David Lamelas: A Pioneer in Conceptual Art

New Transcript Release: David Lamelas

Signaling of Three Objects
Signaling of Three Objects by David Lamelas, 1968

In 2017, the Getty Center initiated the exhibit Pacific Standard Time: LA / LA, a multi-gallery art exhibition throughout the Los Angeles area that showcased the interconnections between Latin America and the Los Angeles. In its continuing partnership with the OHC, the Getty Trust sponsored oral histories with a few of the artists featured in the year-long exhibition. David Lamelas was one of the selected artists.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1946, Lamelas would earn international recognition over his career as one of the leading pioneers of conceptual art. He graduated from the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1963 and soon became a key member of the Instituto Torcuatro di Tella, a group that stood at the center of Argentina’s avant-garde scene. With political turmoil on the rise, he left Argentina in 1968 to study at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, stopping along the way to represent his home country at the famed Venice Biennial. There his installation, The Office of Information about the Vietnam War at Three Levels, garnered wide praise and attention, introducing Europe to the themes of time, communication, and media that Lamelas would explore in much of his work in the decades to come.

Over the next fifty years, Lamelas continued to push the boundaries of conceptual art. From photography and installations to an impressive array of films, he continually found new ways to explore the topics of media and popular culture, as well as his favorite themes of time and space. He also has continued to be a “citizen of the world,” often splitting his time between Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, and Europe. Indeed, such travel offered ample inspiration for his work. It also made him a fitting choice for the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA / LA exhibition.

For Lamelas’ full oral history transcript, please visit our website.


Episode 1 of OHC’s Berkeley Remix Explores the Connection Between Private and Public Land in the East Bay

Episode 1: You Really Love Your Land, Don’t You: Expansion of the East Bay Regional Park District

Set in the parks of the East Bay hills, the Hidden Heroes podcast season is about people who have made a difference: fighting fires, breaking gender barriers, preserving the land. 

In season 5 of the Berkeley Remix, we’re diving into the long history of the East Bay Regional Park District, which was founded in 1934. All of the episodes are set in the East Bay parks and are about people who’ve made a difference. Some are stories that you’re already familiar with, but haven’t heard quite like this. Over the course of three episodes, we’ll explore the park district’s integral role in fighting the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire, of being on the forefront of gender equality in the workplace, and how the districts efforts to preserve land benefited the public — through the lens of the local equestrian community.

The first episode of the season dives into public use of the park. Since the district was formed in 1934, it has acquired 125,000 acres that span 73 parks. The episode begins with the role that one special volunteer-turned-employee played in convincing ranchers and landowners to sell their property to be preserved by the park district. Without the work of this man, and others like him, the  public would not have access to this land. This includes the local equestrian community, whom we hear from in the rest of the episode, exploring how the district became a haven for horse lovers. 

All episodes feature interviews from the East Bay Regional Park District Oral History Project. A special thank you to the East Bay Regional Park District, especially Beverly Ortiz and Brenda Montano. Photos taken by Bob Walker from the Bob Walker Collection of the Oakland Museum, courtesy of the East Bay Regional Park District. This episode includes interviews with Judy Irving, Don Staysa, Judi Bank, and Becky Carlson All music by Blue Dot Sessions: “Dorica Theme” and “A Palace of Cedar.”

To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

This episode was produced by Shanna Farrell and Francesca Fenzi

A special thanks to the East Bay Regional Park District, Beverly Ortiz, and Brenda Montano

The following is a written version of the episode.

 

Narrator:

There’s 730 photographs in this collection. Pelicans, waterfalls right in Tilden. I didn’t even know there were waterfalls in Tilden.

Francesca Fenzi:

Yeah, that looks like something out of Yosemite, not in downtown Berkeley.

Narrator: 

Yeah. Taken in February 1986. Aerial shots of the city. This is incredible. It’s quite the collection

Narrator:

We’re looking at the Oakland Museum of California’s website and that’s producer Francesca Fenzi you hear in the background. The page we have open looks a bit like an Instagram account — rows and rows of beautiful landscape photos.  There’s aerial images of Tilden park, shots from Pleasanton Ridge, the Black Diamond Mines, Mount Diablo. All bay area landscapes. All taken by a man named Bob Walker.

Judy Irving:

Right. Bob Walker started out—he came west from the Midwest. He came west basically just for an adventure.

Narrator:

That’s Judy Irving, a documentary filmmaker who met Bob in the 1980s.

Judy Irving:

He started out taking pictures and walking his dog. His photographs are still on the wall at the park district headquarters. [They were really impressed with his photographs.] They’re fabulous. 

Narrator:

Judy met Bob when she was making a film about the greenbelt for the East Bay Regional Park District. She saw a few of his photographs, and knew he was perfect for her project.

Judy Irving:

I went over to his apartment on Clayton Street in the Haight, and on his wall were two framed photographs that he had taken in the East Bay parks, hills and trees, in the fall and in the spring. Beautiful, same frame. I’d been wanting to do seasonal special effects in this greenbelt movie. I wanted to do spring, and six months later I wanted to do fall, and I wanted to try a long, long dissolve between the two. This was something that nobody else had tried. I just thought it would be beautiful, and in the East Bay parks with their fabulous, golden rolling hills, you could film a scene in the dry fall and watch it green up in the spring. All these things are in, now, the greenbelt film. It’s our seasonal special effects sequence, and Bob Walker did most of them.

Narrator:

By the time Judy found Bob, he was like the East Bay’s equivalent of historic photographer Ansel Adams. Bob had spent years photographing the natural bay area landscape, and was now an expert.

Judy Irving:

He had a good sense of where things were because he had been there. He had these huge maps, and he’d come home from every trip and he’d make little marks and little pinpoint areas.

Narrator:

He also cared deeply about the land. He’d take people like Judy, who were interested in his work, on walks through the scenery of his photographs.

Judy Irving:

He got so active, he would take folks to an area that he thought should be bought by the park district. Everybody would fall in love with this area, and then he’d give them postcards to write to the district. They would be stamped already. They’d write them. He started his own lobbying campaign to get these places bought.

Narrator:

This was Bob’s sales pitch: Isn’t this place beautiful? Wouldn’t you like to see it preserved? Help me make this public land.

And it worked.

 Judy Irving:

He was always positive. He was always civil. He did make a lot of friends in the East Bay and he was responsible for a lot of land being purchased.

Narrator:

At the time, much of the land Bob photographed still belonged to private ranchers. But Bob’s charm, and the fact that he was constantly taking photos, made him unlikely allies.

Judy Irving: 

He would go to the ranch house, he’d knock on the door, and he’d say, “Hi. I’m Bob Walker. I just took a picture of your ranch.” Or, he would do an aerial at that same beautiful time of day, of their land. They’d look at it and say “Wow, that’s beautiful. Yeah, I recognize that.” He’d say—I’m really shortening what his rap was—but, he’d say, “You really love your land, don’t you? You’d love it to continue to look like this forever, wouldn’t you?’ And they’d say, “Yeah. Come on in, have a cup of coffee.” He’d say, “Well, you should really consider selling your ranch to the park district because then it would be this way forever, and it would be a legacy. It would be your legacy and you could be proud of that.”

 Narrator:

Little by little, Bob was collecting bits of land for the growing park district. Eventually Bob Doyle, the park supervisor in charge of purchasing new land, decided to hire him on as an official contractor.

Judy Irving:

Bob Walker just was constantly telling Bob Doyle, this ranch is for sale, that ranch is for sale. He was out there, walking around with his dog, and he often knew what was for sale before Bob Doyle did. So, that was Bob. He was really intense and focused.

Narrator:

There was a reason for Bob’s urgency.

Judy Irving:

He was in a hurry because he had known since 1985 that he was HIV positive. And so, he was on a roll. He wanted to save as much land as he could before he got sick. He just knew that the clock was ticking, and I wish I had that kind of fire under me all the time because I saw how much he got done.

Narrator:

I’m Shanna Farrell, and you’re listening to the Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center at the University of California, Berkeley. 

This season we’re heading to the East Bay Regional Park District for a three part mini-series. All of the episodes are set in the East Park parks and are about people who’ve made a difference. Some are stories that you’re already familiar with, but haven’t heard like this. Other stories you might not know, but should. We’re calling this series “Hidden Heroes.”

