Berkeley changes with the times

LA Times | Travel

So what do we call this place? Cal? Berkeley? Cal Berkeley? UC Berkeley? This question hung above 10 of us -- nine visitors and one student tour guide, all gathered at a busy campus that simmered on an autumn weekday morning with undergraduate enthusiasm, intellectual fermentation and political ...

By Christopher Reynolds // 10.31.08

So what do we call this place? Cal? Berkeley? Cal Berkeley? UC Berkeley? This question hung above 10 of us -- nine visitors and one student tour guide, all gathered at a busy campus that simmered on an autumn weekday morning with undergraduate enthusiasm, intellectual fermentation and political skirmishing.

Way back in 1966, when he was running for governor and the university was awash in demonstrations, Ronald Reagan described this campus as "the mess at Berkeley." After winning that election, Reagan engineered the firing of the university president, cut the budget, proposed selling rare books from the library and sent the National Guard in with bayonets and tear gas, dramatic gestures that helped give this territory its own chapter in the history of dissent in America.

But that was a long time ago.

"You can pretty much call us whatever you want," guide Jenn Lerner told us. "As long as it's not Stanford."

And so we began, some of us considering commitments to UC Berkeley, some just curious. Berkeley, the city, is a famously liberal enclave of 102,000 people wedged into about 10 square miles just north of Oakland. Berkeley, the campus, is 1,232 acres of that, but most of the action is in the 178-acre central core, which faces San Francisco Bay from the low slopes of the Berkeley Hills.

That core area is where you find the school's key landmarks, including the 307-foot Campanile (a.k.a. Sather Tower, which serves as a North Star to many a meandering freshman), Sproul Plaza and stodgy old South Hall, which goes back to this school's early days in 1873.

Lerner, a junior majoring in American studies, rattled off facts at high speed, all the while walking backward and interrupting herself with offbeat asides. By many measures, she noted, this is the No. 1 public university in the nation, its current faculty decorated with seven Nobel prizes. (The laureates get preferred parking, which may be the ultimate measure of respect here.) In Sproul Plaza, we noted the campus Republicans and the Muslim students recruiting tables about 8 feet apart. There's also a dodge-ball league, Lerner added, along with about 800 other campus groups.

The cyclotron was invented here, and various Silicon Valley luminaries put in time here. The Bancroft Library (closed "until winter" for retrofitting) holds the world's top collection of Mark Twain papers and an early nugget from the gold rush of 1849.

Oh yes, and berkelium, a substance discovered by a team of Cal researchers in 1949, is No. 97 on the periodic table of the elements. Search for as long as you like, said Lerner, but you'll find no stanfordium on that table.

The place's name was chosen to honor George Berkeley, the 18th century Irish philosopher and bishop who is credited with the phrase "Westward the course of empire takes its way." Though Frederick Law Olmsted spent part of the 1860s designing a campus for this site, his ideas were "modified substantially" when it finally materialized and began to grow.

The first buildings were designed in the Second Empire architectural style, very European-feeling, and the Campanile, completed in 1914, is a copy of St. Mark's clock tower in Venice, Italy. But then came a parade of architectural styles -- a little Gothic here, a little Mission there, a little Deco there -- that yielded a set of buildings almost as diverse as the students coursing in and out of them.

There are about 24,600 undergrads here and 10,300 grad students, with about 85% of the just-admitted freshmen from California. About 35% of all students are Caucasian, 34% Asian American and Pacific Islanders, with other backgrounds present in smaller numbers. About 8% come from foreign countries (mostly grad students). About 10%, Lerner told us, belong to fraternities or sororities.

By the university's count, the average campus-dwelling undergrad is spending $26,586 this year, and 65% get some kind of financial aid. It sounds pretty pricey, at least until you take the Stanford tour.

Anyway, here and there as you wander, you'll find remnants of past and present campus upheaval. At a grand old building with missing door handles, Lerner told us why: Protesters in the '60s used that hardware in chaining themselves to buildings. Once the handles were removed, authorities elected to leave some off.

