Martha Nicoloff left us on June 24, 2016 after a long struggle with heart disease. Because she spent most of her life advocating for a more livable Berkeley, many political friends attended her memorial service. Someone there asked me what it was like to be the daughter of such a politically active woman. Here’s what I remember.
I loved my mom and she was always my rock when I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. When I shared some of life’s difficulties, she often calmed me down with “It’s better than a sharp stick in your eye.” We laughed and I felt better. Not only did I look like her but we also had a similar temperament.
Mom always had strong political opinions about the urban environment. She grew up in Chicago’s Southside during the Depression and told us she had heard bullets ricocheting between the tenement buildings. She knew about living simply – her family took in boarders to make ends meet. In Berkeley, she loved the small homes of the flatlands where she lived. She spent many years in Berkeley politics advocating with a fierce dedication to preserve those neighborhoods.
My earliest memory was of the late ’60s when she got involved with saving People’s Park Annex (now called Ohlone Park). It was called the “Annex” because it was established about the same time as the People’s Park near the UC Berkeley campus. The BART plan was to rebuild housing along the blocks of empty land. Instead, neighborhood people started planting trees and making a park. I remember regularly attending demonstrations to keep the park. It was a turbulent time in Berkeley due to the anti-Vietnam War protests. I saw National Guard soldiers with bayonets mounted, on several tanks driving up University Avenue. I also saw my mom threatened by a policeman when she drove our VW bus in front of their advance. Because she slowed them down, one stuck his billy club in the window and hit her on the chin. Then he broke both front headlights. This made quite an impression on me as a young teenager. Mom was pretty much unfazed.
Mom went on to become the president of the neighborhood organization. I watched her write many articles and create political cartoons about the effort to keep the park. She strongly felt that the flatlands didn’t have enough open spaces where people could enjoy the urban life. This was a perfect opportunity to create a park in the flatlands and it was only four blocks from our house. After several years of constant vigilance and neighborhood involvement, the land was purchased and funding from the City was promised. Ohlone Park was born (my dad Alex Nicoloff coined the name Ohlone after the Ohlone Indians who inhabited the area). As a young teenager, I had no idea how hard it was for an urban community to get a park.
Mom’s political involvement continued when she and Ken Hughes wrote the Neighborhood Preservation ordinance. She had been frustrated by several big housing developments being built next to small houses. She told me that community members were upset that neighbors were not notified before big six-story, densely populated buildings were built beside them. The ordinance was designed to give the immediate community a chance to have a say before the buildings were approved for construction. She told me that in Chicago there were many tall uninhabited tenement buildings. They had been hastily and inexpensively built and remained as an eyesore in the community. She didn’t want that to happen in Berkeley. After months of political meetings and writings, we were thrilled that the ordinance passed in 1973. By 2001 there were over 200 designated historical structures in Berkeley. The ordinance established the Landmarks Preservation Commission which still exists. Again, as a young adult, I had no idea how hard it is to write legislation and get it passed.
Mom continued to work towards improving urban life by getting involved with the Ocean View neighborhood in West Berkeley. She wanted to preserve the homes with historical character, when possible, instead of just clearing whole neighborhoods for future development. Now I realize she was right – these buildings are valued and the manufacturing companies that had been promised never arrived.
Mom also ran for City Council two times. We walked block by block handing out her campaign materials. I loved sharing the funny cartoons she drew. One showed the UC Berkeley expansion into Berkeley as an octopus reaching out in every direction. She didn’t get elected but that didn’t stop her. She went on to sponsor the Berkeley Height Initiative, on the ballot in 2002. Every time I visited her, I learned more about the problems with buildings five stories tall and above. She couldn’t believe people would build tall buildings near the Bay on top of fill when it’s well known that they could sink due to liquefaction during a strong earthquake. She also taught me about how large buildings often bring big shadows and wind tunnels. I understood why her neighborhood involvement work was important. I knew she was frustrated when the Height Initiative failed to get enough votes.
Mom continued to hold CNA (Council of Neighborhood Associations) meetings in our garage in the backyard into her 80s. Many times I had to end our Saturday visit because the meeting was going to start soon. She would give me her latest political cartoons that were published in the CNA newsletters. I know she inspired others to be concerned about Berkeley’s high-rise developments (see her good friend Ted Edlin’s article). To continue communicating her political view, she emailed when she could no longer attend meetings easily.
I was always proud of her strong commitment to making a difference. In fact, I followed in her footsteps by working with an organization in my Oakland neighborhood that resisted the many tall and dense condo developments planned for the Temescal district. I could tell she was proud of me for helping improve my neighborhood’s future.
Throughout all of this political work, she continued to paint watercolors, raise her two daughters, and collaborate with her husband to create prismatic sculptures. Her last political act was to go in a wheelchair with her granddaughter to see Hilary Clinton speak in San Francisco.
Now it looks like mom will be remembered by more people. We are planning to put a bench in Ohlone Park with “Martha and Alex Nicoloff” on it. Long live the Berkeley spirit.