In this episode, we’ll be exploring the connection between public and private land, and the communities that have formed out of this relationship. We’ll be featuring interviews from our East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History project, which is archived in our home at The Bancroft Library.

I’m a Bay Area resident, but, like Bob Walker, I’m a transplant. I’m from New York, and I rode horses growing up. When I moved here six years ago, I was looking to start riding again. I began with a Google search. The first thing to pop up was a stable in Las Trampas. Right in my backyard.

I was surprised to learn that there was a stable so close to me, a short drive from my house in downtown Berkeley. I didn’t even need to cross a bridge to get there!

It turns out I’m not the first person to have thought about this. For 85 years, since its founding in 1934, the East Bay Regional Park District has become a sort of urban safe-haven for horse people.

Like Bob Walker and myself, Judi Bank was a transplant to California. She moved here in the 1960s. And, like me, she had been riding horses since she was a little girl. 

Bank:

Horses are very special creatures.  …They all have personalities, and they’re all different, and they’re just wonderful creatures.

Narrator:

She made her way to the East Bay, where she rode her horse, Bucky, behind the Oakland Riding Academy, which was owned by another Bob – Bob Lorimer.

Bank:

He had people boarding there who wanted a jump course. He had some sort of arrangement with East Bay Regional Park, but they basically went to the hill behind the Oakland Riding Academy. You’d sign a release. You’d pay him ten dollars. He’d give you the key, and you could go up there.

Narrator:

Eventually, Bob Lorimer moved, leaving the Riding Academy behind. That’s when Judi had an idea.

Bank:

It was about that time that we needed a facility for this regional rally. 

Narrator:

She wanted a place to hold a type of horse show called a three-day event. 

Bank:

Originally it was the test of a military horse, and there are three phases. One is dressage, which is fine control of your horse, and that would demonstrate that you could control your horse in a parade and in other maneuvers. Then the big part of it was cross-country, where you would go across rough terrain, you would jump strange fences, to show that the horse was bold and brave and fast, and would be a good field horse. You finished up on the same horse in the ring with knockdown fences, and that would show that the horse could represent this country in horse shows. Your whole score is compiled from the three phases, to get to the horse that had done the best overall.

Narrator:

She reached out to the park district. 

Bank:

We made arrangements with East Bay Regional Park to use it for a week.

Narrator:

A week turned into another week, and then another. Judi and her equestrian friends struck a deal with park district. 

Bank:

We went up there with the pony club parents, and we kind of cleaned up some of the fences. We brought in portable stalls that come in units of twenty, ten stalls on either side, and we put two of them on the longer court, and we put one out on the shorter court, so we were able to handle as many as thirty horses. 

Narrator:

This newly improved area became known as the hunt field.

While the hunt field was being built, another mid-West transplant was discovering the wonders of horseback-riding in the east bay parks. 

Carlson:

When I came out here, we looked for someplace where I could rent horses, and we found Las Trampas Stables, which is in the Las Trampas Regional Wilderness Park. They had a program where people could volunteer, clean stalls, feed horses, and trail guide, and get to go out riding.

Narrator:

That’s Becky Carlson. She moved to Alameda in 1983 during her enlistment in the Navy. She quickly began to volunteer at Las Trampas, the same place that popped up in my Google search.

Becky took every opportunity she could to get out and ride on her horse. 

Carlson:

Casey, actually. She was a six-year-old quarter horse, 

Narrator:

She and Casey went on long trail rides, exploring remote areas of the park district. 

Carlson:

Well, Las Trampas actually had a number of set trails. They went out the Valley Trail and back along the Creek Trail, they went up Bollinger Trail and around on the hill, or up to Elderberry and down the center.

Narrator:

She volunteered with Las Trampas for 17 years, part of which was spent on the mounted patrol. 

Carlson:

Malary Anderson was the police officer who was organizing that at the time.

Narrator:

Malary set up a series of obstacles for riders to pass to ensure that their horses could handle situations that might come up while they were patrolling the parks.

Carlson:

Malary insisted that it start off that everyone who is in the patrol first had to pass her entrance test with their horse. You had to open and close a gate. You had to pick something up, not necessarily from the ground, but somebody had to hand you something and you had to hand it back, from both sides of your horse. You had to mount and dismount from both sides. You had to do a trail ride with Malary, and do trail obstacles that were there, hills, doing hills in a safe manner, go up and down, going under trees and through brush, and that kind of stuff. She put down a tarp you were supposed to walk over, to go by the nasty plastic bags. You had to load and unload in a trailer. As she’d find things, she’d add them or take them away and whatever.  

Narrator:

Becky tried to get another one of her horses, Whiskey, used to these obstacles.

Carlson:

What got me interested in that was my little Morgan. He needed a job. He needed a job badly. My little Morgan would never walk on the blue tarp. He looked at it and he said, “I don’t know what’s under that. I’m going around it,” and he walked around it. 

Narrator:

Becky remembers the first time they took the test.

Carlson: 

Whiskey, he failed. He failed miserably the first time we tried. She had plastic bags on a stick, and she was waving them, and he just went, cowabunga, goodbye, [laughs] said, “I was not going to be anywhere near that.” 

Narrator:

They ended up passing the second time around, and together becky and whiskey patrolled desolate areas of the park.

Carlson:

If we went into Anthony Chabot we’d generally run into people, because that’s in Oakland and lots of people using that park. But, Las Trampas, unless you’re down in the valley, you very rarely see anybody, which is another reason for us to be there, because we were letting the park know what was going on in that park. There are places in Las Trampas I have been that I swear there has never been a ranger there.

Narrator:

While Becky was keeping an eye on remote parts of the park, Judi Bank was making progress on the three-day event with the park district. 

Bank:

I worked with East Bay Regional Park to make the jumps safe. I found telephone poles. We capped all of these stone structures either with a railroad tie or the telephone poles, and the wall we couldn’t do much about, so we made that an oxer, which means that we put a rail in front of it and a rail behind it so that the horse would jump the rails and not the wall. There was a nice variety of jumps up there. We had ditches. We had water jump. We had post and rail. We had banks. It was a great, fun place.

Narrator:

Judi had designed the jump course while her friends were recruiting riders to compete on it. They got sponsored by a couple professional organizations like the Metropolitan Horseman’s Association and the United States Combined Training Association. With this support, the events were official. 

Bank:

Never underestimate a small group of dedicated people. 

Narrator:

These events brought together equestrians from all over the east bay. 

Bank:

I think at one point, Contra Costa County had the most concentrated number of horses [laughs] in the state, or something like that.

Narrator:

Riders like Judi and Becky had brought horse culture in the East Bay from a casual past-time to formal sporting event. But they weren’t the only ones embracing equestrian life. Horse sporting culture had begun to mingle with the existing ranch culture of the East Bay.

Don Staysa grew up in Livermore in the 1950s and remembers his first introduction to ranch animals.

Staysa:

Livermore, at that time, was basically an agriculture town, other than the rad lab, the Lawrence Laboratory. It was all farms and ranches surrounded the city. There was the stockyards, where they used to load the cattle on the trains, were right down on Main Street now, where Safeway is. That was all stockyards. We used to play in them when we were kids. I can remember the cattle coming in and every boy in the world was sitting on fences around like blackbirds, trying to see what was going on, look at the cowboys and the ranchers.

Narrator:

Don was fascinated by ranch life. His first jobs were picking hay, mending equipment and feeding animals.

Staysa:

I always worked outside with my hands. Nothing very glamorous; fixing fence and cleaning out stalls, but stuff that needed to be done. That’s basically was my childhood. 

Narrator:

Don’s old school, raised on hard work. As he got older, he channeled the lessons of his early ranch experiences into another tough job: in the U.S. Marine Corps. He enlisted before meeting his wife Lynn.

Staysa:

Lynn’s brother was an amateur bull rider, a very good bull rider, and he talked me into coming to some jackpot rodeos with him. I don’t know if it was as luck would have it or bad luck would have it, I rode the bull and I really liked the excitement. It had flashes of the Marine Corps in it to me; the excitement, the adrenalin high. I thought, well, I’m going to take up this sport. I started riding amateur and jackpot bull riding.

