“Somethin’s happenin’ here but you don’t know what it is,” Bob Dylan said. I didn’t know a thing about him really when I was a kid—just another name in the mad wind, but truer words were never spoken.The Bay Area was changing dramatically when I was growing up, and to me it’s always felt like it was in the East Bay where the pressure really built to bursting.
San Francisco has long had a mix of gold fever and a suicidal streak. Halloween and hallelujah. As the signs say beside the emergency telephones on the Golden Gate Bridge—There is hope. Make the call. (The emergency in question, of course, being not a car breakdown, but someone jumping off.) From the days of the Barbary Coast and the tomahawk and opium wars in Chinatown, it’s always been a rakish, freelance town, full of desperation and inspiration. It’s also had an established base of great wealth to steady tradition and keep certain conventions secure, even through earthquake and fire. The Beat Generation and the bohemian posers that followed didn’t really alter the fundamental character of the city as much as many people were led to believe. They grabbed some headlines and impacted on the dynamic of certain neighborhoods—but there wasn’t the wholesale mutation that Time Magazine tried to make out.
With the next wave of the hippie movement, the same remained truer than many would have you think. Haight-Ashbury and the Fillmore changed—and there were some conflicts between the white longhairs and the small pockets of blacks in the city, but as most everyone knows, San Francisco’s never been a big black city. Oakland on the other hand, had then, and still does have a very sizeable African-American population. Its long term reputation and atmosphere has been gritty, industrial and tough. There remain outright ghettos in Oakland, far more dangerous and disheartening than anything on the other side of the Bay, including Hunter’s Point. Portions of East Oakland have been and perhaps still are combat zones on a par with South Central LA, South Chicago, East St. Louis, West Roxbury and the South Bronx.
The much vaunted Tenderloin in SF? For my money, East 14th Street in Oakland easily outdid it for sex, drugs, crime and craziness—at least back then. The first time we ever drove down that way I liken it to my terror when we accidentally got caught in the summer of 1967 riots in Detroit while visiting my mother’s sister and family (the summer I shook Martin Luther King’s hand at a church rally). There would’ve been at least a hundred women, lined up against the wall come the late afternoon—like cats sunning themselves. Deals of all kinds were being done right in the street. Hard alcohol was being consumed and guns were on display. There were fights—there was cash and blood to be seen. I didn’t understand what was going on, but I knew to lock the door and not get out of the car. The mood was extremely tense, because we weren’t the kind of white people welcome there. That slender margin of acceptance was entirely reserved for paying customers. I didn’t get that—but I got it.
On the other hand, there was also across Oakland, a strong infrastructure of a black middle class based around community churches, barber shops, beauty salons, restaurants, clubs and specialty stores, which mirrored Berkeley’s middle class majority profile, with both towns sharing a vigor in the realms of railways, warehouses, trucking, manufacturing and light industry.
What changed in the East Bay with the rise of the Free Speech Movement, the influx of hippies and the emergence of the drug-fueled counterculture was a profound break between Berkeley and Oakland and a much finer segmentation of Berkeley in terms of how much it resembled Oakland, wherever it did.
Before the 1960s, Berkeley was really a very middle class, even working class, town that just happened to have a large university. Some subtle shifts were in progress with the growth of government funding for the sciences—the boom in the so-called military-industrial complex. It brought some exotic people with exotic knowledge into town—and a whole lot of money—but most of this was behind-closed-doors stuff, and it was balanced by the much more visible coffee house/folk music crowd. The fringe “hipster” element was then still predominantly artistic and intellectual, or with pretensions in those directions, and it was primarily focused around the university (which in fact was pretty rah-rah fraternity and sorority driven generally).
Outside the campus district, the town remained the grease and starch, inherently conservative community of garages, diners and churches it had long been. There were beautiful Japanese gardens, Italian fruit stands, lots of Mexicans in the kitchens of the big seafood restaurants like Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto on Fourth Street—and a growing black population more or less assigned to the stucco Post-War houses down in the flatlands (sandwiched then between the hardcore chain link factories and warehouses of Emeryville and the clapboard bungalows of the white blue collar class just to the east). Parts of Berkeley may have been a little eccentric, but no one would’ve said things were in any way out of hand. With the exception of a few eggheads, living room socialists and the odd jazz fan, car repair, onion rings and the sports page were the order of the day—and there was order.
That order really did break down completely in the mid 1960s. I’ll vouch for that—I saw it happen. Hounds tooth jackets just disappeared. Shoeshine stands closed. The music on the radio changed. Overnight it seemed that the demographic had radically altered. Young white people from around the country and the world were showing up in force—and whether they actually attended the university or not was beside the point. They turned the university into the town and eclipsed the bingo parlor-delicatessen world in a tie-dyed explosion of turned-on color, blacklight posters and seemingly continuous protest—against what appeared to me as almost everything.
