Update: Change in Berkeley law not needed to landmark the childhood home of Kamala Harris

The city may adjust its laws in order to landmark the Bancroft Way home the vice-president lived in as a child.

As a child, Kamala Harris lived with her mother and sister in this Bancroft Way home in West Berkeley. Photo: Steven Finacom

Update, March 9, 5 p.m.: City Councilmember Kate Harrison will pull her proposed resolution to “change” Berkeley law to enable the landmarking of Kamala Harris’ childhood home.

After more discussion with staff, Harrison said she has more clarity about the circumstances in which a person’s home can be considered for landmark status. She had based her resolution on a reading of a recent staff report concerning landmarking 1915 Berryman St., the former home of William Payson. The staff report recommended denying the landmarking of Payson’s former home, in part, because he was not living in the house when he helped found Berkeley’s First Unitarian Church, the act he is best known for. Harrison said she was concerned that staff analysis would impose impediments on landmarking Harris’ house because she was only a child when she lived there and rose to prominence later.

Jordan Klein, the acting director of the Planning Department, said Harris’ case would be different since she is an “exceptionally significant” person. That alone will probably qualify her childhood home for landmark status.

Original story: Moments after CNN called the presidency for the ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris last year, dozens of people made their way to a two-story yellow house at 1227 Bancroft Way. It was the childhood home of Harris, who lived in Berkeley on and off until she was 12.

The revelers danced, sang, chalked messages to Harris on the sidewalk, and talked about how important it was that a Black and South Asian woman could rise to such high political office. Passing cars honked horns and drivers yelled out in glee.

But under current Berkeley law, nothing special can be done with Harris’s former home. Even though the city is famous for landmarking many historic structures, the current law says a building only can be landmarked if a person of note “performed his or her historic or cultural acts within the structure itself.”

A recent staff report about another house and another prominent Berkeley resident, William Payson, made Harrison concerned that Harris’ house could not be landmarked because she was just a small girl when she lived there. The staff report on 1915 Berryman noted that the building did not have a direct connection “to potentially significant individuals, organizations, and events that are important to Berkeley’s history or culture.” While Payson deserved acknowledgment for co-founding the First Unitarian Church, his contributions “are only indirectly associated with the subject property.” The staff report recommended that the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s denial of landmarking be upheld.

After discussion with staff, Harrison said she understands that Harris’ house can be landmarked under current Berkeley law.

“I’m satisfied we have an agreement with staff,” she said. “It worked out great. Only by putting this in did we get it clarified.”

But Berkeley may adjust its laws in order to honor Harris.

City Councilmember Kate Harrison is introducing a resolution Tuesday to clarify the law. The resolution would allow landmarking of building connected to “notable community members who contributed to the cultural and historic values of Berkeley.” This would bring Berkeley’s law into alignment with national landmarking guidelines, according to Harrison.

“The current interpretation of our landmark rules is that only the places where historic events occur can be landmarked, not the residences of the historic person themselves,” said Harrison.  “In many cases such as this one, a person’s home and upbringing play a critical role in their character and future actions.”

Harris was born at Kaiser Hospital Oakland but spent much of her early life in Berkeley. Harrison points out that she was “strongly shaped by the city’s cultural diversity.  This included attending a Berkeley African-American cultural center almost every week and absorbing life lessons from several strong women around her, particularly her mother, Shyamala Gopalan. The event most closely associated with Vice-President Harris’ childhood in Berkeley was being part of Berkeley’s first voluntary school integration program. This time in her life was brought to national attention during a Democratic presidential debate in June 2019 when Harris, addressing her then opponent Joe Biden, spoke of being bused to school every day. “That little girl was me,” she said.

A pre-school on the property

Steve Finacom, a Berkeley historian and a member of the landmarks commission, has been working on an application to landmark Harris’ house for months, he told Berkeleyside. He thinks it will be ready to submit in April.

Finacom said he found out some interesting details while working on the nomination. First of all, the building is not a duplex, although he once thought it was. The structure is and has always been a single-family home.

“In 1970/71 it was extensively remodeled and raised a few feet and the basement was made useable for a pre-school that now has a separate address, but there has never been more than one residential unit — the current “upstairs” — on the property,” Finacom told Berkeleyside in an email. “So it might be most accurate to refer to it as a house (or rental house) in articles.”

In addition, Harris “didn’t live continuously in Berkeley from birth until moving to Montreal,” said Finacom. “It would be most accurate to say she spent almost all of her childhood in Berkeley, but not all.”

From the fall of 1966 to late 1968/early1969, the family lived in the Midwest, where her father taught at the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana) and Northwestern University. When Harris’ father got a job in Madison, WI, at the University of Wisconsin, her parents had separated and her mother had taken her daughters back to Berkeley. That was in January 1970, according to Finacom.

The City Council is slated to consider Councilmember Harrison’s resolution at its regular meeting Tuesday.

Update: This article was updated to correct Berkeleyside’s lack of clarity about a Berkeley staff analysis on what can be landmarked.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Cityside. Email: frances@citysidejournalism.org.