Narrator:

Don hadn’t owned horses or cattle growing up, but he was used to being around them, and now he threw himself into rodeo culture.

Staysa:

Rodeo cowboy is a way of life. Rodeo cowboy and a ranch cowboy are to different things. Now it’s more prevalent, the distinction between them, than it was then because a lot of rodeo cowboys were ranch hands also. But, the rodeo has become a professional business, and now the cowboys—and I’m not saying that they’re not ranch hands, some of them—but a lot of them are just great athletes that participate in the sport.

Narrator:

And, in terms of athletics, Don was pretty good.

Staysa:

I thought maybe I could be good enough to make a living out of that. I talked to some big name cowboys, to one champion cowboy, “Would you take a look at me? I think I can make it on this, but I need you to tell me, give me the heads up, because I’m not going to continue to break my body up and not make a living.

Narrator:

He asked an older bull rider to watch and level with him. Could he do this?

Staysa:

“You know, you can win some money and you’ll do good around here in the smaller venue, but you can’t make a living off of it.”

Narrator:

It was a hard moment for Don, but one he’s grateful for looking back. Bull riding is a brutal sport, filled with broken bones and torn muscles — or worse. And he and Lynn were just starting a family.

Staysa:

I quit riding bulls, because I didn’t need it for that. I wanted to make a living which is probably why I can still walk. [laughter]

Narrator:

Don’s bull riding days may have been done, but that didn’t mean he’d given up on rodeo culture. He decided it was something he wanted to preserve for future generations.

Staysa:

I had rode in Livermore and knew some of the board members and ranchers that were on the board at the time, and so, I became a volunteer there at the rodeo.

Narrator:

Don joined the Livermore Rodeo Association — which got its start in the early 1900s. 

Staysa:

During World War I, the Red Cross put a toll on each city that they had to pay a certain amount of money to provide the services for the boys over in France and Germany. Our town was small; a little agriculture town. They didn’t have any money. They put on a rodeo to raise the money, and that’s how our rodeo started. 

Narrator:

Don loved that story — and that the mission the rodeo association represented. It was a way to raise money for the country, build community, and preserve local heritage.

Staysa:

We’re carrying on the tradition of what the rodeo was started for, and that’s important to me. We’re also providing history. We’re giving little kids a chance to see what the West was a little like, you know? They get around the animals, and we have our rodeo set up that there’s petting zoos, there’s contact with the cowboys and cowgirls, and it just—it’s a good way to give kids a different aspect of what life is, and I think it’s important to continue, especially when you’re getting into a bedroom community where you don’t get out, you don’t get to do this stuff. We give them a chance.

Narrator:

I can relate to this. Growing up, horses gave me a chance to get outside, build skills that shaped my identity, and become more confident in myself. It also gave me an opportunity to bond with horses, which are special animals. When I interviewed Judi Bank, she also said something that I could relate to. 

Bank:

Horses are wonderful animals for young people to learn how to take care of them, to groom them, to take care of them, to learn how to ride.

Narrator:

Talking to Judi and Don, I realized that it isn’t just about his or my or her childhood. They’re trying to preserve the lessons of animals, and land, and history for generations to come. The Livermore Rodeo just celebrated its 100th year anniversary — but Don says the work can’t stop there.

Staysa:

Well, everybody for the last twenty-five years have been working towards the 100th rodeo. I, on the other hand, have been working for the 101st rodeo, because the 100th is important, but what’s more important is that there’s a 200 year rodeo. I won’t be around, but I’ll be observing it, and I’m hoping that that’s what we do. That’s what we’ve worked for. I want my great grandsons and granddaughters to someday sit there on the rodeo grounds and say, “My papa used to be in this.” That would be worth every minute of the work I ever did. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Narrator:

The park district is now 125,000 acres and home to 73 parks. There’s hiking trails, there’s swimming pools, there’s camping grounds, and of course — there are riding stables.

Now, when I look at the landscapes in Bob Walker’s photographs, I picture horses dotting the hills. It makes me understand why this land was so sacred to him, and why he cared so much about preserving it.

Bob Walker succumbed to HIV in 1992 at the age of forty. But not before he helped the park district buy almost 40,000 acres of land. A month before he died, the park district renamed a section of the Morgan Territory “Bob Walker Ridge,” his favorite place in the district. His efforts in land preservation laid the groundwork for much of what we see in the park system today. He put it best in an interview for “After the Storm”, a book featuring his photographs.

“Find something outside yourself that is yourself,” Bob said. “Then devote yourself to it with all of your heart.”

Thanks for listening to the Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. This episode was produced by Francesca Fenzi and me shanna. 

it features interviews with Judy Irving, Judi Bank, Becky Carlson, and Don Staysa that are part of the East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History Project. A special thanks to the district and Beverly Ortiz. To learn more about these interviews, visit our website listed in the show notes. Thank you for listening to The Berkeley Remix, and please join us next time!

 


Episode 2 of OHC’s 5th Season of the Berkeley Remix Explores Gender Equality in the East Bay Regional Park District

Episode 2: There’s No Crying in Carpentry: Gender Equality in the East Bay Regional Park District

Set in the parks of the East Bay hills, the Hidden Heroes podcast season is about people who have made a difference: fighting fires, breaking gender barriers, preserving the land. 

In season 5 of the Berkeley Remix, we’re diving into the long history of the East Bay Regional Park District, which was founded in 1934. All of the episodes are set in the East Bay parks and are about people who’ve made a difference. Some are stories that you’re already familiar with, but haven’t heard quite like this. Over the course of three episodes, we’ll explore the park district’s integral role in fighting the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire, of being on the forefront of gender equality in the workplace, and how the districts efforts to preserve land benefited the public — through the lens of the local equestrian community.

The park district employs hundreds of people, many of whom are women. This episode digs into the history of gender equality at the East Bay Regional Park District. It follows the stories of two women who worked in the Tilden Corp yard, which houses heavy machinery, and how they challenged traditional gender roles in the workplace. They each have their own stories of growing their careers during affirmative action, and the impact that their work had on equality for all district employees. 

All episodes feature interviews from the East Bay Regional Park District Oral History Project. A special thank you to the East Bay Regional Park District, especially Beverly Ortiz and Brenda Montano. Photos taken by Bob Walker from the Bob Walker Collection of the Oakland Museum, courtesy of the East Bay Regional Park District. This episode includes interviews with Julie Haselden, Rachel MacDonald, and Stephen Gehrett. All music by Blue Dot Sessions: “Dorica Theme” and “A Palace of Cedar.”

To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

This episode was produced by Shanna Farrell and Francesca Fenzi

A special thanks to the East Bay Regional Park District and Beverly Ortiz. 

The following is a written version of the episode.

 

Narrator:

We’ve been talking about equality in the workplace for decades , especially when it comes to gender. Throughout the 20th century, certain fields were perceived  as “masculine,” by nature. Jobs like construction, carpentry, engineering, and landscaping were seen as physically demanding — men’s work.

But  there have always been women who  challenged the status quo. We’ve all heard the story of Rosie the Riveter. During World War II, women at home took over factory jobs from men heading to war. These women worked as rivetors, welders,  machinists and woodworkers. Even professional baseball players.

And when the war ended, some women weren’t thrilled about giving their jobs back. By the 1960’s women began demanding equal opportunities  from employers. And they weren’t the only ones. 

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an Executive Order requiring  government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” Four years later, “sex” was added to that list.  

Affirmative action has come to mean a lot of things to different people, which we’re not going to look at in detail. The important thing is that, by the 1970s, it meant employers in California were paying new attention to the composition of their workforce. And hiring women into positions that had previously been held by men. One of them was Julie Haselden.

Haselden:

The park district at the time was interested in implementing affirmative action and trying to get women into nontraditional jobs. 

Narrator:

In an effort to hire more women, the East Bay Regional Park District sent  park rangers to attend classes at local colleges and recruit female employees.

Rachel McDonald was one of these early recruits. Rachel was a single mother who needed to work.  She decided to apply.

