Telegraph Tour Looks Back Through History

By STEVE FINACOM Special to the Planet
Friday November 07, 2003

150 years ago, when the first American settlers were arriving in what would become Berkeley, the area now south of the university campus was a grassy slope with views in all directions and perhaps a few of the Peralta family’s cattle wandering through.  

Even after urban settlement began in the 1860s, visitors encountered only scattered houses, unimproved streets, and farm fields close by. Presumably the scene gave little or no hint of the busy, boisterous, diverse, sometimes troubled but always intriguing, district that would later develop there—Telegraph Avenue. 

On Saturday, Nov. 8, I’ll be leading a free walking tour of the heart of the Telegraph Avenue neighborhood to trace its evolution. 

The tour is sponsored by the Telegraph Business Improvement District, a neighborhood business-based organization that works to improve one of Berkeley’s best known commercial districts. 

Abundant evidence of Telegraph’s multiple layers of history remains if you know where to look, or, more accurately, if you know what you’re looking at. There are interesting stories associated with many storefronts, houses, and even the street signs. 

Today, the neighborhood is most commonly associated with its role as stage set—and incubator—for the 1960s-era protest and social upheaval, which won’t be neglected on the tour. 

But the Southside was also the site of earlier events in local history, from the forced assembly of Berkeley’s Japanese American residents for World War II internment to the establishment of Berkeley’s first European-style coffee house to 1940s Big Game celebrations that got out of hand. The locations and stories associated with those events will also be described. 

Telegraph was shaped by multiple forces and influences as diverse the Trustees of the early College of California—who laid out the neighborhood’s streets and named them alphabetically for great men of science and the arts to help promote a high-toned residential suburb—to the flood of youth who arrived in the 1960s seeking cultural and political nirvana. 

The presence of the university has always ensured a steady supply of customers for the business district. Every generation of students had its favorite hangouts along Telegraph, some of which are still in operation and will be noted on the tour. 

Also, sometimes hidden amidst the storefronts and often converted for other uses, important examples of Telegraph’s early residential heritage remain. These include not only single family houses but also survivors of the era when the Southside contained no UC residence halls but was home to dozens of private rooming and boarding houses catering to students. 

The area was also an important social and cultural center of early Berkeley. 

Several of Berkeley’s first churches were established near or even on Telegraph Avenue and although none of the original buildings remain, the congregations do, occupying monumental edifices erected in the early 20th century. 

The churches are complimented by the buildings of several private clubs, social organizations, and other institutions that found the district next to the university a congenial setting. The neighborhood once boasted not only a large public school on Dwight Way but also one of the East Bay’s more prestigious private institutions, the Anna Head School.  

The free tour begins at 10:00 AM at the university campus at Sather Gate, where Telegraph Avenue once ended. It should last approximately two hours.