District Politics

The District Goes Radical

The 1960s swing from conservative, Republican Berkeley (with smaller progressive political currents) to left-wing, Democratic Berkeley (with pockets of extreme left-wing activities) was nowhere more evident and profound than in the McGee-Spaulding District. Mike Myerson, who lived with Deanne Burk at 2224 Roosevelt Avenue, was one of the leaders of the Ad Hoc Committee Against Discrimination that organized the sit-ins at Mel's Drive-In in Berkeley and San Francisco, the Sheraton Palace Hotel, and Auto Row. Myerson was also active in campus politics and went on to write one of the most interesting personal accounts of radicalization in the sixties.  These are the Good Old Days; Coming of Age as a Radical in America's Late, Late Years (1970). Like many of the radicals in Berkeley at the time, Myerson was a “red diaper baby,” that is, someone whose parents had long been active in the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). During this same period, students at Berkeley, of whom not a few lived in the District, were challenging the rules and regulations that the administration had established to maintain order and “keep politics off campus.” Some of these students had also participated in broader social movements such as the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration drive in 1964.


In February 1958 a group of such students had formed a campus political party they called SLATE.  The name was not an acronym, but simply stood for a slate of candidates who ran on a common platform -- slates and parties were not permitted by campus regulations at the time -- supporting racial equality, free speech on campus, voluntary ROTC, and participation in the National Student Association. Myerson was one of the chairmen of SLATE, and his neighbor and friend across the street on Roosevelt, Herb Mills, was among its founders. In the fall of 1964 these movements culminated in student protests at Berkeley that led to the formation of the Free Speech Movement (FSM) and captured the attention of the entire world.


Several of the FSM’s leaders lived in the McGee-Spaulding District.  They included Mario Savio, Bettina Aptheker, and Michael Rossman. Savio, the best known, who called for students to shut down the machinery of the University, was engaged in regular, friendly conversations with Father Patrick Galvan at St. Joseph’s. Aptheker, who went on to become a well-known lesbian activist, author, feminist, and professor of feminist studies at UC Santa Cruz, had inherited the apartment on Roosevelt from Myerson and Burke.  She was the daughter of Herbert Aptheker, the radical activist and Marxist historian, who was a member of the CPUSA for years. Rossman went on to found Dragon’s Eye, one of the District’s most influential communes. From 1964 to 1970 the neighborhood was awash with currents initiated by the FSM, blending with influences from the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement, the burgeoning Black Power movement, and the Hippie movement, which had sprung up in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district in 1965. Rock and drugs were added to the mix. Old Queen Anne cottages were transformed into communes. Craftsman bungalows became the home bases of social activists.


It was in this atmosphere that the Berkeley Flatlands Neighborhood Association (FNA) came into being. FNA was started by a coalition of radical, left-wing communes and collectives that thrived in the Flatlands in the early l970s. These groups opposed the war in Vietnam, American imperialism abroad, traditional capitalism, and many elements of bourgeois culture. Among the activities and projects they initiated were food conspiracies, child-care centers, women’s and men’s groups, study groups, a “dis-orientation project” (including a dis-orientation manual) intended to radicalize new students at UC Berkeley, the construction of play structures in the minipark on Roosevelt Avenue (now known as the Becky Temko Tot Park), and a community newsletter, which was published irregularly for a few years. Counter-culture attitudes, beliefs and practices abounded in this environment, while straight jobs, traditional careers, stylish clothes, consumerism, prevailing educational beliefs , monogamy, and nuclear families were among the things eschewed. Other issues for the FNA were community control of police (many of the communards followed the line of the Black Panther Party), gay rights, and school integration. To be sure, there were varying degrees of adherence to these beliefs and practices, and some FNA participants, as well as most District residents, maintained a fairly traditional life style.[1]


McGee’s Farm, at 2431 McGee Street, was one of the most active communes in the District. This commune became the home of a child-care center, in the front garage, and one of its members, John King, designed and supervised the building of the Roosevelt minipark’s first structure, a three-level system of decks made of two-by-fours and telephone poles. In an attempt to reverse the traditional sex roles,  a “men only” group organized and ran the child-care center.  Members were active in a food conspiracy (and in a separate cheese conspiracy); they visited the farmers’ market in Oakland at the foot of Jack London Square in the early hours of the morning to buy large quantities of produce.  These were later divided up and distributed among the various communes and conspiracy members in the district. Endless meetings were held at the commune because people were not used to living like this and there was a lot to learn. Children were often taken care of by unrelated  commune members; cooking and cleaning duties were also shared.  The result was more free time for all.  But the commune fell apart after a couple of years, mainly because learning to live communally was more than most people could handle. An attempted suicide in the commune brought this truth home with great force.[2]


