Sunday, January 27, 2008

A New History of Berkeley I recently went to hear Charles Wollenberg speak about his latest book, Berkeley: A City inHistory. It was published on Jan. 23 by UC Press and looks to be one of those books that not only is a good read, but will make an excellent housewarming present for your favorite Bay Area hostess.

Wollenberg is one of the most knowledgeable historians of the Bay Area, having written books on the history of the East Bay, the region during World War II, ethnic conflict in California, and a book on California and Vietnam, done in conjunction with an exhibit at the Oakland Museum. He started this book as an on-line project for the Berkeley City Library.

While Berkeley is only a small city of 100,000 residents, it looms large in the national imagination. It is parodied as the home of Birkenstock granola-munching lefties or a place so politically correct that it’s debatable who would be a better dinner guest: Alice Waters or Huey Newton.

All jokes aside, Berkeley – and by extension the Bay Area – has been out in front of numerous social movements that subsequently swept the nation. On the top of my head I can point to the Free Speech Movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the movement toward organics and sustainability. Part of the avant-garde thinking reflects the presence of a major university smack in the center of town, but many Berkeley politicos have no association with Cal and still manage to come up with some interesting ideas.

Wollenberg, the chair of Social Sciences and Professor of History at Berkeley City College, has not written a traditional history that starts with the earliest settlers and continues chronologically until present day. While he provides a narrative sweep, he tries to write about the people and times that still resonate today. He writes about the railroad age, the Depression, World War II, and the 60s, sprinkling the book throughout with delightful tales about the people and places that make up the city. His book touches on the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the anti-war movement, and more.

I heard Wollenberg speak at a California Studies Dinner, a monthly meeting sponsored by the Department of Geography and the Townsend Center at UC Berkeley. It’s a group affiliated with the California Studies Association, which was formed about 20 years ago by Jeff Lustig, who teaches at Sacramento State. California Studies Dinners,

Every month about a dozen people gather at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club to discuss issues of relevance to California. I’ve wanted to attend their dinners for years but never had the time. I must admit I was amazed at the people who showed. Many of them had written important books on various aspects of the West, books that I have read in recent years to better inform myself about 19th century California. They were definitely a tough audience as between them they probably knew down cold the entire history of the state, from prehistoric times to the present.

There was Richard J. Orsi, a professor emeritus from Cal State East Bay whose book Sunset Limited: The Southern Pacific Railroad and the Development of the American West, 1850-1930, took him 30 years to research and write. There was William Issel, a professor emeritus from San Francisco State University, who has authored numerous book, including a fabulous one with Robert Cherney called San Francisco 1865-1932: Politics, Power, and Urban Development. Richard Walker, the author of The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area co-chaired the event.

Phillip Fradkin, who has just completed a biography of Wallace Stegner that will be published by Knopf in February, is a regular at the dinners. Peter Richardson, who wrote a biography of Carey McWilliams, who many consider the finest nonfiction writer on California, was there. I was delighted to run into Lisa Rubens, a historian who works at Cal’s Regional Oral History Project. Lisa gave me my first job out of Stanford way back in 1982. I helped research photos for a poster that described the history of California women. Malcolm Margolin, the founder and publisher of Heydey Books, was also there. So was Ava Kahn, one of the most distinguished chroniclers of Jewish life in California.

It was great for me as I feel as if I have spent the past few years in a self-dug hole, researching 19th and 20th century California. Then here were all these people who have the same interests as I do. As my friend Jan said, “Frances, you have found your people!”

Wollenberg will spead at Mrs. Dalloways’ Books on College Avenue in Berkeley at 7:30 p.m. on Friday Feb. 8.

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