State Proposition 209 ended affirmative action programs at UC and other state and local public institutions. The result was an immediate and significant decline in Black, Latino, and Indigenous enrollment at the university. 

Chang-Lin Tien, UC Berkeley’s first non-white chancellor, resigned, in part due to his opposition to the end of affirmative action at the university. 

UC College of Natural Resources signed a lucrative research contract with Novartis Corporation, reflecting what critics called the growing “privatization” of the university. Faced with decreasing state support, UC also dramatically raised student tuition rates.  

The Spenger family announced the sale of its once immensely popular seafood restaurant, a West Berkeley institution for nearly a century. 

Census revealed a significant decline in Berkeley’s Black population and an equally significant increase in Asian American and Latino residents. These demographic trends continued into the first decades of the new century.     

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