McDonald:

Well, I applied and I got an interview. Mostly I was asked appropriate questions based on my application and the job. I think the only one that I thought was inappropriate was when the head of personnel asked me if I thought I’d be able to be dependable since I had a child. Since someone else said, “Well, she’s been working all these years with a child.”

Narrator:

Despite a few interview hiccups, Rachel got the job in 1974.

McDonald:

I kind of fudged a little bit. I said I’d taken out a tree when I hadn’t. [laughter] But I really lucked out being hired. I really did.

Narrator:

As a struggling single parent, this job was significant.

McDonald:

Well, it was a whole change. I had been on welfare. When I was hired, I remember telling my social worker from welfare that I didn’t need it anymore because I had this job. He was so happy and impressed because I was going to be making more money than him. 

Narrator:

Rachel went from spending her days in a classroom to working outside,  performing maintenance work. 

McDonald:

I loved that work for most of the time I was on it. It was really hard physical work. We’d pave roads and prune trails, work with the heavy equipment operators on trails. I operated heavy equipment sometimes. That wasn’t really my thing. I talked with another ranger once that was on the crew. I said, “Oh, I hate it because of this. I don’t like all the fumes.” He just loved it. He said, “It makes me feel more manly.” 

Narrator:

Rachel was one of the first — and only — women to be hired into a  position that involved physical responsibilities. The women who worked for the district were mostly in administrative and educator roles. 

McDonald:

A bunch of us women were hired in ’74. It was mostly clerical and naturalists. I think maybe in planning and design. But in the field no.

Narrator:

Rachel was still largely unique in the district. Until, A few years later, when in 1980, Julie Haselden was hired by the park district. 

Haselden:

I was absolutely delighted when I got the job. It was tough.

Narrator:

Julie was hired as a truck driver and forklift operator. She’d learned to operate heavy machinery from her boyfriend who was a sculptor in West Oakland. Julie’s a self-described tomboy. She wasn’t worried about what her male coworkers would  think.

Haselden:

The guys that were working there, a lot of them were like, “Well, women can’t do that” I think I might have been hired by a guy who wanted to prove that women couldn’t do the work. “You want me to hire a woman? I’ll hire a woman. Watch this!” 

Narrator:

Both Rachel and Julie worked out of the Tilden Corp yard, which was where the district kept their heavy equipment and maintenance supplies. Julie describes it as a bit of a boys’ club, where she  was a novelty. 

Haselden:

My first day, I guess I was loading a truck, and all these guys from the main office came to see this chick. These guys were watching me, leaning up on the warehouse wall, and they’re smoking cigarettes [makes murmuring noises] and holding the clipboard and kind of pretending like they were actually doing some work, but they were actually just watching the new kid. One of the guys, who later became my manager, said, “So you think you can do a man’s job, huh?” I said, “You mean, smoke a cigarette and hold a clipboard and watch somebody else work? I can do better than that.” [laughter] Anyway, I said something along those lines. Everybody laughed, and so that kind of broke the ice. 

Narrator:

Rachel says a sense of humor was a necessity at Tilden Corp Yard.

McDonald:

I think it might have been easier for me than for some women because, for some reason, I really got along with the guys. I didn’t let the way some of them talked, I didn’t like shutdown or get, “Arrrgh,” about it. To some point I could kid back about it. I joked a lot with people so that they enjoyed being around me. Plus, I just tried to do a good job. I’d have things happen where men would make comments, like the guy at the place where we’d pick up the base rock. But mostly, for me it was okay. I just really got along well with people.

Narrator:

But not every interaction was as easy for  Rachel to manage. When she first started with the district, a co-worker made  unwanted advances toward her. 

McDonald:

He wanted to be more involved with me than I wanted to be and it was very unpleasant. 

Narrator:

Rachel reported this to her supervisor.

McDonald:

He said, “It doesn’t matter in terms of the best interest of the district. You should just work it out or go somewhere else.” 

Narrator:

She chose for the second option, and  went looking for another job in the district. But switching roles wasn’t easy — not every supervisor was willing to hire women. One manager even told her not to apply. 

McDonald:

He was the guy that the roads and trails supervisor reported to. I told him I’d like to apply for that opening and he told me that he really didn’t want a woman on the crew because I wouldn’t be able to do as much work as the guys or something. 

Narrator:

Discouraged, but not dismayed, Rachel  took the matter higher up the chain. She went to the chief of administration, who was under the general manager. 

McDonald:

He told the chief of maintenance that, “You can’t say that kind of thing. If she wants that job and if no one else has applied, she gets the job.” The chief of maintenance wasn’t happy with me about it but I wanted that job.

Narrator:

Julie had less trouble fitting in, even if the space was clearly dominated by men. 

Haselden:

The mechanic shop at Tilden at the time, great bunch of guys, liked them all, but they had a lot of pornography on the walls. I mean, like, pornography. I didn’t really even hardly notice it. My years being a Teamster, I was surrounded by it; it was just like wallpaper. 

Narrator:

But it bothered other women who she worked with. One  named Maggie, in particular. So Julie decided to step in. 

Haselden:

I felt if someone else is going to be offended, then I will absolutely support them. She was going, “No, that is absolutely not acceptable.” “Really? Yeah, I guess you’re right. It’s offensive, isn’t it?” You wouldn’t want anyone to come in here and feel uncomfortable. 

Narrator:

Julie and Maggie’s male co-workers weren’t happy that the women were rocking the boat.

Haselden:

So the guys were very resistant. So these guys were going, “No, no, what are you talking about? We just love beautiful bodies. It’s nothing ugly; they’re beautiful bodies.” And then some other woman—I can’t remember who—got a picture out of a male gay porn pinup and went down when no one was looking, put it up on the wall, because it was a beautiful body. They ripped that thing down, tore it in little tiny pieces, said how disgusting that was. 

Narrator:

This seemed to open some of the men’s eyes. 

Haselden:

That was kind of, they kind of went, Hmm, wait a minute. Maggie was the one that made that happen and got it to be a G-rated place. They resisted, and Maggie prevailed.

Narrator:

Julie encountered other setbacks at Tilden, but she always seemed to approach it the same  way. She dug into her work, determined to do her job well. 

Haselden:

I was never going to play the girl card. I became really good at the forklift. It was an old forklift that you had to double clutch, and it was really hard to operate, but just doing it so much, I got really good at it. 

Narrator:

Rachel, by comparison, leaned into her feminine side.

McDonald:

It’s embarrassing to say but I acted more cutesy then. Like that. I always had my shirt unbuttoned one button too many. It was actually my husband, when we were getting to know each other. He told me once, “You’ve got to button that one up because if you want to be respected, that’s part of it.” From then on I did. I was competent, I was knowledgeable, but sometimes I undercut myself by acting too cutesy. 

Narrator:

Rachel learned to command respect by being more confident in herself and her abilities, and by compartmentalizing parts of her professional identity.

McDonald:

I still liked to joke and have fun but that part of it, the “sexy” part of it stopped. 

Narrator:

Eventually , both Rachel and Julie found their groove. Both were tapped for a carpenter’s apprenticeship, which meant higher pay. Rachel applied in 1978.

McDonald:

I spent a lot of time around the carpenters in the Corp Yard, talking with them or fooling around. I just thought, “Well, it might be fun. I might enjoy the work.”

Narrator:

Julie applied in the 1980s. 

Haselden:

There were lots of people that applied. They had two positions to fill. Again, it wasn’t the primary focus, but they wanted to implement some more affirmative action. But the two guys that they chose, Fred Porter and Dennis Waespi both happened to be white guys. It was over that day, we found out that they were named, but somehow—I don’t know how, it was heaven—there was a meeting after that, and somebody went to bat saying, “We need to get a woman in the trades.” They figured that I was the best candidate for that, so they included another position, which was huge in funding and planning. I was delighted.

Narrator:

The carpenters apprenticeship was a big commitment.

Haselden:

The program included seven thousand hours on the job, sixteen one-week classes, so it was four classes a year for four years, and each one of those classes was one week on.

Narrator:

Julie remembers her first few weeks. 

Haselden:

I had aptitude and energy but I had no building skills. I mean, I had delivered a lot of tools, I had handled a lot of tools, I had watched a lot of work, but I just didn’t really have a lot of experience. Which is kind of a good thing, I think, because I was just open. I was open. The first few weeks and months were very bloody fingers, [laughs] blisters, hard work.

