We all know a history buff — the friend who has the ability to name every U.S. president, the parent who insists your family vacation includes museum visits, the grandpa who owns a library of historical autobiographies and, of course, the high school history teacher who can list the dates of obscure wars down to the very day and time.
I, for one, am not any of these people. I don’t have the organized brain to learn all of these historical facts, nor do I have the memory to remember them either. But one thing I do enjoy is knowing the ins and outs of the streets and neighborhoods of where I live. And as most people know, it’s impossible to know Berkeley well without understanding the history integrated within it.
So tighten your laces, grab some water and let’s take a walk through the decades of Berkeley’s politically historic streets.
First stop: Land recognition at Berkeley’s city limits
About a mile down from UC Berkeley on College Avenue is the Oakland/Berkeley city limits. On Feb. 7, the city of Berkeley installed new signs to recognize Berkeley as “Ohlone Territory.” The present-day Muwekma Ohlone Tribe is comprised of the Native people in the San Francisco Bay region. Although the installation of a sign is far from fully recognizing the Ohlone tribe’s generational history in the Bay Area, it is important to understand that Berkeley’s history stretches beyond just nuclear discoveries and the Free Speech Movement.
Next stop: People’s Park
As you head up College Avenue, take a left on Haste Street. Soon you will stand before People’s Park. Although this park’s history is known to most Berkeley locals, for those who don’t know, its history resembles Berkeley’s long-time struggle for student housing and public spaces. In the 1960s, the park was an empty cement block owned by the university. In an attempt to transform and utilize this space, political activists transformed the lot into a public park.
On May 15, 1969, UC Berkeley’s then-chancellor Roger Heyns ordered for the property to be cleared, leading to a violent day of resistance. Today, People’s Park is home to a community of homeless people and is also a hub for community organizing. A new plan to develop the park for student housing is up for debate, however, the park is still being utilized as a public space. When nearby, it’s important to remember the park is a home for many people and to be aware of your own presence and others.
Continue up Telegraph Avenue and through Upper Sproul Plaza
Walking past People’s Park and turning right, you will find yourself on Telegraph Avenue. You have probably seen the classic photographs of Berkeley in the 1960s on this street. Today, Telegraph Avenue remains one of the busiest avenues in Berkeley — a commute for bustling students on their way to class, a home to great late-night food and a route connecting Sather Gate to Oakland’s Fox Theater.
As you head into campus, Sproul Hall will be on your right. During the 1960s many political activists stood on these steps leading up to the hall and rallied the residents of Berkeley to fight against political oppression. For example in May 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. stood atop these same steps, delivering an anti-war speech. Mario Savio also stood on these steps on Dec. 2, 1964 and delivered his famous “The Machine Speech,” calling for individual freedom over powerful, moneyed interests.
In 2017, a moment in Berkeley’s history that many current UC Berkeley students remember is when Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to give a speech in Pauley Ballroom just across from Sproul Hall. Prior to the scheduled event, professors and student political organizations debated the meaning behind “free speech” and whether Yiannopoulos demonstrated that definition. Two hours prior to the event, UC Berkeley canceled it because of security concerns.
Weave down Strawberry Creek
As you take a left, you will find yourself walking among the shaded vista of Strawberry Creek. What many students consider to be one of the most serene areas of campus, this creek has been valuable for people far before UC Berkeley’s campus was even built. Before Spanish arrival, the Huchiun Ohlone people used the creek for water and fishing. Way later in 1868, this land was sold to UC Berkeley and deemed suitable to host a university because of the creek.
Beginning in the early 1900s, the urbanization of Berkeley polluted the creek. About 20 years later, California Memorial Stadium was built directly atop the creek’s south fork. In response to this pollution, the Strawberry Creek Management Plan was established in 1987, later leading to many restoration projects that continue today.
End at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park
As you head out of campus and through Downtown Berkeley, you will soon be standing in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, home to Berkeley’s extensive history of political activism and community gatherings. It was a hub for protesting during the Vietnam War and is an epicenter for cultural events, a home for political rallies and a host for farmers markets. The park may just encompass the political nature of the city itself.
Walking the streets of Berkeley can feel mundane, especially when you have a busy schedule and routine. But next time you’re walking to class or heading to the grocery store, try to appreciate the political, cultural and complex history that makes Berkeley … well, Berkeley.