"Berkeley, A City in History"
by Charles Wollenberg
Chapter 10 - Berkeley in an Age of Inequality
In the early 1870s, Captain R. P. Thomas moved his Standard Soap Company from San Francisco to Ocean View. Thomas became one of Berkeley's most prominent residents and one of the first settlers in the Berkeley hills. His house was equipped with a cannon which he shot off each year to celebrate the Fourth of July. Thomas supported many civic improvements, including the first Berkeley-San Francisco ferry that ran briefly in the 1870s. But most important, his Standard Soap Company provided jobs for several generations of working class Berkeley residents.
The company was taken over by Peet Brothers in 1916 and subsequently absorbed into the Colgate-Palmolive Peet empire. In 1937 the International Longshoreman and Warehousemen's Union organized employees at the Berkeley plant, and after World War II, Colgate workers were among Berkeley's most militant union activists. They staged a major strike in 1952 and a ten-month long walkout a decade later. During the latter dispute, the Berkeley workers promoted a national boycott of Colgate products, traveling around the country to drum up support for their cause. But union activism could not prevent a shutdown of the Colgate plant in the early 1980s. Although the ILWU negotiated severance packages for the workers, 400 people lost well-paid union jobs when the facility closed in 1982.
Decline of Blue Collar Berkeley
The Colgate story was hardly unique. By the 1980s, dozens of the plants that had once made up West Berkeley's industrial core had closed. They included the Heinz and Durkee food processing facilities, the Hawes drinking fountain factory and the Manasse-Block tannery. In the early 1970s, leaders of the city's business community proposed a redevelopment project that would turn much of West Berkeley into an "industrial park," but area residents successfully opposed such a radical reordering of their neighborhood. Instead, in 1993 after more than a decade of complex negotiations between various interests, the city council approved the West Berkeley Plan, an ambitious, multifaceted scheme that had as one of its major aims the preservation of Berkeley's industrial base and the lucrative blue collar jobs it had produced. However, in the late 1990s the Colgate site still remained vacant, and the property's owners called the city's requirement that the site be reserved for traditional manufacturing purposes a "pipe dream." Instead, the owners asked that the West Berkeley Plan be amended to allow them to build a mixed-use research and residential structure.
Of course, Berkeley was hardly unique in losing traditional manufacturing jobs during the 1980s. The decline of "smokestack" industries was a nation-wide phenomenon, related to technological change and developments in the global economic system. In Berkeley and elsewhere the new era produced winners and losers in a process that increased levels of social and economic inequality. During the Protest Decade of the 1960s, young Berkeley activists had fought to achieve a more equitable society, but as they entered middle age, they found themselves living in an era of increased inequality. Quite literally, the rich were getting richer and the poor, poorer. The decline of the well-paid unionized blue collar jobs that had been created during World War II and the post-war era was an important part of this process.
The economic trends even negated some of the progress that had been made in civil rights. Although overt forms of racism and discrimination dramatically decreased, the economic gap between whites and some non-white groups increased. In spite of thirty years of school integration, a significant gap in average student achievement at Berkeley High still remained between whites and Asians on the one hand, and blacks and Latinos on the other. Not surprisingly, achievement was closely correlated to zip code, with kids from hill neighborhoods scoring very high and children from southwest flatlands areas scoring low. To the degree that educational success was closely related to economic mobility, the student achievement rates were discouraging news for Berkeleyans committed to a more equitable society. In 2002 the school board agreed to consider a plan to divide Berkeley High into a number of small "sub-schools" within the common campus as a way of responding to some of the grave educational and administrative problems at the institution.
Transformation of West Berkeley
To be sure, some of West Berkeley's traditional manufacturing enterprises did survive, including the MacAulay Foundry and the Pacific Steel Casting Company. Perhaps the greatest success was the preservation of the former Cutter Laboratories. Established in 1903, Cutter became a major producer of medical products, including a popular line of insect repellents. Like Colgate, its workers were organized by the ILWU, and by the 1980s, Cutter was Berkeley's largest unionized private employer. In 1984 the firm was bought out by Miles Laboratories, which was subsequently absorbed into the Bayer pharmaceutical empire. By this time, the Bay Area had emerged as the world's leading center of biotechnical research and development, largely due to the presence of the region's major universities. In the East Bay, Chiron Corporation in Emeryville anchored a complex of regional biotech firms, many of which, like Chiron, were started by U.C. Berkeley scientists.