Narrator:

But Rachel found that she didn’t enjoy the work. 

McDonald:

Well, I didn’t like being up on a roof. Not a flat roof.

Narrator:

Rachel also wasn’t getting much respect from the men in the program. 

McDonald:

All the guys pretty much were these old farts who really didn’t treat me with respect. They wouldn’t let me do anything really. Also the person who was head of all the crews like that, he didn’t treat me very well and he didn’t like having a female there.

Narrator:

Things hadn’t changed much when Julie started the program a few years later.

Haselden:

People weren’t as nice there. They were more competitive, young—and I was thirty at this point—no, I was thirty-five. These guys are all young and crazy. Anyway. It wasn’t always easy… It was uncomfortable. At work, I knew people, I just felt comfortable, I felt accepted. There were always a couple jerks, but I would avoid them, and no problem there. Even the teachers at the apprenticeship school would make wisecracks and just be pretty much unpleasant and kind of let me be in the class. It was just a very competitive, very guy thing. 

Narrator:

After two months, Rachel ultimately decided to withdraw from the apprenticeship.

McDonald:

When I’d go to work in the morning I was so depressed. I thought, “This really isn’t for me.” 

Narrator:

Julie, on the other hand, decided to stick it out because the payoff was worth it for her. 

Haselden:

If we had completed our apprenticeship, we had earned that job.

Narrator:

After completing the apprenticeship, Julie went on to work as a journeyman for the next 19 years. 

Haselden:

It felt really good. I felt good. It was well compensated, as far as the pay.

Narrator:

Rachel took another path. After she left the apprenticeship program she went back to the Roads & Trails crew. While she was deciding what to do next, she and her friend Dennis got to talking.  

McDonald:

We both realized we wanted to do something different and we came up with this idea. we’d do an exchange for two months, where he would work on roads and trails and I would work on Redwood. We didn’t see past that. We thought, “It’ll be a change for us, that maybe it will help us to decide what we want to do next and to try it out.” 

Narrator:

This switch gave Rachel the opportunity to do more administrative work, which she enjoyed. 

McDonald:

I discovered that I was really good at dealing with personnel and was really good at treating everybody the same. I got feedback about that during the years.

Narrator:

Rachel found that she had a talent for managing people. 

McDonald:

I just discovered I was really good at planning the work and figuring out what people liked to do and what they were good at and giving them opportunities to do it, to do new things. I would always meet with staff and ask them what their interests were and if you could do whatever you wanted on the job, what would you like to do? I tried to find something that fit in with that.

Narrator:

Motivated by this discovery, Rachel began taking management classes at UC San Francisco. This earned her a promotion to unit manager, where she got to play to her strengths. 

McDonald:

I was in the office more. I was always really clear about what I expected. When I was a unit manager I made sure everyone in my unit had a job clarification. I met with each crew and we went through and just talked about and agreed upon what the expectations were because I think that’s a big deal. A lot of people don’t know what their boss wants.

Narrator:

Her male colleagues gave her more respect, which was evident when she encountered sexim outside of the district. 

McDonald:

When I was a supervisor at Redwood I again had to deal with a lot of sexism because we had a lot of contractors doing work now. I remember on a few occasions where I’d be standing with the contractor and maybe one of his guys and then with some of my crew. I remember the contractor looking to one of my male staff and saying, “So what do you want to happen here?” He said, “You’re talking to the wrong person. She’s the supervisor.” They were good about it and they didn’t seem to be resentful.

Narrator:

Her response to this treatment changed, too.

McDonald:

Like I had to tell one guy, he worked for PG&E. He was the supervisor. Because they have to come in every year and trim trees for their power lines, I’d go with him out in the field first and we’d talk about what was going to be done. This guy had a habit of always calling me babe. I had to tell him more than once, “Don’t call me babe.” Finally he stopped. 

Narrator:

Julie and Rachel made different decisions about the apprenticeship program, but their choices had a lasting effect on both of their careers. after completing the apprenticeship program. Julie  went on to work on the Roads & Trails crew, in a management role.  

Haselden:

I was also running projects. I didn’t have any experience with asphalt, but I went to some classes, went to some seminars, and I started designing. I would do the drawings, I would do the scope of work, write up the contract, write up the bid proposal, get the contractors to come on site, select the contractor, develop the contract documents, run the project, be on the job, and then pay.

Narrator:

Julie’s work earned her praise from her supervisors, including Stephen Gehrett, her manager of several years. 

Gehrett:

Julie Haselden became the first woman carpenter, and she did, [laughs] and the reason why is she could dish it out like she got it, which was nice. And at the end of her career, I don’t think there’s anybody who disliked her. She’s just a wonderful lady.

Narrator:

She continued working on the Roads & Trails crew until she retired in 2011.

Affirmative action ended in California in November of 1996 when Proposition 209 was passed.  It amended the state constitution to prohibit state governmental institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity, specifically in the areas of public employment, public contracting, and public education. 

However, affirmative action had lasted long enough to get Rachel and Julie into the district. The two women had a lasting impact on the culture of the organization. While Rachel made changes at an administrative level, prioritizing equal treatment, Julie was a trailblazer in the field and has seen more women entering the trades.

As a result of these two women, and others like them, the district became a leader in gender equality.

Haselden:

I think the park district was really a forerunner for including and appreciating women, and they were given opportunities to go up in the hierarchy. Yeah, a lot of women have become supervisors and managers, and they’re doing great jobs. You wanted somebody that was a good worker and knew how to get along on a crew. Gender and color and size and shape does not matter.

Narrator:

For a short window of time, women like Rachel and Julie gained access to jobs that had previously been out of reach. And the ripple effects of those hires have been paving new pathways for women into this type of work, and redefining what is and isn’t possible in certain roles.

Thanks for listening to the Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. This episode was produced by Francesca Fenzi and Shanna Farrell. 

This episode features interviews with Rachel MacDonald, Julie Haselden, and Stephen Gehrett that are part of the East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History Project. A special thanks to the district and Beverly Ortiz. To learn more about these interviews, visit our website listed in the show notes. I’m your host, Shanna Farrell. Thank you for listening to The Berkeley Remix, and please join us next time!

 


Episode 3 of OHC’s 5th Season of the Berkeley Remix Explores the Connection Between Parks, Eucalyptus Trees, and the 1991 Tunnel Fire

Episode 3: (Once in a) Career Fire: The East Bay Regional Park District Fights the Tunnel Fire

Set in the parks of the East Bay hills, the Hidden Heroes podcast season is about people who have made a difference: fighting fires, breaking gender barriers, preserving the land. 

In season 5 of the Berkeley Remix, we’re diving into the long history of the East Bay Regional Park District, which was founded in 1934. All of the episodes are set in the East Bay parks and are about people who’ve made a difference. Some are stories that you’re already familiar with, but haven’t heard quite like this. Over the course of three episodes, we’ll explore the park district’s integral role in fighting the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire, of being on the forefront of gender equality in the workplace, and how the districts efforts to preserve land benefited the public — through the lens of the local equestrian community.

Episode 3 explores the role of the EBRPD Fire Department in fighting the historic 1991 Oakland Hills Fire. It explores how the fire got so bad, and the early work that district employees did to prevent large wildfires.

This episode features interviews with district employees who managed the land and, later, who fought on the frontlines of the fire, including Anne Rockwell, Stephen Gehrett, Michael Avalos, Paul Miller, and John Nicoles who are part of the East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History Project. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website. Photos taken by Bob Walker from the Bob Walker Collection of the Oakland Museum, courtesy of the East Bay Regional Park District

This episode was produced by Shanna Farrell and Francesca Fenzi

A special thanks to the East Bay Regional Park District and Beverly Ortiz. 

All music by Blue Dot Sessions:

  • “Dorica Theme” 
  • “A Palace of Cedar” 
  • “Drone Birch” 
  • “Feather on the Crest”

The following is a written version of the Berkeley Remix, Season 5 Episode 3.

Narrator:

It’s late October in Oakland, California — and the heat is miserable. It’s Sunday morning, and Anne Rockwell is at work in her office at the East Bay Regional Parks district.

