History of Berkeley

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In the beginning, there were cows.

Where the University of California campus and the City of Berkeley now stand, the cattle of the Peralta Rancho land grant roamed, more or less unobstructed, until 1873. That was the year that the first 191 students of the newly minted University of California moved from temporary quarters in Oakland into the campus' two not-quite-finished buildings.

With the kind of growing pains particular to a university, enterprising students knocking over trolley cars to create an excuse for missing lectures, and, in 1879, the suspension of the entire sophomore class over their "obscene parody" of the Junior Class Day program, U. C. Berkeley grew and flourished, and the City of Berkeley with it. A downtown appeared and prospered. The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, which left Berkeley unscathed, attracted thousands of stability-seeking immigrants from across the Bay. Residential neighborhoods spread north, south, west, and, eventually, east, of campus. University Presidents Benjamin Ide Wheeler and Robert Gordon Sproul presided over the expansion of the University to its present size and appearance, and secured the prestigious faculty and international reputation it has since enjoyed.

The university and surrounding community grappled thoughout the post-WWII years with the usual litany of student discontent, from a housing crisis to the complaints about the "dehumanization of education". It was without a doubt the Free Speech Movement, however, that thrust Berkeley into national consciousness, and helped lead national consciousness into the tumultuous 1960s.

In the autumn and winter of 1964, a new and increasingly political student activism ran head-on into University policy, and university administrators, from an earlier era. Inspired by the struggles of southern civil rights workers, organizations like SNCC (The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and CORE (The Congress on Racial Equality) began to recruit students on campus. Attempts to enforce University restrictions on political organization on campus led to tense stand-offs and sit-ins. At a December 2, 1964 demonstration, Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio stood on the steps of Sproul Hall (now called The Mario Savio Steps) and gave voice to the passion of a generation:

"There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even tacitly take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machines will be prevented from working at all."

The unrest, sit-ins, and demonstrations continued for the rest of the year and into the next, and the next. There were the Eldridge Cleaver sit-ins. The Free Huey demonstrations.

The Free Speech Movement was able to wring some concessions for its cause out of the U.C. administration, but the times they were a-changin'. By 1969 both student activists and administration figures, with five years of Vietnam and domestic unrest behind them, were of a more militant disposition. Thus the atmosphere in which Peoples Park became the flashpoint for a political and cultural conflict synonymous, for many, with the Berkeley of the late 1960s and 70s.

Peoples Park was nothing more than a scruffy little lot between Haste Street and Dwight Way purchased by the University two years before. In the spring of 1969, it became the focus first of community organizers to create a public park, and then of police, highway patrolmen, and soldiers of the National Guard ordered to fence the lot off. In the riot that ensued, on May 15, 1969, one man was killed with a shotgun, and another blinded. Tear gas, rocks, and bottles were thrown and billy clubs wielded. One hundred and twenty-eight people went to the hospital. Further riots took place in the ensuing weeks, at the park site, on campus, and in between. Helicopters dropped tear gas onto crowds.

Sporadic, violent protests flared up at Peoples Park throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s over issues as diverse as Apartheid and the installation of a volleyball court in the park. (The latter, in 1991, sparked twelve days of rioting during which a homeless woman attempted to attack Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien with a knife. She was shot and killed by police.)

Today, Peoples Park is still a scruffy little lot with a basketball hoop and a free clothing box, and is likely to remain so in the future. Leased by the University to the City of Berkeley, no one seems eager to do anything with it.

Todays Berkeley is a quieter place. Its politics are still remarkably fractious, but student protests are not the volatile factor they once were. Business majors cowed by academic pressure no longer have the energy to "smash the state" (note that after receiving enough "express deposits" of bricks and incendiary devices, the once glassy Bank of America branch at Telegraph and Durant is now a windowless, concrete fortress).

In spite of itself, Berkeley society seems to have reached a strange point of balance. The interests of commerce, the University, the progressive left, and NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) property owners and preservationists all counter each other over a fulcrum of political correctness so stifling that radical change would seem impossible.

On the threshold of the 21st century, Berkeley stands ready to be a full participant, if not a leader, in the New Economy. Its Internet and high technology businesses (like Ask Jeeves) are as successful as they can be. The citys retail economy is booming. The arts are thriving, supported by the community. While bitter complaints are heard about the Cal football team, everyone agrees that the University of California'this year as every year one of the top three universities in the countryshould be in good shape for years to come.