To take advantage of this invaluable commercial and intellectual network, Bayer wanted to transform the old Cutter facility into the corporation's biotechnical center. To facilitate the transformation, Bayer asked the city for substantial zoning changes to allow for the physical growth of the company's West Berkeley "campus." In 1991 the city approved the changes after Bayer agreed to a number of ameliorative measures. By the end of the 1990s, the workforce at the former Cutter facility had grown to more than 500 unionized employees.
The Cutter/Bayer story was unusual in two respects. It was the only old West Berkeley manufacturing enterprise to make a smooth transition into the new age of "high tech" industry, and it was Berkeley's only major high tech employer with a unionized workforce. Berkeley's other biotech companies and its numerous computer software enterprises were solidly non-union. In the 1980s and 90s, Berkeley's economy produced new employment that more than made up for the traditional manufacturing jobs that had been lost, but most of the new jobs were no longer positions that offered good wages to blue collar workers with limited education. Even technician and production jobs in the new industries demanded substantial education and training. One of the ameliorative measures Bayer agreed to was financial support for an educational program at Berkeley High and Vista Community College to prepare Berkeley youths for careers as technicians in biotech. Vista eventually pulled out of the effort, however, when the college biotech faculty concluded that the program would not give students sufficient educational background for anything more than low-level employment.
The New Economy
If many traditional manufacturing jobs disappeared, employment in cultural and artistic occupations boomed. The city spawned a significant visual arts scene, and the presence of the university assured that Berkeley would be a center of classical music composition and performance. A thriving music program in the public schools helped Berkeley produce a generation of talented jazz performers, and the city's counter cultural heritage nurtured a strong local tradition of experimental rock music.
Using profits largely gained from the success of a local band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fantasy Records expanded into film production in the 1970s. Headquartered in a large building that loomed over its West Berkeley neighbors, Fantasy produced such notable movies as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Amadeus," and "The English Patient." Hollywood awarded Fantasy owner Saul Zaentz an Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1997. But in Berkeley his greatest influence may have been his practice of renting out office space and production facilities to local film makers. This helped make the city a center of documentary video and film production.
Berkeley book publishing also thrived. The University of California Press grew into one of the largest scholarly publishing houses in the nation and, beginning with Theodora Kroeber's Ishi in Two Worlds in 1961, also entered the general book market with some success. The post-sixties era spawned a number of additional lively ventures, including Heyday Books and such specialty presses as Ten Speed, Shambala and Nolo. The collectively owned and managed Book People, headquartered in West Berkeley, became a major national distributor of works produced by independent publishers. And publishers and distributors were only part of the lively Berkeley literary scene which included a remarkable number of authors and one of the finest collections of bookstores in the country. If literary and artistic occupations often provided little monetary compensation for the body, they did have an enormous impact on the city's spirit and gave sustenance to its soul.
Many of the other new jobs created in Berkeley during the 1980s and 90s were in what might be called the yuppie service sector. The word "Yuppie," referring to young urban professionals, was first coined in the early eighties by Berkeley writer Alice Kahn in a wry social commentary published in the East Bay Express. Although the word was quickly adopted by the national media, it was particularly applicable to Berkeley. College-educated people in their twenties and thirties were moving to Berkeley, attracted by the cultural life of the university town and the relatively tolerant, multi-ethnic environment. Living costs were somewhat lower than San Francisco's, and the new residents were often blessed with good jobs or at least good job prospects. Often childless with few family obligations, the young professionals had disposable income to spend on good food, drink and other amenities. This created opportunities for a new generation of Berkeley entrepreneurs, often veterans of the cultural wars of the sixties. They responded to the "yuppie market" with an array of new businesses ranging from coffee houses to New Age boutiques.