Anne Rockwell:

I just remember that it was really hot. There was kind of a heavy feeling in the air. I don’t know that oppressive is quite the right word that I’m looking for, but it was a heavy feeling. It was just kind of a feeling of foreboding, I think, in a lot of ways.

Narrator:

The year is 1991. Anne and her husband Stephen Gehrett are both park district employees; and Stephen was enjoying his day off with a round of golf in Alameda.

Stephen Gehrett:

I recall being on one of the holes and seeing the flag at Veterans’ Memorial Plaza in Alameda, the flag just being blown straight away, straight out, and saying to my partner that day, “This is a pretty windy day,” and, “Yeah, it is,” and we kept playing, and then we saw smoke in the sky, and that’s when that whole thing started.

Narrator:

The night before, a small brush fire had ignited in the Berkeley Hills. Neither Anne nor Stephen had thought anything of it. They were both firefighters for the East Bay Regional Park District, and fires like this were common… and easily put down.

Stephen Gehrett:

I didn’t think it was going to be that big. I fully expected that the fire staff, fire crews on hand at the time could handle it. I just expected that. Seemed like that’s the way things went: Get a tone-out; people go; fire gets knocked down; do mop up; and you go home. But, I didn’t have any inkling at all that it was going to be this massive event.

Narrator:

By 11:30 am on Sunday, the brush fire had spread to a nearby apartment complex. High winds whipped embers through the air – starting new fires ahead of the original burn. Within an hour, the blaze had crossed two freeways and consumed hundreds of houses.

The Tunnel Fire would become one of the most devastating wildfires in state history until 2018. It would destroy almost 3,000 homes – leaving 25 dead and hundreds injured. Anne and Stephen didn’t know it yet, but they… along with the rest of the Park District fire department… would find themselves at the center of it all.

I’m Shanna Farrell, and you’re listening to the Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

This season we’re heading to the East Bay Regional Park District for a three part mini-series. All of the episodes are set in the East Park parks and are about people who’ve made a difference. Some are stories that you’re already familiar with, but haven’t heard like this. Other stories you might not know, but should. We’re calling this series “Hidden Heroes.”

In this episode, we explore the role of the district in fighting the historic 1991 Oakland Hills Fire. We’ll be featuring interviews from our East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History project, which is archived in our home at The Bancroft Library.

To understand just how this fire became so deadly, we have to go back to 1972. To another week of unusual fall weather.

John Nicoles:

We had a cold spell. I went to attend the big game…

Narrator:

That’s the big football game between Cal and Stanford, long-time rivals.

John Nicoles:

…in the tail end of November in shirt sleeves, in short-sleeve shirt, and a week later, it was below freezing, for a week.

 Narrator:

John Nicoles was a land surveyor for the park district at the time. And, after that cold spell, he noticed something suspicious about the trees in his survey area.

John Nicoles:

It wasn’t immediately obvious that anything had happened. But then what became apparent was that the foliage had all died. The real problem, when push came to shove, the real problem was that the eucalyptus had been frozen.

Narrator:

The frost had damaged the eucalyptus trees in Berkeley and Oakland.

John Nicoles:

It began to be apparent that these injury places, these damaged places, were an entry point for decay. Then, that’s when the problems began, because you can’t really see the decay. 

Narrator:

John says the trees looked fine on the surface, but inside many were dead and rotting. And this posed a serious hazard. It’s worth noting that John doesn’t tend to see trees like you and I might – as beautiful fixtures in the natural landscape. He sees them as death traps.

John Nicoles:

Sometimes the trees come uprooted. This is probably now eight or ten years ago now, but a group of students on a river rafting trip on the American River, were camped out and an oak tree came uprooted and killed somebody.

Narrator:

To John, the dead leaves and rotting branches on the eucalyptus were another catastrophe waiting to happen. Not only could the trees fall on somebody, but…

John Nicoles:

All these dead leaves in the crowns, 200 feet up, were an immense fire hazard.

Narrator:

Still, not everyone saw it like he did. Plenty of people doubted the trees were even damaged – much less dangerous.

John Nicoles:

We don’t have a stethoscope for trees. We can’t take their pulse and so on. You have to make some judgment calls. This led to an incredible turmoil. There were people who said, “Nothing’s dead.” There were people saying, “They’re all dead.” And there, you turn out, the world’s divided into eucalyptus lovers and eucalyptus haters.

Narrator:

But John isn’t the kind of person to give up when he recognizes a problem.

John Nicoles:

I was kind of a fighter.

Narrator:

He made it his mission to cut back the dead and damaged trees.

John Nicoles:

What the eucalyptus problem, and the freeze did, was suddenly it became clear you needed to put money into forest management. The park district had never thought of the forest land as something to be managed, whether that’s the redwood land or the eucalyptus land or the oak woodland, these were all just permanent fixtures in the landscape.

Narrator:

Suddenly, John was challenging the narrative. The trees of the park district weren’t just static things to be preserved – they were alive, and had to be maintained.

John Nicoles:

But boy, you talk about a quantum, a tectonic shift in district philosophy and policy. I remember one occasion I was talking to Jerry Kent about tree hazards, and I said, “Jerry, the trees don’t care about you. They do what they do, and our job is to anticipate that.” That’s the character of the—trees are wonderful. They wouldn’t drop a limb on my head, but indeed, they do.

We had a situation in which a limb fell and injured a woman. There’s this limb; it’s lying on the ground, and it was broken off at the end where it had been killed by the freeze. I said, “Here’s the evidence that this is what’s going on here.”

Narrator:

John had the proof he needed to begin removing eucalyptus trees. He assembled a team of workers – he calls them the Euc-Crew. They got to work cutting down the trees.

John Nicoles:

Theoretically, this was supposed to be what we call a fuel break wherever there were eucalyptus, we [makes cutting sound] just slicked it off.

Narrator:

But the district covers more than 125,000 acres of land over 73 parks. Eliminating all of the dead or damaged eucalyptus from that area was difficult, and time consuming.

John Nicoles:

We cut the trees in ’73, and when I left in ’92, we finally almost had a handle on it.

Narrator:

By the early 1990s, the Euc-Crew had created a sizable fuel break – clearing a broad area of eucalyptus trees in the Oakland hills. Enough so, that John finally got out of the tree-clearing business. And responsibility for the dying foliage shifted to the park district’s young and growing fire department. Here’s Paul Miller, a ranger who doubled as a firefighter for the district.

Paul Miller:

We’d go out and we’d burn off vegetation in some of the parks. We’d, burn off the vegetation along the interface with the neighborhoods so that if a fire started there would be a buffer and it wouldn’t progress into the neighborhoods.

Narrator:

The way Paul describes it, things were informal in the early days of the fire department.

Paul Miller:

It could be as much or as little as you wanted. If you didn’t call in when there was a response, then it didn’t cost you any time at all.

Narrator:

Firefighters were volunteer, and often recruited from other places around the district. Michael Avalos was another member at the time.

Michael Avalos:

There were, of course, a lot of rangers that were firefighters, but there were carpenters, plumbers, mechanics, clericals—a lot of different job classifications.

Narrator:

Because park district firefighters had lots of other commitments, participation could be erratic. Stephen Gehrett says people wouldn’t always show up.

Stephen Gehrett:

Requirements were to respond to a fire, if you were called. Most times, I responded; many times I didn’t.

Narrator:

But, for the most part, this worked. Park district employees chipped in where they could – stayed home when they couldn’t.

Anne Rockwell:

I didn’t go to fires that would impact my work at all until I went to the Oakland fire, and even then, that was on a Sunday, and I waited for a lot of tone outs to happen before I finally went.

Narrator:

That’s Anne Rockwell, again. She says on the day of the Tunnel Fire, early calls to Oakland sounded like any routine burn. A small brush fire had started on Saturday afternoon. Michael was one of the first firefighters to respond.

Michael Avalos:

I was in there on Saturday, the first time that it went off, and we helped Oakland put it out. We had left hose line there on Saturday, and on Sunday, there was a call to go and pick up the hose that we had left. It had been a long season up to that point, and my niece was a week old and I hadn’t seen her yet, so I said, “I’ve put in enough time this year. I’m going to meet my niece.”

