I have strolled through the Elmwood district of Berkeley thousands of times and thought I knew most of the major landmarks. But a recent walk I took with Robert E. Johnson and Janet L. Byron, co-authors of the new book, Berkeley Walks: Revealing Rambles Through America’s Most Intriguing City, showed me I had been seeing the neighborhood with shaded eyes.
I didn’t know, for instance, that gingko trees lined the commercial strip of College Avenue or that developers installed a streetcar line in 1903. The stone gates marking the Elmwood Park subdivision were erected in 1905 and served as a welcoming beacon for all the people who flocked to the area after their homes were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. The oldest building in the commercial area on the corner of Ashby and College (now housing Lulu Lemon) was built in 1907 in a Colonial Revival style with shops on the ground floor and apartments above.
I sort of knew that Willard Park was named after suffragette Frances Willard, but I hadn’t realized community activists referred to it as Ho Chi Minh Park all the way until 1982 when the city renovated the park. I knew Patty Hearst had been kidnapped from an apartment on Benvenue Avenue, but wasn’t sure which was the actual place (2603 Benvenue). I didn’t realize, either, that Julia Morgan designed St. John’s Presbyterian Church at 2727 College Ave., and that its members, industrious and parsimonious Scots, built much of it themselves. (It is now the Julia Morgan Theater). Or that the Unabomber had lived on Regent Street.
And those were just a few of the facts I learned.
Berkeley Walks, published this fall by Berkeley-based Roaring Forties Press, has 18 walks highlighting different neighborhoods, plus a number of essays on notable local architects. While many of the walks cover geographic areas, like the north and south sides of town, the Gourmet Ghetto, the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood, and Ocean View, others are thematic in nature. There is a walk that highlights houses built by Bernard Maybeck and one that looks at all the rock outcroppings in northeast Berkeley.
Johnson and Byron were looking for the surprise element when they put together their 275-page guidebook.
“It’s nice when people become aware of things in their neighborhood they weren’t aware of before,” said Byron. “There is a ‘gee whiz’ factor.”
The response to the book has been tremendous. Books, Inc. on Shattuck Avenue has sold 92 copies since its publication in late September, making Berkeley Walks “the second bestselling book for non-fiction,” in the store, according to Christopher Griffin, a bookseller. It is selling better than the #1 New York Times bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Only an adult coloring book is selling better, he said.
“That’s very good,” said Griffin.
Johnson and Byron had been leading walks through the East Bay for years before they decided three years ago to write a book focusing on their hometown. They met while leading walks for the Greenbelt Alliance. (They both have also led walks for the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association and other groups.) Johnson, who loves architecture, had been doing walks that looked at good urban design and discussed smart growth and the merits of infill architecture. It was Byron’s idea to focus solely on Berkeley and include all sorts of different facts about city life.
The pair did a lot of research, drawing information and inspiration from other tomes on Berkeley. They relied on Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association’s book, 41 Berkeley Walking Tours. They read books on Berkeley history. They combed through old city directories to figure out where famous people like Thornton Wilder, the playwright, had lived. (His family moved around a lot). They also found addresses of the former homes of Pauline Kael, the New Yorker movie critic, Ina Coolbrith, California’s poet laureate, and others. They spent time at the Berkeley History Room in the Berkeley Main Library and at the Berkeley Historical Society.
But they also drew information from their life experiences. Johnson, 69, a retired financial analyst, served seven years on the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and he and Byron, 51, who works at Kaiser Permanente, had drawn up an application to landmark the house of Dorothea Lange, the photographer, at 1163 Euclid Ave. (The owner decided not to go through with it). They had gleaned other tidbits throughout the years.
The book is dotted with descriptions of trees in various neighborhoods as Johnson seems to have a particular love of trees. He pointed out all sorts of native and non-native varieties on our tour. He attributes his knowledge to the many classes he took from botanist Glenn Keator. In addition to noting gingkos, big red gum trees, camphor trees and ornamental pear trees, he took time out of the walk to show me two sets of different kinds of palm trees on Hillegass Avenue. One set of palms were Canary Island palms, and the other were California desert palms.
“There are a lot of palm trees when you walk around Berkeley,” he said.
By pointing out aspects of the natural environment, interesting buildings, and tidbits of history, instead of focusing on just one aspect of an area, Johnson and Byron have created a mosaic of Berkeley, one that appeals to history buffs, architecture lovers, and popular culture fanatics alike.
The two don’t only talk about what they like in individual neighborhoods. They also critique building they believe are badly designed. Johnson dislikes the Rumi Apartments, built in 1958. Apparently a lot of other people didn’t like that six-story apartment complex either; after it was built, Berkeley passed the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance to make sure that buildings blended in with their surroundings.
“So many of these horrible things went up,” said Johnson. “It looks like a tacky seaside resort. It’s such an insult to the whole neighborhood.”
In contrast, Johnson pointed out the Hillegass Court Apartments, which actually have more units – 34 – than the Rumi Apartments, which have 24, he said. In 1915, G.A. Mattern, a clothing manufacturer, hired the architect, George Rushforth, to build the complex at 2821 Hillegass. The book states, “This is one of the most attractive apartment buildings in Berkeley.”
A few more fun facts about the Elmwood neighborhood:
- Patty Hearst, 19, was living with her boyfriend Steven Weed at 2603 Benvenue when the SLA kidnapped her in 1974.
- Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton, then boyfriend and girlfriend, lived at 2667-71 Derby St. in the summer of 1971. The pair was attending Yale Law School then, and lived at the home of Adeline Rosenberg, the half-sister of Hilary’s mother.
- Chiura Obata, the artist and UC Berkeley art professor who was interned, along with other Japanese-American citizens during World War II, lived at 2430 Oregon St. His son, Gyo, is the “O” in the huge architectural firm HOK.
In addition to offering up lots of information in Berkeley Walks, Johnson and Byron also lead personalized tours. The next up on the schedule, led by Johnson, is a south side of campus walk on Jan. 9, 2016. Or you can hear both the authors on March 22 at 7:30 p.m. at Pegasus Books at 2349 Shattuck Ave.