A Short, Partial History of Berkeley Parks

A Short, Partial History of Berkeley Parks

By Susan Schwartz

Berkeley had privately owned “parks” in the 1800s, like Willow Grove Park on lower Strawberry Creek, with its dance pavilion and trails for strolling. But the city did not begin building a public park system until the building boom brought by streetcars and the post-earthquake exodus from San Francisco. The World War I years, strongly influenced by the City Beautiful movement, saw the first of four spurts in creation of Berkeley’s park system.

Land for San Pablo Park was purchased in 1907 for $35,000, making it the City of Berkeley’s oldest park. The new park was the centerpiece for the San Pablo Park development, a neighborhood of modest homes developed by the real estate firm of Duncan McDuffie, later president of the Sierra Club and a father of the California State Park system. As a partner in Mason-McDuffie Real Estate, he also laid out the wealthier Claremont, Northbrae, and Uplands neighborhoods in these years, setting aside their parklets and bits of greenery.

San Pablo Park was actually developed in 1914, about the time the city hired its first superintendent of playgrounds. Playgrounds were seen as important in curbing juvenile delinquency, especially among the lower classes. It was harder to persuade citizens that they should set aside other kinds of parks. Planners from the 1800s on consistently recommended that the growing city set aside such amenities as large natural parks and parkways along creeks. But bond issues to pay for these consistently failed — most heartbreakingly in 1908, when an attempt to create a large park protecting the picturesque rocks and huge gnarled trees of Thousand Oaks failed to get the required 2/3 majority by only 194 votes.

The City Council finally voted to acquire Berkeley’s first “nature park” in 1914, when John Penniman offered a very favorable price for his home and large lot on the south side of Codornices Creek. In this area, prosperous businessmen, sea captains, doctors and the like had built sizable homes on large lots north of Berryman Station. The city also bought what had been a doctor’s home north of the creek, creating Live Oak Park. Penniman’s home served as a branch library and community center. The beautiful stonework in the park dates from this WWI era; other features included an aviary, and, after land east of Walnut was acquired in the 1920s, a rose garden.

In 1915, Codornices Park was leased from the private water company (later folded into East Bay MUD; Berkeley did not actually take title to the land until 1976). John Hinkel Park was a gift of property owner John Hinkel in 1918, including much of what had been a large estate. Hinkel’s former hunting lodge is now a private home just south of the park. Hinkel also built the paths and redwood clubhouse, now in danger of collapse.

Berkeley bought land for today’s James Kenney Park in 1917. The same year, the city dedicated the line of “rock parks” set aside earlier by Mason-McDuffie as highlights of their Northbrae development: Grotto Rock, Mortar Rock, Indian Rock, and Contra Costa Rock. Great Stoneface Park was another Mason-McDuffie gift, dedicated a few years later. Cragmont Park, bought by neighbors from the Cragmont Land Company and donated to the City at purchase price, was dedicated 1920.

These rock parks have an important place in climbing history. Dick Leonard, the “father of technical climbing,” and his friend David Brower, environmentalist and founder of Friends of the Earth, learned rock climbing there and developed techniques that made possible many first ascents, by themselves and others. Leonard formed the Cragmont Climbing Club, which was absorbed a few months later into the Sierra Club’s Rock Climbing Section. Using the techniques he had learned climbing at Cragmont Rock, Leonard planned the first technical rock climb in Yosemite in 1934. Brower used this special knowledge to prepare WWII Army training manuals that were critical in the Northern Italian campaign.

Although the city bought land for Grove Park in the 1920s, the second wave of park development resulted from the great job-creation projects of the Great Depression. Those years saw creation of the Berkeley Marina (since expanded). Between 1935 and 1937, the Works Progress transformed a smelly backwater created by construction of the Eastshore Highway (now I-880) into Aquatic Park’s three lagoons, one a model-yacht basin. The Rose Garden, another WPA creation, was also dedicated in 1937. Civic Center Park as well as Dorothy Bolte Park below upper Spruce, both opened in 1940, are also products of this era. And Tilden Park, although not a city park, was created in 1936 when voters, despite the depth of the Depression, agreed to pay for surplus watershed lands. (One of the “founding fathers” of the East Bay Regional Park District was Berkeley’s City Manager, Hollis Thompson.)

The part system continued to grow here and there after World War II: Totland in 1948 (with neighbors doing much of the development work in 1949); Terrace View in 1950; Willard in 1957 (with additions in the 1960s). But the third wave of park development was the late 1960s and early 1970s, years of community activism, poverty programs, high property taxes, and relatively generous federal grants. This was the period of creation of mini-parks and tot lots, especially in the park-shy flatlands: Greg Brown, Charlie Dorr, Becky Temko, Prince Street, and 63rd Street are examples. Ohlone Park was established over the buried BART line after large demonstrations blocked other proposed uses, including a community college.

Although the city had begun to acquire the abandoned quarry in the hills in the 1940s, Glendale-LaLoma Park was developed in the 1960s. Also in the 1960s, Countess Lillian Remillard Dandini gave Pinnacle Rock to the city, and the city added more land. The resulting park was named for the Countess’ father, Pierre Remillard, a French-Canadian laborer who built a brick monopoly in Oakland in the boom years following arrival of the Transcontinental Railroad.

In the early 1970s, a city bond measure, Measure Y, made it possible to acquire Strawberry Creek Park and Cedar Rose Park, largely on lands abandoned by the Santa Fe Railroad. This same bond measure paid for construction of major playgrounds on School District — King, Thousand Oaks, and Rosa Parks School Parks are examples. The last flower of this period was Adventure Playground, where kids make their own, ever-changing park from junk materials, created on Marina land in 1978 following European ideas.

The city had plans for more–a major expansion of Live Oak Park, for example. But Proposition 13 in 1978, reducing property taxes by more than half and capping future increases, put an end to these dreams, as well as wiping out many after-school and other recreation programs.

The only major additions to Berkeley’s park system since have been the largest — 90-acre Cesar Chavez Park, formerly North Waterfront Park — and one of the smallest, Halcyon Commons. The first opened in the early 1990s on sealed former garbage landfill north of the Marina. (Aquatic Park is a few more acres if you count the 2/3 of it that is water). The second is the city’s newest park, finished in 1996, the result of neighborhood planning, design, and sweat equity to transform a parking lot into a park in the center of a street in South Berkeley. The creation of still-undeveloped Eastshore State Park, (also built on garbage), over 25 years in the making and dedicated in 2004, has reserved for park use most of the remaining waterfront lands.

This summary was written for a Berkeley Path Wanderers Association walk in Northeast Berkeley, August 18, 2007, the park system’s centennial year. It is far from a complete history. The city’s recreation centers, the sports figures who honed their skills on Berkeley fields and courts, park design and landscape architecture, changes in park use as living patterns changed, and the many contributions of activists and volunteers would be only some of the chapters in a complete history.

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