Narrator:

Michael was about to head home, when the chief came back with some news. Winds had picked up, and the fire had reignited.

Michael Avalos:

Our chief came back and said, “They need us back out on the line, and I’m going to let you guys make the decision. I know you’ve been working hard. It’s up to you. If you don’t want to go back”—and we, of course, said, “Yeah, we’re going.” We went back out on the line for another two days, and it was some very interesting firefighting.

Narrator:

By Sunday afternoon, the true scope of the Tunnel Fire was becoming clear. Ashes were falling on Candlestick park. Anne and Stephen had left their kids with Anne’s mom and were heading – separately – into the blaze.

Stephen Gehrett:

By the time I got there, things were pretty much crazy. Some Oakland Fire guy said, “Follow this motorcycle cop through the tunnel,” and I was in my little Volkswagen Bug. And so I started following this motorcycle cop, and he disappeared in the smoke and the haze of the tunnel. Before I got to the tunnel, he disappeared in the smoke, and I thought, I have no clue what’s on the other side of this; I can’t go this way. So I turned around and I came back down to Claremont. There were so many people freaked out. I just remember residents standing there, “What can I do? Can I go with you to help? My house is up there,” kind of thing. And so I got up there and my assignment was to drive the water tanker, and I did that for our next couple of days.

Narrator:

Stephen discovered that getting water to the fire was harder than he’d expected. The hydrants in Oakland didn’t fit all of the hoses available — making his tanker one of the few sources of water on the hill.

Meanwhile, Anne was battling another element: the raging wind.

Anne Rockwell:

I was assigned to work with Jack Kenny, and we called it the Jack Attack. We were defending the KPFA radio towers, and… as I was driving, I remember seeing the wind blowing these embers across the freeway, across Highway 13, and I saw a pine tree just explode, and I thought, wow, what am I doing?

Narrator:

The wind was whipping flames into the air faster than 70 miles per hour. The only thing keeping the fire from spreading was the highway itself – and not for long. Embers met the dry, dead branches of eucalyptus below.

Stephen Gehrett:

I had never seen them burned before. I didn’t know that they were so oily that they would catch fire and spread fire quickly. It wasn’t until the Tunnel Fire that it really dawned on me that they were a hazard out there just waiting to ignite. 

Narrator:

No longer contained by the highway, the fire tore down the hill – consuming eucalyptus trees and houses in a matter of seconds. Stephen would later learn that the fire had destroyed seventeen pumping stations in the Oakland system. It had begun to feel almost impossible to stop.

Stephen Gehrett:

What really shook me was when the battalion chief from Oakland died. When I heard over the radio that somebody actually had died, that was awful, really, because the firefighting just seemed like, well, if it’s too hot, you got to leave. There’s always a safety way, a safe route out. 

Narrator:

As the afternoon wore on, back-up had arrived in the form of 400 firefighting units, some from as far north as Oregon. But with the new reinforcements came additional confusion.

Anne Rockwell:

There was so much confusion and so much activity on the radio. We were used to being on our own station, just with the fire talking to other fire, but now we were talking with other departments. It really kept your heart pumping, I think, because I’d hear about people reporting from Claremont Canyon—that’s where our daycare provider lived—and I thought, oh wow, I hope they got out.

Narrator:

For Stephen, the radio updates were a reminder that Anne was also fighting the blaze.

Stephen Gehrett:

For me, having my spouse on the fire was a little disconcerting, just because I didn’t know where she was, and didn’t know what she was up against. That unknown was scary.

Narrator:

Eventually, he found Anne when he delivered water to the KPFA radio towers where she was stationed. After that…

Anne Rockwell:

I knew he was driving the water tender, so I knew he was okay. I knew if something happened to him, somebody would let me know.

Narrator:

As night began to fall, circumstances shifted. The winds died down, granting both Anne and Stephen a brief reprieve.

Anne Rockwell:

I was on the line all night. I think I got a chance to rest when we were at Broadway Terrace. There was a house that had a hot tub underneath the deck and we used it to wash our faces, and we all had bandannas, and they were just completely—we just turned the water black, and just rinsed off our stuff and rinsed off our faces and hands, because we were just completely filthy and covered with poison oak, and soot, and sweat.

Narrator:

It would take all night before the fire was completely suppressed. But the end was finally in sight. And with it – a clearer view of the devastation.

Anne Rockwell:

I remember watching the sun come up and looking out at the devastation, and thinking I had never seen anything like this in my life. There weren’t even hulks of cars left. There was just nothing. There was puddles and ash. There were places where there was literally puddles of metal. There were, during the night though, I can remember the pilot lights from the gas lines at people’s houses that were glowing. You could see them all around, and when the sun came up, you’d see one or two houses that were completely untouched, and then just nothing around them.

I think in the morning, we went back to—the steam train parking lot had been set up as a resting station. People came and had all kinds of food set up in that parking lot, and there were cots, and I think that’s—

Stephen Gehrett:

That’s—

Anne Rockwell: —where we connected. I just remember all those people. It was like seeing what you see on the news when the Red Cross shows up, because that’s exactly what it was, but I’d never been on the receiving end of that where people were taking care of us for going out and fighting the fire.

Narrator:

At the resting station, Anne and Stephen began to connect with their fellow park district firefighters. Michael Avalos was there, too, and remembers the atmosphere as firefighters from all over the city emerged from the night.

Michael Avalos:

I think it was a big unifying thing. It was a life-changing thing. It was what a lot of people would call a career fire, and hopefully, you don’t go through something like that more than once in a career.

Anne Rockwell:

It was somber because that was the first time—oh I’m speaking for the whole fire department maybe, but for all of us to have dealt with death as part of—we were used to fighting the fires in the woodlands, so we didn’t see any people’s homes. We saw an occasional structure burn, but we didn’t see people lose their homes, and we didn’t hear about people dying because of a fire, or getting trapped and all the panic that was going on. People were exhausted, and we were all awestruck by what we’d been through, and I think it was just settling in what a phenomenal moment this was.

Michael Avalos:

It was bonding, of course. You’d been through life and death circumstances. It was very bonding.

Narrator:

But Stephen also recognized where things could have improved. Starting with his early response to the fire.

Anne Rockwell:

I think what I would have done differently had I known is, I would have gone a lot earlier, and in fact, I did start going to more fires after that, because I felt like it was more important to support the fire fighting group at that point. 

Narrator:

In the weeks and months after the Tunnel Fire, many involved would reflect on their roles fighting the blaze. These reflections extended beyond personal commitments — and formed the basis of fire defense strategy in the bay area. People remembered the delayed responses… the mismatched fire hydrants… the radio confusion.

And, of course, they remembered the eucalyptus.

Anne Rockwell:

I think one of the things that can be learned is about—managing the eucalyptus forest around us, managing for trees, not just eucalyptus, with all the years of drought and all the dead pines—that people need to take that seriously, if they want to continue to live in the environment. You have narrow roads. You need to take care of the brushes around your home. Just seeing all over different parts of the state where these fires are so devastating, all this came after drought, series of drought years and big wind years, and so the time is now for people to really prepare for their escape routes, and like I say, to prepare for a different-looking environment.

Stephen Gehrett:

I think homeowners have awakened to look at their houses and get rid of that shake roof, sweep all those dead pine needles off their property, that there’s this learning curve, and people have embraced that and know that the possibility of fire is only getting greater every day, it’s not getting less. I think people have learned a lesson on a lot of different aspects of how to approach living in a fire-prone area.

Narrator:

Within the park district, many would also realize that if John Nicoles hadn’t fought to manage the eucalyptus trees and create fuel breaks, the fire could have been much worse.

Anne Rockwell:

I think it wasn’t until some time had gone by, maybe when we had our critical incident debriefings, that I felt a lot of pride in the way that people had handled themselves, and how they had gotten out of situations. I was proud to be part of the team, I think, to be part of that whole department, and that’s why I still think that we joke about it to say “we were on the Jack Attack.” I felt like I was really on a team and that we pulled together, and took on a task that saved all of the East Bay.

Narrator:

Thanks for listening to the Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. This episode was produced by Francesca Fenzi and Shanna Farrell.