Probably most influential of the new Berkeley business owners was Alice Waters, a former political protester who had been active in the Free Speech Movement. Taking to heart the Movement's condemnation of the "plastic," character of American mass-consumption culture, Waters set out to create a new "California cuisine," made with healthy, organically-grown ingredients and prepared and served in an informal setting by culinary crafts people. The result was Chez Panisse, perhaps the most influential American restaurant of the late twentieth century. Located in the North Shattuck business district, Chez Panisse became the cornerstone of a complex of nearby culinary establishments, including Peets Coffee, the French Hotel, the collectively owned and operated Cheeseboard and a number of other specialty food and service enterprises. By the time that an upscale Andronico's Market occupied the former site of the Shattuck Avenue Co-op in the late eighties, North Berkeley's "Gourmet Ghetto" had long since come of age. Similar developments occurred in other well-heeled neighborhood shopping areas, particularly Solano Avenue and Elmwood/Rockridge. Indeed, Elmwood residents finally demanded a zoning ordinance limiting the number of restaurants along College Avenue to preserve the character of their neighborhood business district.
Consistent with her egalitarian beliefs, Alice Waters started a garden project at Martin Luther King Middle School and opened an inexpensive take-out restaurant on San Pablo Avenue. But at its highest quality, California cuisine was not cheap, and Chez Panisse in particular appealed to an affluent clientele. Patrons were more likely to arrive at the restaurant in stretch limos than VW vans. Meanwhile, a former Peets employee, who had learned some valuable lessons about the "yuppie market" while he was working in Berkeley, moved to Seattle and established Starbuck's, a chain of ubiquitous coffee houses that eventually became a part of the very corporate, mass consumption culture that sixties activists had loved to hate.
The most prosperous new Berkeley retail area in the 1980s and 90s was Fourth Street, a collection of tasteful shops located on two West Berkeley blocks north of Hearst Avenue. Established by developer Denny Abrams, the district in typical nouveau-Berkeley style was initially anchored by two popular eating establishments, the Fourth Street Grill and Betty's Ocean View Diner. Just off the freeway, Fourth Street became a destination for well-heeled shoppers from around the Bay Area who were seeking relief from chain stores and suburban malls. Fourth Street was the most obvious example of West Berkeley "gentrification," a process that included the transformation of several old industrial buildings like the Manasse-Block Tannery into office and loft space.
Less than a block south of the Fourth Street shopping complex, Spenger's Fish Grotto, a Berkeley institution for more than a century, was unable to adjust to the new era. Begun as a tiny crab stand and bar by Johann Spenger in 1890, the establishment grew into one of the East Bay's most popular eateries. At one time, Spenger's operated its own fishing fleet and boasted that it served more meals than any other restaurant west of the Mississippi. Several generations of East Bay residents enjoyed family dinners in the restaurant's maze of dark dining rooms. But in 1998 Johann's aged grandson announced the restaurant was losing money and would close. Food critics commented that the Spenger family had been unable to keep up with the times and was unwilling to adjust the restaurant's menu to the tastes of a new generation influenced by California cuisine.
The 150 jobs lost at Spenger's were offset many times over by the new restaurant boom of the eighties and nineties. But while Spenger's jobs were covered by collective bargaining contracts, virtually all the fashionable new Berkeley restaurants and shops, like most of the biotech and software firms, were non-union. Indeed, when Spenger's reopened in 2000 under new management provided by a national chain, the revived restaurant was also non-union. Trade unions survived as an important part of Berkeley's economy in the early twenty-first century only because California public employees won collective bargaining rights in the 1970s. School district employees staged a major strike in 1975, and city government and community college workers, as well as clerical and blue collar employees at the university, also unionized during that decade. The biggest labor dispute of the 1990s was an ultimately successful attempt by Cal teaching assistants to win collective bargaining recognition.