I’ve since spoken with many older white people who rhapsodize in achingly fond terms about that “golden time of change and rebellion.” I’ve always marveled at their lack of awareness of how frightening and demented that era and its denizens seemed to children of the day. I remember a sense of pure horror and revulsion in certain scenes…Telegraph Avenue turning into a street of gibbering hoboes, muttering panhandlers…tear gas…clashes with the police. “The world on fire,” as Jim Morrison said. The romance of that moment in the past has always struck me as a travesty—only rivaled by the idiocy and piggery of the forces of authority the best of those people felt locked in conflict with—from ideology to savage beatings with batons, to the making of bombs. Colorful and energized, yes—but it was also an ugly lost time in truth—and the crisis was only further dramatized by the obscene contrast on other levels. The endless ooze of bubblegum music. The relentless onslaught of television advertising and brilliantly colored plastic toys—the forced injections of fast food, games and entertainment to not just dull, but to outright obliterate the mind. All while some of the most heinous crimes in American history were being perpetrated by respected leaders…pool halls were being boarded up, doughnut carts loaded up on trucks and taken to the dump, where the seagulls roosted and huge brown rats festered and nibbled—not to mention characters out of a John Dillinger/Neal Cassady phantom hinterland like Charles Manson rolling into town to play guitar on the streets for spare change and the chance to seduce some rich white girl who hated her father for being rich and white. On a dime, the world had morphed and then was begged for by some displaced Pennsylvanian ex-Lutheran who’d blown his mind on drugs he couldn’t even pronounce, looking for the kingdom of heaven in a trash can, and pissing in his pants without knowing.
As Berkeley became a Mecca for the counterculture, the old local mainstream order crashed down and a relatively comfortable neighbor relationship with Oakland strained and snapped. What had been implicit before, became sharply etched. Oakland became a black city, growing increasingly radicalized in the light of the Civil Rights movement—and also for reasons that were regional as well as cultural. Many people mistakenly believed that the Bay Area was super-liberal and enlightened racially. Nothing could be further from the truth. It isn’t now and it definitely wasn’t then. From bank lending practices to housing codes, to the boundaries of school districts, and certainly the allocation of tax dollars, there was solidly in place an unspoken but institutionalized program of racist control. It virtually guaranteed that Oakland would face urban decay, becoming ever more violent and unstable. It made Berkeley a privileged island set between the fading industrial, racially disadvantaged areas of Richmond to the north and Oakland to the south—and it meant that within Berkeley the racial divide would intensify. Not everyone was privileged. Fairly suddenly, what had always been there as a feature of the landscape became blatant and inescapable in the crime reports—from the flatlands up into the hills, there was a clear socioeconomic gradient.
I’ve never read a history of this era that fully takes into account the significance of Berkeley within the movement at large, or examines the nature of what happened there as a microcosm and metaphor for the evolution and crisis of the counterculture overall. Put very simply, my view is that the town got hijacked by the university community whose ranks swelled with earnest young out-of-towners with agendas of varying degrees of merit (and often times a fair bit of money) and a whole lot of lost souls looking to ride a wave they didn’t understand. Black people, in the East Bay in particular, got left further behind as a result, and attempts to lump the so-called Black Power uprisings instigated by groups like the Black Panthers in with the stream of white radicalism have a lot of specious elements to them and don’t take into account at all the struggles of the black community as a whole.
The consequences for my family and many other white people in that age bracket were twofold. For people like my father, it took an already relaxed climate of permissiveness and release and blasted it wide open. Let your hair down. Let it all hang out. My mother viewed this as the collapse of standards and a personal affront to the values she was raised with—it provoked an intense schism between them. My father got looser, my mother more rigid.
Secondly, it mobilized fearful white people who were older and raising families. White flight—over the hills in this case. Contra Costa County’s population soared—tax dollars swept out of Alameda County. Where Berkeley had once provided a flamboyant and accepting environment for a wide range of people, including people who were essentially middle class conservatives, the culture became a runaway train, absolutely youth focused and powered by powerful drugs.
Don’t get me wrong. Many fine initiatives came out of that period. Creativity, freedom, legitimate opposition to official wrong-doing. It was a remarkable flashpoint for some of the very best aspects of American culture. But the cost was high. Homelessness became rife, crime skyrocketed, and more than a few people literally lost their minds right on the street corner—and the mania spilled over into other parts of California and was then metastasized via the media into much of the nation.
I still maintain the Civil Rights Movement made far greater gains in Selma, Alabama than in Jack London Square in Oakland. I think Oakland and Richmond paid the price of the hipness of San Francisco and Berkeley.
And I wonder if, in the time since, we have ever gotten real political activism and social change in Berkeley, or (like Seattle) merely political correctness and a kind of well meaning but smug liberalism, driven more by material prosperity than idealism, where the agenda is every bit as rigid and unquestioned as the political and cultural forces that are supposedly the opposition.
Meanwhile, we lost plants and factories that employed just plain hard working folks of all colors to swish “campuses” like Pixar’s facility in Emeryville. We lost residential hotels and reading rooms that met the needs of members of the community, who were only searching for as much dignity as they could afford. We lost lunch wagons and working class coffee shops to bistros and Starbucks. We lost social and neighborhood connection to apps.
I miss my grandmother taking me to the old Hinks department store on Shattuck and then out to Edy’s where she’d have Lakeshore Tea and I’d have a strawberry milkshake and a grilled cheese sandwich. Progress is a funny thing.
The great irony is that many of the rebel youth of the 60’s, who proudly and also self-righteously celebrate their opposition to the Vietnam War and their championing of social reform, actually turned into some of the greediest people in American history, and are still price controlling neighborhoods and substituting high tech solutions for human ones.
First photograph by Steven Clevenger / Getty Images.