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People’s Park, Berkeley, August 24, 2021
From the street in front of my house I can see the encampment in People’s Park a block and a half away. The smoky haze does not hide a new red tent that appeared this morning, although the university campanile and its celebrity falcons are almost obscured behind the scrubby trees.
Fifty years ago, two blocks of old houses like my own were demolished for student dorms that were never built. In time the space became a parking lot, morphing into People’s Park, a famous forum for antiwar protests, drugs, and what remained of Sixties counterculture. Now the university hopes to build again on the site. Chancellor Carol Christ, a popular and trusted administrator, proposes dormitory towers, “supportive housing” for selected homeless, and recognition of the park’s significant past in the design of the project. University of California regents, park neighbors, and the advocates of a People’s Park historic district are weighing in, both in and out of court.
Tent camps are both the latest and the oldest response to California’s housing crisis. But colonies of new trailers intended for the unhoused have sat vacant, and tiny houses are expensive. Gavin Newsom’s optimistic program, Project Roomkey, placing vulnerable unhoused in vacant hotels and motels, was only tenable with federal support. What seem to be working, still and again, are these tent communities, whether scattered and scruffy or–not often–in neat grids, with services.
Homelessness in this affluent society is hardly a new phenomenon. What is new is the emergence of these encampments in city centers and at highway intersections, where their high visibility and persistence painfully signal, any way you look at it, a broken social contract.
In 1971, having just moved house, we went with friends to break up asphalt in People’s Park to plant trees. Shortly thereafter, we marched against Nixon’s mining of harbors in Cambodia. About then we were also recruited into Berkeley’s new architectural preservation group, too late to save the twenty-five houses levelled on Block 1875, People’s Park. Of course we had no problem reconciling our protests for and against the Establishment: we oozed righteousness on both counts. I ascended to be president of the Berkeley neighborhoods’ coalition, my husband led the preservationists.
Many of the demolished family homes in People’s Park had been re-purposed as rooming houses, and when our kids eventually emigrated to points east, we rented rooms to students. The university, receiving ever less funding from the state, was forced to raise ever higher tuition from ever more students. All kinds of housing were already scarce by the 1980s, no little thanks to the continuing NIMBY concerns of neighborhood groups and preservationists like us. The median home price in Berkeley had bloated 300 percent in less than a decade. The twenty-five houses on Block 1875, People’s Park, would today be worth well upwards of $50 million and could have housed hundreds of students.
While we were passively amassing real estate, I was writing about local soup kitchens and shelters as well as local literary matters. This soon led to fewer poetry readings and more time with homeless support groups and a food recycling network. I wrote a novel, Soup of the Day, about homelessness in a gourmet culture, folding in feuding academics and a failing newspaper. While the novel is out of print, its themes remain relevant. I wrote a sequel unlikely to appear in our Cancel Culture–involving competing native American and Mexican land claims on a campus not unlike, as they say, the University of California, Berkeley.
The founding myth of the University of California describes eminent clergy shading their eyes as they gaze across the bay, quoting Bishop Berkeley: “Westward the course of empire….” More recently, the University has been described as a group of entrepreneurs seeking a parking place.
In 1868, joking aside, the location of the new university campus vastly inflated the property values of four local investors. Francis Shattuck, William Hillegass, and their partners had divided a square mile of land just south of the projected campus, for which they had paid about $31 per acre. The loser in this deal was ultimately the holder of the Mexican land grant, Jose Domingo Peralta–not counting the few surviving natives, whose history is piously noted in historical plaques if not in property ownership records.
Francis Shattuck’s eventual heir was philanthropist Weston Havens, a childhood friend of the maiden lady who sold us her family home. When we moved in, he gifted us with sacks of fertilizer meant to sustain the viciously rampant Silver Moon rose over the driveway trellis. He wanted to soften the view of the four-story apartment building south of us. But in 1940 he built a radically modernist house on Panoramic Hill which he left to the university.
Meanwhile, our clapboard manse on Hillegass was continuing to increase in value as the Bay Area economy boomed. A century past the Gold Rush, there was the pulsating prosperity of Silicon Valley and its garage geniuses. And in California, especially, the rich grew richer, billion by billion, and the poor poorer, year by year, decade after decade.