Among the workers losing their jobs at Spenger's were Mexican immigrants from the state of Michoacan. For more than three decades, they had been coming to work at the restaurant, often crossing and re-crossing the border many times over the years. They moved into other Berkeley service occupations and helped establish a significant Latino presence in the Ocean View neighborhood adjacent to Spenger's, where earlier generations of European immigrants had once lived. More recently, Berkeley's extensive coffee house culture has attracted workers from the Mexican state of Jalisco. Latinos are also an important part of Berkeley's industrial labor force, and immigrant Latina women often work as domestics in affluent Berkeley households. Each weekday morning, mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants line up on a street corner near Spenger's to bid for day jobs in construction and gardening. During the 1990s Latinos were one of the fastest growing segments of the city's population, comprising about 10 percent of the total of slightly more than 100,000 Berkeley residents by 2000.
Recent Asian immigration, initiated by a major reform in American immigration law passed by congress in 1965, has also profoundly affected the city. Portions of University Avenue have emerged as a regional shopping center for people from the Indian subcontinent. By the 1990s, Asian Americans, many of them first or second generation immigrants, had become the largest single ethnic group in the university's undergraduate population, making up nearly 40 percent of new freshman students. The important Asian and Asian American presence at UC was symbolized by the choice of Taiwanese immigrant and former engineering professor Chang Lin Tien as Berkeley chancellor in 1990. By 2000 Asians were the second-largest ethnic group in Berkeley's population, making up about 17 percent of the total.
But while the city's Latino and Asian American populations increased, and the white population, which comprised about 55 percent of the total in 2000, remained stable, African American numbers declined in the 1990s. Some affluent blacks moved to new, multi-ethnic suburban communities like Hercules, while poor and working class African Americans were often forced out of the city by rapidly escalating housing costs. By the 1980s, many black families who had bought homes after World War II were ready to sell and move to housing more convenient for people of their years. They found plenty of potential middle class white and Asian buyers who were looking for relative bargains in an inflated real estate market. White and Asian students and young professionals were also able to out-bid black families for flatland rental units. The result was a reintegration of some previously all-black neighborhoods, not so much because of "open housing" policies, but because African American families were unable to compete in the super-heated Berkeley housing market.
One source of diversity in the city's population was university affirmative action policies, used to maintain an ethnically balanced student body. Virtually all affirmative action students were academically "qualified" in the sense that they met the university's strict, system-wide requirements, which limited admission to the top 12.5 percent of state high school graduates. But after meeting the system-wide requirements, "under-represented minority" students received preference for admittance to the prestigious Berkeley campus. This provoked protest from some white and Asian parents whose children were diverted to other UC campuses. In 1995 university Regent Ward Connerly took up the parents' cause. Supported by Governor Pete Wilson and over the objections of Chancellor Tien, Connerly persuaded the regents to end affirmative action in the UC system. The following year, Wilson and Connerly led the campaign for Proposition 209, a state-wide initiative that extended the ban on affirmative action policies to all state and local government entities in California. The result was a substantial reduction in the numbers of African American, Latino and American Indian students at Berkeley. The end of affirmative action may also have been a factor in Tien's 1997 resignation.
Privatizing the University
During his term as chancellor, Tien, like his predecessor Ira Michael Heyman, had to deal with a growing financial crunch. Particularly during the recession years of the early nineties, revenues from the state failed to keep pace with increases in university expenditures. By the mid-nineties, state general fund allocations covered only 35 percent of the Cal budget. The university responded with huge increases in student fees and major campaigns to attract private contributions. Tien was successful in obtaining large grants from wealthy individuals and corporations, and private funds were an important source of support for construction of new computer science and biotechnology facilities.
The Haas School of Business not only benefited from the generosity of the Haas family, but also from dozens of other major donors. It seemed that virtually every room in the new business school complex was named after one or another individual or corporate donor. In 1998 the College of Natural Resources entered into a lucrative contract with the Novartis Corporation, a multi-national pharmaceutical company. The college received company funds in return for allowing Novartis primary access to the results of university research programs. Of course the university had always depended on private contributions to supplement state spending, but the scale and influence of individual and corporate funding in the 1990s raised serious questions about academic independence and the distinction between public and private institutions.