Not that activism is strictly a historical matter in these parts. Just two weeks before we arrived, campus police finally succeeded in chasing four tree-sitters out of a 90-foot redwood on campus near Memorial Stadium, followed by the rapid felling of the tree. The tree-sitters (who were not students) had been part of a 21-month protest against plans to cut down a grove to expand a sports facility. (Somewhere, is Reagan smiling?)

After saying our goodbyes to Lerner, we paid $2 a head and rode an elevator to the top of the Campanile (open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. most weekdays), the better to see how the campus creeps up into the hills and down toward the bay.

My wife, Mary Frances, our daughter Grace and I got lucky -- it was a clear day, and there on the horizon stood the Golden Gate Bridge, perfectly perpendicular to the campus-cleaving Campanile Way below us.

Far, far below, I could see the non-Nobelists on Bancroft Way, jockeying their cars in hopes of scoring a $2.50-an-hour, two-hour-limit spot along the campus' southern edge.

Off-campus, the first spot tourists are likely to ask about is Telegraph Avenue, which is a sort of fading cartoon of the '60s, tie-dyed T-shirts forever on sale. Its virtues include Moe's, a longtime survivor at 2476 Telegraph that offers new and used books. The avenue's other esteemed book peddler of several decades, Cody's, closed in 2006 (followed by other Cody's locations).

The campus-adjacent corner of Telegraph and Bancroft is these days dominated by an American Apparel shop on one side and a Subway eatery on the other.

Before long, you'll be ready to head a few blocks east to College Avenue; or west to Shattuck Avenue; or farther west to 4th Street and the marina. Or maybe you'll just shuffle up and down Bancroft, probing the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive or shops like Ten Thousand Minds on Fire, which is not a Friday-night campus census but a bookstore named for a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

We started with College Avenue, which runs about two miles from the southern edge of campus through the upscale boho neighborhoods of Elmwood and Rockridge, dead-ending at the California College of the Arts in Oakland. Beginning at Caffe Strada, a busy coffee-and-laptop place at College and Bancroft, you could spend a week eating and shopping along College without exhausting your options.

We marveled at the cakes in the Katrina Rozelle bakery, had dinner at the Cactus Taquería and prowled the fancy-food vendors of Oakland's Rockridge Market Hall. Fresh baguettes. Marmalade at $2 an ounce. "Smell this!" ordered a vendor, holding a hunk of exotic cheese aloft as shoppers elbowed their way through. Even though it had competition from every direction -- the butcher, the florist, the bakery -- there was no denying it smelled great.

Then there's Shattuck Avenue, home to the legendary Chez Panisse (where we had dinner upstairs and a chef invited Grace into the kitchen for a cookie) and the surrounding "gourmet ghetto." Across the street are the beloved Cheeseboard and Cheeseboard Pizza collectives (long lines) and an all-organic farmers market on Thursday afternoons.

It was at that farmers market that I ordered an ice-cream sandwich at the Ici stand (the shop is at 2948 College Ave.), wondering how such a snack could possibly be worth $4.25. Let me just say, as a 40-year eater of ice-cream sandwiches, the home-made organic ice cream was so lemony, the top and bottom cookies so gingersnappy, that I have no further questions except to ask, "When is Ici opening a Los Angeles branch?"

After our days of exploration, we stayed at the historic Claremont Resort & Spa, a short drive from campus, and we enjoyed the long halls and historic crannies of the building. (I didn't see any nooks, although an enterprising bellman did lead us up to see the big views from the unoccupied and ungainly Tower Room, No. 606.) But I wouldn't do the Claremont again. Even if you can handle $229 nightly for a room with a limited view (and remember, the average San Francisco hotel rate has been hovering between $180 and $200), the idea of paying a $24 per day "resort fee" to use the pool plus $24 to park -- the Claremont didn't deliver enough comfort, oohs and ahs to justify the numbers for us.

Next time, I'll look first to the Bancroft Hotel, the Hotel Durant or the Berkeley City Club. All three have rooms for less than $200 and stand within walking distance of the campus, and the last of those, a six-story quasi-castle designed by Julia Morgan (better known for her work on that other California castle at San Simeon) features a spectacular Moorish indoor pool on its bottom level. No extra charge for swimming in that pool, by the way.

Reynolds is a Times staff writer.