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Berkeley At A Glance

By Elizabeth R. Elstien

Berkeley in California has long been home to social and political activists. The city of 113,000 is north of Oakland and is near San Francisco and gladly welcomes those of every culture. On its website, the city is described as "famous around the globe as a center for academic achievement, scientific exploration, free speech and the arts." Find out what gives this small city such a big reputation.

Brief History

Located in Northern California on the east shore of the San Francisco Bay, the first inhabitants of the area were the Chochenyo/Huchium band of the Ohlome Native American tribe. The De Anza Expedition of 1776 brought settlers of European descent but born in the Americas who helped established the Presidio of San Francisco west of Berkeley. A presidio soldier, Louis Peralta, was given a large tract of land by the King of Spain who then passed in on to his four sons. One tract owned by son Domingo and a portion of another owned by son Vicente comprise present-day Berkeley. Even today the Peralta land grant forms the basis for all legal land title in the city.

The land eventually passed from Spanish to Mexican hands after the Mexican War of Independence. Later, the land became part of the U.S. due to the Mexican-American War. In the mid-1850s, the area included mainly open space, farm land, ranches and a wharf on the San Francisco Bay. Incorporated in 1878, Berkeley is named after Bishop George Berkeley.

Although there were a few stages of growth in its history, it expanded slowly at first. The presence of the University of California campus in the last 1800s helped push the city forward. Berkeley was largely unscathed by the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, which saw an exodus of people from San Francisco to Berkeley. Statewide plans to move the capitol to Berkeley in 1908 did not get the needed votes, but the following year the town became the City of Berkeley. A massive fire raged through the downtown and campus areas in 1923 burning over 600 structures. The 1940's found many African Americans moving to Berkeley.

Since the 1950s, the city, fueled by University of California at Berkeley (U.C. Berkeley), has been a hotbed of political unrest and social activism triggered by the McCarthyism communism scare, Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, People's Park occupation by the National Guard and, more recently, the Oak Grove Protest over the building of a sports center and the Marine Corps recruiting office protests. Berkeley is still a bastion of democracy and free speech in the 21st Century.


There are lots of ways to get to and from Berkeley, and move around while there. Interstates 80 and 580 run on the shoreline. Amtrak train serves the city and there are local shuttles and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system of fast trains, which is being expanded outward to San Jose. Parking in certain commercial districts (Telegraph/Southside, Downtown and Elmwood) is near impossible. GoBerkeley began its pilot program to make accessibility to these areas easier for workers by providing free transit passes and implementing new meter and other systems making parking more available. The parking problem could be worse if Berkeley did not have such a high rate of bicycle and pedestrian commuting. A car sharing program at area hubs further cuts down on the traffic and parking congestion.


There are many unique neighborhoods and historic places in Berkeley. Berkeley Hills is part of the Pacific Coast Range that overlooks the northeast side of the valley and has three neighborhoods where deer are often seen by its residents. The La Loma Park/Nut Hill area of the Berkeley Hills borders U.C. Berkeley. Poets corner has most streets named after famous poets, such as Browning, Byron, Chaucer and Poe. South of U.C. Berkeley lies Telegraph Avenue, former haunting ground of the counterculture, with its inexpensive food, fun stores and legions of undergraduates.

Recreation and Entertainment

Berkeley is a big proponent of the environment and green spaces, so parks, such Tilden Regional Park or Cesar Chavez Park, are common. There are also wetland (East Shore State Park) and marinas (Berkeley Marina). Check out one of its many festivals, such as juggling and unicycling (July or August), Jewish music (March) or Himalayan Fair (May). There are also great places to eat in the "Gourmet Ghetto" of Shattuck Avenue, home to the cooking style known as California cuisine. View a play at the Berkeley Community or Berkeley Repertory theatres or art at the Berkeley Art Museum. Music, sports and other events are also found in abundance, keeping everyone busy.

Higher Education

There are several schools of higher education in Berkeley, one of them the oldest campus in the University of California system and a major area employer. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, also a major employer, and Graduate Theological Union are two other city schools.

Notable People

There are quite a number of notable people that were born or lived in Berkeley, such as:

  • J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project, who also taught at U.C. Berkley
  • Billy Martin of the New York Yankees second baseman and later manager
  • Phil Lesh, former bass player for the Grateful Dead
  • Ursula K. LeGuin, fantasy and science fiction writer
  • Huey Newton and Robert George "Bobby" Seale, activists and co-founders of the Black Panther Party
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About The Author

Elizabeth R. Elstien has worked in real estate for over 15 years as a real estate...

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