By the nineties, then, the university was even more integrated into the corporate world of post-industrial society than it had been in the sixties. Mario Savio's fears were coming true with a vengeance. But student protests in the eighties and nineties were muted at best. In the 1980s, campus activists played a significant role in persuading the city and state governments to withdraw investments that benefited the apartheid regime of South Africa. In the nineties, the end of affirmative action also provoked protests, and some students were involved in community projects that promoted social change. In general, however, Cal student attitudes reflected the lack of political engagement in the society as a whole; personal and career motives seemed more important than political causes. Card tables in Sproul Plaza were more likely to be sponsored by social or religious clubs than political organizations.
Events on campus were important to the wider community because the university continued to be the tail that wagged the Berkeley dog. UC dominated Berkeley's economy and was by far the city's largest employer. The university's workforce of 13,500 employees was larger than the total number of people working for the city's next eight largest employers combined. The Sedway Group, a San Francisco economic research firm, estimated that in the 1998-1999 academic year Cal students spent $170 million in Berkeley and UC generated more that $374 million in personal income in the city. In countless less tangible ways, including the impact of its museums, cultural performances and athletic events, the university exerted a mighty influence on the city's character and life.
It was hardly surprising, then, that both the university administration and the city government were deeply concerned about the state of Telegraph Avenue, the best-known physical interface between town and gown. In some ways Telegraph was a thriving business district serving university students and out-of-town visitors. The Avenue was home to some of the city's most important commercial institutions, including Moe's and Cody's bookstores. But it was also Main Street of a troubled community that reflected some of the most serious social problems of contemporary America.
In the sixties, Telegraph Avenue "street people" were often young adventurers testing the frontiers of counter-cultural experience. But by the eighties, "street people" were more likely to be impoverished, homeless persons, sometimes plagued by drug and alcohol abuse. In the mid-eighties, restless young African Americans hung out on the Avenue, and in the nineties, young, homeless whites established themselves in the area. The future of People's Park continued to be a matter of intense debate and the park itself a place of more than occasional conflict. Merchants and neighborhood residents periodically demanded an end to what they called "anti-social behavior," and city and university officials usually responded with a combination of police crackdowns and social programs that were supposed to deal with unmet community needs. Predictably neither the crackdowns nor the programs resolved issues that often reflected deep national problems of poverty and homelessness. For Telegraph Avenue business interests, the trick was to demand city action without making conditions sound so bad that potential customers would be scared away. Indeed, if the Avenue were "cleaned up" too well, it might alienate customers for whom the area's unconventional atmosphere was a definite attraction.
In the late 1990s one of the unintended consequences of police crackdowns on Telegraph was that some homeless young people relocated themselves to the plaza adjacent to the Shattuck Avenue BART station. This was hardly what moderate Mayor Shirley Dean had in mind, since she was leading an energetic attempt to spruce up downtown Berkeley and improve its image. Like old central business districts all over America, downtown Berkeley had a tough time competing with automobile-oriented shopping malls. In the 1950s and 60s, El Cerrito Plaza took business away from downtown. In the seventies and early eighties, the villain was Richmond's giant Hilltop Plaza, and by the nineties, Emeryville's reincarnation as a regional shopping center took its toll. Yet downtown Berkeley showed remarkable resilience, fighting to remain a viable commercial district without going through an expensive redevelopment process that would have transformed the area beyond recognition. The BART station and proximity to the UC campus helped, as did the downtown locations of city government, Berkeley High and Vista College, which attracted people to the area. Most important, perhaps, was the resistance of many Berkeleyans to the idea of a commercial culture centered around "plastic" shopping malls.