Of the other many other communes, collectives, and political action groups that existed in the District during those years, the following are perhaps most worth mentioning. Karl Marx’s Magic Bus at 1631 Dwight Way (known often as simply the Magic Bus) was one of the most prominent radical left-wing communes in the late sixties and early seventies. Though it did not achieve the fame or influence of the Red Family, the radical commune established by Robert Sheer, Tom Hayden and Ann Weils in four houses on Bateman and Hillegas, several of the Bus’s members went on to become important contributors to Berkeley’s civic life; they included Stan Dewey, an attorney, Carol Brogart, a doctor, and Bruce Rappaport, an adoption innovator.  Razzlesnatch at 1709 Channing Way is a large multi-unit structure that was started as a collective in 1973 and legally established as a cooperative in 1977; each of the residents is a shareholder in the incorporated cooperative. It is one of the few collectives in Berkeley that has survived until this day. Barbara Cappa and Dan Lambert -- Dan was one of the co-founders-- are long-time residents, and were active in the District’s political and social movements of the seventies and later, including the FNA and the Berkeley Tenants Union (BTA). In front of the building is the Wishing Well, one of the last remaining free distribution boxes in the City; the Well is maintained by residents of Razzlesnatch. The Circus at 2301 Grant was both a commune and a workers’ collective from the end of the sixties up through the early eighties. Al Haber, who now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was one of its founders. The name came from an e.e.cummings poem, drawn on a poster by sister coritta: "damn everything but the circus." Members of the Circus started the "splinter group" wood-shop collective in 1969, which served as a partial economic base for the commune. They also ran Gus Newport’s winning mayoral campaign in 1979. The store-front corner served as their "union hall" or organizing center. Former Circus member Bill Savage bought the old farm house next door at 2309 Grant Street, with the lush garden in front, and still lives there with his family. Dragon's Eye at 2233 1/2 McKinley Avenue, as well as 2233 McKinley, the adjacent large six-bedroom house at 2231 McKinley, and to some extent the cottage behind it at 2231 ½, existed as a commune/collective/cooperative from mid-1965 to late 1973.  FSM leader Michael Rossman, founder of the group, lived in the cottage at 2233 1/2 McKinley. The commune was named Dragon's Eye after the shape of the porch of 2231.  Nowadays the house is painted bright green and is known as the Green Dragon house.  According to Rossman, the commune 

had a working focus, loose enough to leave some members in only or barely supportive roles, but tightly-focused enough to involve most of the twelve to sixteen permanent residents in coordinated activities in the educational reform movement….Our commune was networked with other communes of workers in ed reform from Philadelphia to Urbana, Illinois to San Diego. We hosted travelers and groups from these affiliated communes and were so hosted in turn, sometimes even exchanging personnel…. Most of the funding for these ventures came from cooperative student governments, but Dragon's Eye and other such communes also managed to work the institutional grant interface well enough to have several     projects modestly funded….We participated regularly in anti-war activities, other civic protests, the building of People's Park and its defense and the planting of the BART strip as Ohlone Park after People's Park was destroyed; we played music             and sunbathed naked in the yard; we consumed a fair variety and quantity of weed and psychedelic agents fairly responsibly and fruitfully; we held street picnics, went to dances in the Haight Ashbury and elsewhere, and helped to organize the closure and public festivity of Telegraph Avenue.


The Clark House, that stick-style Victorian at 1545 Dwight Way, built in 1884 and one of the earliest buildings still standing in Berkeley, was occupied and run as a commune by some former FSM participants beginning in the seventies until around 2005, when it was bought by S.T.E.P.S. (Sobriety Through Education & Peer Support), a transitional housing facility for people recovering from substance abuse.  The Convent, a two-storey, twenty-five bedroom cooperative housing twenty-five people and located at 1601 Allston Way is the largest cooperative living unit that has ever existed -- or probably ever will exist -- in the District. Yet it owes nothing to the political movements of the sixties and seventies. Instead, it was established here by a rental agreement between UC Berkeley and the University Students Cooperative Association in 1992, after the University had acquired the property from the Sisters of Presentation (see biography of Mother Mary Teresa Comerford).  The Sisters’ original convent was built in 1877, but it burned down in June of 1966 just four days after they had vacated it and moved into the newly constructed convent at 1601 Allston, on an adjacent portion of their property. Today The Convent is home to 25 graduate and re-entry students of UC Berkeley and is advertised as the co-op where “studious, cloistered nuns have long since been replaced by studious, cloistered graduate and re-entry students.”