As Henry George, 19th-century economist and social reformer, observed: . . . the tendency of what we call material progress is in nowise to improve the condition of the lowest class in the essentials of healthy, happy human life. George saw the root cause of inequality as wealth increasing through unearned land value, whether near the new transnational railroad lines or next to the projected campus of what would soon become the world’s top public university. Henry George’s solution, a single tax on land value, soon proved flawed, since land’s value also depends on its potential and its improvements. In 1880 George left the west coast to try out his progressive ideas in New York City. In the mayoral race, he finished well ahead of Republican Theodore Roosevelt, but lost narrowly to a Democratic candidate whose name I and many others have forgotten. * *
Real estate profiteering, hard to regulate, remains a prime cause of homelessness. A group of homeless mothers in Oakland, California recently defeated eviction efforts by a major speculator and gave a boost to community land trusts
While property tax remains the main source of funding public services. California voters have repeatedly rejected any tax increases, even on the fattest commercial and industrial property. As the state budget shrinks support for public schools and colleges, the University of California, already short of housing, raises tuition costs and expands enrollment to fund its programs. And hopes to build on the now-historic site of protests against our misguided wars. That there was never any protest in People’s Park against US policy in Afghanistan suggests that local historic memory may be on life support.
Now that impeachment has slid off the table into history, and the Capitol attack boasts an ongoing commission, we return to Topic A, the pandemic. Everyone agrees that the shameful disorder of our government and economy–and now even the wintry weather–made a shambles of the vaccine roll-outs. Angry citizens claim to be deprived of access to vaccine, while others are faulted for rejecting it.
Our best vaccination option was some thirty miles away in a town we had never had reason to visit.
In Antioch, California, the January sun was warm, and people, mostly men with hard hats, were eating lunch on concrete benches in the middle of a parking lot. Sutter Health Foundation anchors a modest medical mall with fueling stations such as Xtreme Burger, Subway, and Starbucks. We found an empty bench and ate burgers prepared by one small, efficient Asian man who seemed to be working alone. Unemployment in Antioch is upwards of 10 percent, highest in Contra Costa County. This figure was not available on the City of Antioch’s website, which features a photo of a dapper administrator flanked by an eye-catching but empty template.
Sutter Health is the second largest employer in town. We passed through its glass portal to meet a receiving line of beaming young women who serially confirmed our identity and body temperature. The ratio of attendants to patients seemed about six to one. An attendant led us toward a receding corridor lined with additional young persons in pastel scrubs, smiling reassuringly as we passed. Magic Flute came to mind. In the room at the end of the corridor stood Krystelle, tall and lovely, with a crown of magnificent braids–and the vaccine. The jabs were painless, followed by a friendly question: had we been able to see anything much around Antioch? “In the summer, you can visit some sweet wineries in Brentwood,” she said.
In fact we had arrived early, in time for a quick turn around the town and the waterfront. Near the river, a sign on a small weathered building said Vets Help Lunch and Medications. Around the corner at the Antioch Community Center, a long line, including several wheelchairs, was also moving slowly toward vaccinations. Down the road at the deserted marina, there were no boats on the river, which had once been the main shipping channel of the San Joaquin-Sacramento river route to San Francisco Bay.
Antioch had begun as Marsh Landing, after John Marsh (Harvard, 1823), one of the early American pioneer entrepreneurs. Marsh had made his way west as an Indian agent, merchant, doctor, and finally, rancher and real estate speculator. During his time in the pueblo of Los Angeles, he was the only “western-trained” medical doctor around, thanks to the illegible Latin of his Harvard diploma. Having saved a tidy amount in in-kind medical fees, he liquidated his inventory and went north.
For $500 (or $300, depending on your source) Marsh became the owner of the 13,000-acre Rancho Los Meganos, a cattle ranch east of San Francisco Bay. He soon became a promoter of the joys of California life, writing widely circulated letters to encourage emigration, statehood, and of course the purchase of homesteads on his property. This land he had acquired from the Mexican government, via Spain, which had first dibs, unless you count those indigenous tribes. The history of California as a continuing land grab is not unknown, beginning with the Franciscan missions and Indian slave labor.
For his part, John Marsh sold a piece of his river property to the Smith brothers, bearded twins unrelated either to the cough drop dynasty or my family. William Smith, a minister, wanted to give the town a biblical name. He must have known his history to have chosen the ancient Greek “Antioch,” another town located at a delta formed by two major rivers.