All of this did not prevent the demise of many old Berkeley downtown businesses. In the 1980s, for example, Hink's Department Store closed after more than sixty years in operation, but Hink's was replaced by a multi-screen movie theater, assuring that Shattuck Avenue would remain an important entertainment center. In the nineties, Edy's restaurant also succumbed, but it gave way to an upscale Eddie Bauer clothing store. These changes were part of a larger trend of increasing downtown commercial domination by national chains, including Ross Stores, Barnes and Noble Books and Blockbuster Video. In one case, a well-known national brand, Power Bar, started by former Cal track athlete Brian Maxwell, located its headquarters in Berkeley, occupying the Great Western Building and placing a giant "power bar" sign on the roof. Some of downtown was decidedly scruffy, and many of the old buildings were in serious need of seismic upgrading. But in the nineties, private developers were willing to invest in several new downtown structures.
Most important of the new developers was Patrick Kennedy, a politically-connected Piedmont businessman who built several new Berkeley buildings that combined commercial and residential uses. His most controversial structure was the massive Gaia Building on Allston Way, which took full advantage of various zoning exceptions and incentives to rise well above the normal city height limits. Kennedy's projects were strongly supported by "eco-city" enthusiasts like Richard Register, who argued that denser development would preserve open space and promote more walking and public transit use and thus less automobile traffic. Opponents, including some of the framers of the original 1973 Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, were equally convinced that Berkeley was already too congested and needed stricter building height and bulk limits.
While the debate continued, the public sector fully participated in the process of downtown development. The city subsidized some of the new private construction and embarked on a downtown building boom of its own, including a major expansion of the main library, construction of a new police headquarters and a substantial retrofit of the Civic Center Building. After supporters of Vista College threatened to establish a separate community college district for Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville, the Peralta Community College District finally agreed to build a substantial new downtown building for Vista on Center Street. The Berkeley Repertory Theater, which won a Tony award for regional drama in 1997, dramatically expanded its facilities, making a major contribution to the city's plan to transform Addison Street into a "cultural district." The Aurora Theater, the Freight and Salvage nightclub and a jazz school were other institutions planning to move onto the street. And all of this activity stimulated the opening of several upscale restaurants in the vicinity.
In spite of its problems, then, downtown Berkeley continued to serve many of its historic purposes: transit hub, governmental center, central business district and, above all, common ground for a diverse Berkeley community. It was the one major commercial district that still catered to working class families, while enterprises like Eddie Bauer and the Berkeley Rep also appealed to upper middle class consumers. At lunchtime UC students on their way to BART and workers from university and city offices shared sidewalks with throngs of Berkeley High kids, shoppers at Walgreen's and Ross and homeless people seeking handouts. It was not always pretty, but it was a diverse cross-section of much of Berkeley society.
And it definitely was not a suburban mall. Post-war suburbs were often homogeneous communities in terms of race, class and lifestyle, but most older American cities like Berkeley have historically been unruly collections of diverse peoples and neighborhoods. It was in this sense that Joseph Lyford, a UC journalism professor, called Berkeley an "archipelago," a chain of separate social and cultural islands. In some respects this is what the city has been ever since Ocean View was first forced to coexist with the campus community in the early 1870s. Cities like Berkeley need common ground, not just in the physical sense of a central business district, but also in the intellectual and cultural sense of common visions, experiences and institutions that promote bridges between the separate islands of neighborhood, race and class. In the very early twenty-first century, in the midst of an age of inequality, such common community ties were all the more important.
In spite of the city's obvious problems, there is evidence that some common ground still exists in Berkeley. In the 1990s the city's diverse electorate came together to approve by large majorities special education and library taxes and public school and community college bond issues. Berkeley citizens also voted for expensive projects to erect new public buildings and renovate existing structures. To the extent that a willingness to tax oneself for public purposes and projects indicates a common civic consciousness, Berkeley still deserves to be called a "progressive" community. The economic and social changes of recent years have stretched but not broken the city's fabric.
Berkeley history has often been a dialogue between the practical realities of the times and the hopes and dreams of the city's most idealistic citizens. Back in the sixties, underground radio newscaster Scoop Nisker used to tell his listeners that if they didn't like the news he was reporting, they should go out and make some news of their own. There are still people in Berkeley willing to take Nisker's advice, willing to challenge the practical assumptions and realities of the time, willing to make some news by making some new Berkeley history of their own.