Boosting Berkeley | Dave Weinstein chronicles the city’s quirky path to national infamy.
The mere mention of Berkeley to many in the heartland of this great country usually elicits a disgusted reaction. “Those commies,” they mutter. Ah, but if only these hard-working Americans knew the real Berkeley—the city we thank for national parks, the lie-detector test, the hot tub, the atom bomb and public radio (well, maybe not public radio)—they just might change their tune. To illustrate that Berkeley is more American than cold war Russia, longtime East Bay journalist Dave Weinstein (the man responsible for resurrecting El Cerrito’s art deco Cerrito Theater) has penned It Came from Berkeley—How Berkeley Changed the World (2008 Gibbs Smith). I rang him recently to get his take on Berkeley’s special place in the time-space continuum.
Paul Kilduff: How much of a Berkeley acolyte are you? Are you in love with Berkeley?
Dave Weinstein: Yeah, I would say to a certain extent. The book was originally called How Berkeley Became Berkeley. I was trying to figure that out.
PK: You’re not the only one.
DW: People laugh at Berkeley but a lot of what they make fun of is really good stuff. They laugh about Berkeley being a people’s republic, but what’s wrong with having a city where people who live there get really intensely involved?
PK: But you live in El Cerrito, right?
DW: That’s absolutely true, but I have lived in Berkeley.
PK: Would you want to move back to B-town?
DW: I’m defining Berkeley in the book not so much as a place but as an idea. I honest- to-god think that El Cerrito and Albany and the towns around Berkeley are really part of its sphere.
PK: So Berkeley is kind of a state of mind.
DW: Well, yeah.
PK: I grew up in Rockridge so I can relate, man. So, you’re probably not going to write It Came from El Cerrito?
DW: I thought about writing a book called San Francisco Values—a similar kind of fun thing with San Francisco and I’ve even started collecting little anecdotes about how San Francisco got defined as the strange place that it is. You have to write about a town where people would really want to buy the book. El Cerrito? No. Richmond? No. There are only so many towns like that.
PK: Is there a gravitational pull between Berkeley and San Francisco? Do you graduate from Berkeley as far as your political leanings and education and then move to San Francisco?
DW: Ultimately there are Berkeley people and there are San Francisco people. Berkeley was deliberately created as different. It was cleaner, more country-like, safer, more morally upright.
PK: Maybe that’s the history, but can you continue to say that?
DW: Berkeley is still a quieter, easier place to live. Not easier or quieter than being out in the Sunset, but it is much less of an urban place. It’s funny to me how so many people in San Francisco never come to Berkeley. It takes a while before you really figure out what makes Berkeley special. It’s a more reserved sort of place.
PK: Really? Because if I look at Telegraph Avenue and the south side of campus I wouldn’t say so.
DW: Telegraph represents kind of the heart and soul of Berkeley, but it’s pretty different than the rest of the town. When I think of what makes Berkeley special I think mostly of the residential neighborhoods—that is really what Berkeley’s about. When you come right down to it, it’s still kind of a bedroom suburb.
PK: And a college town. What about the failure of the tree sitters and their protest against the expansion of Memorial Stadium—does that signal a slight move to the center by the current crop of Berkeleyans? It didn’t seem to me as though they had much support, especially from Cal students.
DW: Zachary Runningwolf was really kind of an out-there character. And I don’t think he really knew how to build a strong coalition and it really wasn’t proven to what extent it was an important Indian site. A few of the trees are 100 years old or older, but most of them were planted around the same time the stadium was built around 1920. A lot just didn’t resonate with Berkeley as a whole. From a historian’s view, I feel worse that they built the stadium there at all.
PK: Speaking of football, why does Stanford have the wacky band? Here’s this private, wealthy school on the Peninsula with this out-of-control band. And here’s Cal with the conventional uptight band that might as well be from Michigan.
DW: Maybe with Stanford it’s where these repressed types all hang out.
PK: Cal’s band needs more repressed tuba players.
DW: Berkeley has always had a strong element of conservative thought engrained within its liberal nature. It’s the kind of town that likes to be well run. San Francisco is the kind of place that would name a sewage plant after the President.
PK: Hey, remember, that didn’t pass. Where do conservatives hang out in Berkeley? They seem invisible, but we know they exist.
DW: The biggest Republican organized contingent in the city is the Young Republicans on campus.
PK: What sacrilege!
DW: The student body is probably percentage-wise more conservative and certainly more Republican than the city as a whole.
PK: Where are the future Berkeley hippies going to come from? You can’t afford that lifestyle in Berkeley anymore—unless you’re down with being homeless. Hippies could just live with their parents, but it’s hard to start a revolution from your parents’ garage, right?
DW: That’s for sure.
PK: Did you research whether Berkeley invented the pot brownie?
DW: Actually, that’s a good one.
Age: Almost 57
With a MacArthur Foundation grant I would: Luxuriate in the all-too-addictive Bancroft Library, writing biographies of such Berkeley characters as Charles Keeler, who developed the theory of Berkeley, and Millicent Washburn Shinn, whose clear-eyed, heartfelt book Biography of a Baby is a forgotten classic.