The original Antioch was founded by a general of Alexander the Great, near a delta of rivers opening onto the northeastern Mediterranean. It became a center of commerce and culture during the Hellenistic and Roman empires and beyond. It was also a religious center where the followers of Christ, including Peter and Paul, were first known as Christians. This history as well as its riches made it a target of the First Crusade.
Ancient Antioch is now only ruins in the Turkish town of Antakya near the Syrian border. Just south of that border, in the Syrian province of Idlib, nearly everything is in ruins, both ancient and recent. In the years before the Syrian civil war, Idlib province was mainly known for the “Dead Cities,” hundreds of Byzantine settlements from the first through seventh centuries, preserved when trade routes changed.
Antiochus III the Great expanded the Seleucid empire in the usual way, through conquests and prudent marriages, and lost it in the usual way, by decisive military defeats–in his case as in so many others, by the Romans. But today, if the facts were more generally known, Antiochus would probably be more famous for being the father of Cleopatra than for Thermopylae. Reflections on the transient glory of military conflicts tend to attract less interest over the centuries than tales of sex, incest and violence like Cleopatra’s—and some much more recent.
In 2009 Antioch, California became suddenly notorious with the discovery of a kidnapped girl who had been kept there in captivity for 18 years. International media feasted on the story of Antioch’s alleged 1,000 registered sex offenders in residence, with domestic variations on the theme from Anderson Cooper, Larry King, Diane Sawyer, Oprah, and Judge Judy. Jaycee Dugard received $20 million from the state of California, acknowledging defective law enforcement. She wrote a best-selling memoir and established a foundation to support other victims of rape and kidnapping.
Ten years after the Jaycee’s rescue, the streets of Antioch seem calm, but police blotters tell another story. In one week in February there were 48 adult arrests, including the alleged shooter of a firefighter and paramedic, as well as a lunchtime bank robbery the day before our vaccination visit.
The streets are lined mainly with working-class cottages and no-frills condominiums, but with California property inflation, the median house price is now $540K, affordable mainly for desperate commuters employed in the central Bay Area.
John Marsh got the 13,316 acres of Rancho los Meganos for the equivalent of about $3.75 an acre in 1850 dollars. California’s legislature never ceases to recognize the need for affordable housing, but voters are no more inclined to tax raises than John Marsh would have been.
On our way to vaccination in Antioch, California, we could see from the highway a green spread of regularly distributed bumps and cubes over many acres. It looks like, and is, camouflaged weapons storage, now, we are told, empty. After the horrendous Port Chicago disaster in July 1944, when thousands of pounds of naval ordnance exploded during loading, killing 320 and wounding 390 mostly black Americans, a new name and new uses were proposed for the site.
For a while it was the proving grounds for testing self-driving cars, most notably Mercedes Benz. Then in 2018 the Navy floated a plan to build a tent city there. As many as 47,000 immigrants could be detained on this somewhat toxic but isolated Superfund site. Local protests resulted, and Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, who called the plan “madness,” assured his constituents that the projected tent settlement would not be built. The Navy continues to work on decontamination in hopes of making the land salable for residential or park development.
Some twenty minutes from the erstwhile naval weapons station, Marsh Creek State Historic Park now incorporates much of the former Rancho Los Meganos and the Marsh Home. John Marsh had lived alone in his adobe hacienda for decades, but for his new wife he planned a fairly grand stone manor with a tower to spy out cattle rustlers.
Construction was still underway when his wife died, and not long thereafter he was murdered by his own vaqueros after a wage dispute. “The meanest man I ever knew,” said John Bidwell, another early California pioneer.
The Marsh Creek State Park may reopen after the pandemic, but it appears that the house may be allowed to fall into ruin. And who will take responsibility for the hundreds of human burials discovered nearby, dating from 3,000 to 4,000 years ago–long before Antiochus the Great and his daughter sat uneasily on their respective thrones.
In the ruins of ancient Antioch, in 1932, a consortium of American and European museums found a trove of magnificent Byzantine mosaics. Their excavations were interrupted in 1939 by the war. Half of the mosaics were immediately absorbed by the excavators’ home museums. The others were left to Antakya, and we can only hope that they are no longer on display in the Hatay Archaeological Museum, less than 90 kilometers from Idlib in the heart of Syria’s northeastern war zone.