Many former members of Berkeley’s communes and collectives are still residents of the McGee-Spaulding District.  Among them is Richard Sargent, well-known local artist and photographer, who has lived with his wife Barbara, a quilt maker and former employee of the Berkeley Public Library, at 2212 McGee since 1970.  He fondly recalls his days as a driver for Taxi Unlimited, a collective founded in association with the Berkeley Coops in 1961 by antiwar activist Bob Schneider. Don Pitcher writes how “the collective’s funky fleet of psychedelically painted cabs offered free rides to hitchhikers, low-cost service to the elderly, and free transport for people on their way to a protest“ (Berkeley/Inside Out).  The company finally folded in 1985.  Alan Shin of 2429 McGee Street rents office space and has volunteered at the Tinkers Workshop founded in 1996 by another District resident, Nick Bertoni. Now at 1336 Channing Way, just west of Sacramento Street, the Workshop was described by a San Francisco magazine as “a cavernous cross between Dad’s garage and a mad scientist’s lab, with some Wizard of Oz whimsy thrown in,” or in Bertoni‘s own words, "a place for young people of all ages to take things apart, build things, explore things, fix things, and meet with others who are already doing these things."[4] Other communards from our District volunteered at the Berkeley Free Clinic, and some went on to become nurses, doctors and other health workers. Marty Lynch, who lives today with his family in the 1700 block of Channing Way (his wife Ilene Carey was one of the teachers at the nearby Walden School for years) was one of those volunteers, first as a counselor in the Rap Center, the mental health wing of the Clinic, and later as a funding coordinator. Lynch is now the Executive Director of LifeLong Medical Care, an organization devoted to health services for all ages and comprising the Over 60 Health Center on Sacramento, Berkeley Primary Care on Dwight Way, West Berkeley Family Practice on Berkeley’s Sixth Street, and LifeLong Dental Care on Alcatraz Avenue, among others.


Another neighborhood resident on the 2300 block of Roosevelt who worked at the Clinic is Rick Goldsmith, a successful documentary film maker. “Tell The Truth and Run,” about the early muckraking journalist George Seldes, and “Everyday Heroes,” about young adults in the AmeriCorps program, who tutor and mentor needy kids, are among his achievements. Goldberg shares the house on Roosevelt with another documentary film maker, Gail Dolgin, the owner of the house. Dolgin produced and co-directed “Daughter from Danang,” about a mixed-race Vietnamese-American girl from a small town in Tennessee who reunites with her mother in the Vietnamese city of Danang.  It won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary, was nominated for an Academy Award and was broadcast on the PBS American Experience series.

By the end of the seventies, or in some cases the eighties, most of the radical attempts to create new forms of living and working had ended, and the people involved in them had returned to more traditional life styles. However, some of the experiments have continued on, and the individuals who participated often continue to hold radical political perspectives. A very few veered off into extreme radicalism, but for the most part, they have become teachers, lawyers, doctors, artists, health workers, and other professionals, and are major contributors to Berkeley’s civic life. Mention should also be made here of Dona Spring, the City Council member representing our area, District 4, since 1993 who lives on the 1600 block of Channing Way.  She won in that election running against Berkeley Citizen’s Action candidate John Brauer, a close ally of then-Rep. Ron Dellums, and is considered to be an independent progressive to the left of the left-leaning BCA. Before that she was on the Green Party County Council for two years and worked at the Center for Independent Living on Telegraph Avenue. She even qualifies as a “red diaper baby” since her grandmother was a “communist surrounded by conservatives” in a “podunk” town in Colorado.[5]  She continues to be reelected without serious opposition, even though the McGee-Spaulding District is becoming gentrified, with fewer students and working families and more young professionals.  Clearly, the radical years have had a lasting effect, although the District is indeed not the political place it once was.


                 Hal Reynolds                                                                                                                         


[1] In the mid-1970s a very different FNA was created; it focused mainly on the effort to change the zoning regulations in the neighborhood to prevent the proliferation of cheap “dingbat” apartment dwellings. These efforts culminated in the successful downzoning of the neighborhood to R-2 in 1975.

[2] An article about this commune appeared in the May 3, 2006 issue of the UC Berkeley campus newspaper, The Berkeley an (available on the internet)..

[3] Personal communication by email, May 2008.  Rossman passed away on May 12, as this article was being completed.

[4] Intuition, Jan./Feb. 1999.

[5] San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 29, 2006.

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