This episode features interviews with Anne Rockwell, Stephen Gehrett, Michael Avalos, Paul Miller, and John Nicoles that are part of the East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History Project. A special thanks to the district and Beverly Ortiz. To learn more about these interviews, visit our website listed in the show notes. I’m your host, Shanna Farrell. Thank you for listening to The Berkeley Remix, and please join us next time!


The Oral History Center Launches Season 5 of the Berkeley Remix Podcast

Set in the parks of the East Bay hills, the Hidden Heroes podcast season is about people who have made a difference: fighting fires, breaking gender barriers, preserving the land. 

In season 5 of the Berkeley Remix, we’re diving into the long history of the East Bay Regional Park District, which was founded in 1934. All of the episodes are set in the East Bay parks and are about people who’ve made a difference. Some are stories that you’re already familiar with, but haven’t heard quite like this. Over the course of three episodes, we’ll explore the park district’s integral role in fighting the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire, of being on the forefront of gender equality in the workplace, and how the districts efforts to preserve land benefited the public — through the lens of the local equestrian community. 

 

Episode 1: You Really Love Your Land, Don’t You: Expansion of the East Bay Regional Park District

The first episode of the season dives into public use of the park. Since the district was formed in 1934, it has acquired 125,000 acres that span 73 parks. The episode begins with the role that one special volunteer-turned-employee played in convincing ranchers and landowners to sell their property to be preserved by the park district. Without the work of this man, and others like him, the  public would not have access to this land. This includes the local equestrian community, whom we hear from in the rest of the episode, exploring how the district became a haven for horse lovers. This episode includes interviews with Judy Irving, Don Staysa, Judi Bank, and Becky Carlson who are part of the East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History Project. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

This episode was produced by Shanna Farrell and Francesca Fenzi

A special thanks to the East Bay Regional Park District, especially Beverly Ortiz and Brenda Montano. 

Photos from the Bob Walker Collection at the Oakland Museum of California

All music by Blue Dot Sessions:

  • “Dorica Theme” 
  • “A Palace of Cedar” 

 

Episode 2: There’s No Crying in Carpentry: Gender Equality in the East Bay Regional Park District

The park district employs hundreds of people, many of whom are women. This episode digs into the history of gender equality at the East Bay Regional Park District. It follows the stories of two women who worked in the Tilden Corp yard, which houses heavy machinery, and how they challenged traditional gender roles in the workplace. They each have their own stories of growing their careers during affirmative action, and the impact that their work had on equality for all district employees. This episode includes interviews with Julie Haselden, Rachel MacDonald, and Stephen Gehrett who are part of the East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History Project. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

This episode was produced by Shanna Farrell and Francesca Fenzi

A special thanks to the East Bay Regional Park District and Beverly Ortiz.

All music by Blue Dot Sessions:

  • “Dorica Theme” 
  • “A Palace of Cedar”

 

Episode 3: (Once in a) Career Fire: The East Bay Regional Park District Fights the Tunnel Fire

This episode explores the role of the EBRPD Fire Department in fighting the historic 1991 Oakland Hills Fire. It explores how the fire got so bad, and the early work that district employees did to prevent large wildfires. It features interviews with district employees who managed the land and, later, who fought on the frontlines of the fire, including Anne Rockwell, Stephen Gehrett, Michael Avalos, Paul Miller, and John Nicoles who are part of the East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History Project. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

This episode was produced by Shanna Farrell and Francesca Fenzi

A special thanks to the East Bay Regional Park District and Beverly Ortiz. 

All music by Blue Dot Sessions:

  • “Dorica Theme” 
  • “A Palace of Cedar” 
  • “Drone Birch” 
  • “Feather on the Crest”

OHC Director’s Column, October 2019

by Martin Meeker

@MartinDMeeker

Recording, transcribing, and making oral histories accessible represents only a portion of the work that we do at the Oral History Center. We relish the opportunity to engage with these raw historical materials and fashion them into a variety of interpretative works too. 

The 4,000 oral histories in our collection have been used by OHC staff in the writing of conference papers, articles, and books for sure. And while we remain committed to our mission of creating quality first-person historical accounts that might be used in the most rigorous of academic studies, we also recognize—and applaud—the use of these interviews across a much broader field. Now, OHC interviews are used in podcasts, documentary films, dramatic productions, and more.

Bob Walker Photo
Photo by Bob Walker, courtesy of the East Bay Regional Park District

As the ability to preserve, edit, and distribute audio and video productions becomes ever easier, ever more democratized, we at OHC have also utilized these resources to create videos and podcasts that draw heavily upon the collection. We are on the verge of releasing our fifth podcast season, Hidden Heroes. This one focuses on the East Bay Regional Park District and is being produced by Shanna Farrell and Francesca Fenzi. Previous seasons have looked at the history of the University of California at 150 years, the early response to AIDS in San Francisco, and the long history of women in politics. 

Our main goal with these podcasts is to offer robust yet widely accessible narrative interpretations—pivotal moments in history that our collection can illuminate. We are historians, and this is what we do. But we also have an important alternate motivation (or two) in spending hundreds of hours required to produce these podcasts. While our 4,000 oral histories (amounting to tens of thousands of hours of interviews) are readily accessible through our website, we are well aware that, say, a 30 hour interview with a scientist might be a tad overwhelming and many who could find something of real value in these life histories might never know to look there. With these podcasts and the many other interpretive materials we create, we are seeking to distribute breadcrumbs around the internet—breadcrumbs that might lead users back to the collection and back to the lengthy but otherwise invisible oral histories. We know that there are many people who are passionate about history but who aren’t trained researchers. These breadcrumbs help steer these folks toward these free and substantive and lively interviews.

I know I can speak for the whole oral history team at Berkeley that we endeavor not just to create excellent interviews in collaboration with our narrators but that we strive to make that work known to the widest public possible.


New OHC Release : Anne Halsted

The Oral History Center is pleased to announce the release of Anne Halsted’s interview, a leading community advocate.

Shanna Farrell conducted thirteen sessions with Anne throughout 2018. Below are her reflections about meeting and interviewing Anne, and the enormous contributions she has made to the city of San Francisco.

 

Anne Halsted: A Leading Community Advocate

Anne Halsted
Anne Halsted in 2018

I had heard a lot about Anne Halsted before I met her in person. Her name came up, repeatedly, when I interviewed former SPUR Executive Director Jim Chappell. He spoke about her with such high regard that I couldn’t help but take notice. When I later learned that I’d be interviewing her, I was delighted, and slightly intimidated by her extensive and impressive work as a leading community advocate. 

But from the moment she welcomed me into her home, she made me feel comfortable and at ease, with help from Nelson, her adorable black lab. Over the next four month, she made space for me to ask her about her childhood, her education, her move to San Francisco, and her long career in Human Resources. We talked about her initial interest in civic engagement, which was ignited by zoning issues around the North Point Sewage Plant in her North Beach neighborhood. We discussed how this experience led to more and more engagement in local politics, including her time on SPUR’s board, which she spoke about with passion and fondness. 

I learned about her natural way of cultivating networks and fostering collaboration. I learned about her dedication to the environment and the million little things that she’s done to advance equity. I learned about her desire to lift up other women and give them space to become leaders. I learned that she’s a smart, driven, kind, and generous woman who loves the city she calls home. 

As an oral historian, I have the privilege of getting to know people over weeks and weeks, asking them to reflect on how they understand the world and their place in it. There are times when these interviews help me understand my own place in the world, and, when I’m lucky, time that I leave feeling inspired by the stories my narrators have shared. I felt this way about Anne and her interview. Not only did she help me to see the city where I live, and my role in it, in an enlightened way, she left me feeling inspired to leave it a better place than I found it.

It was a pleasure to be the person who got to record her oral history, with help from my colleague Amanda Tewes, and an even greater pleasure to get to share her interview with the world. I hope that you will all learn as much as I did from Anne and walk away feeling just as inspired, and that blazing your own path is possible. Through this interview, its place in the Oral History Center’s esteemed collection, and its home in The Bancroft Library’s archive, Anne will continue giving to the Bay Area for decades to come. 


Reflections from the OHC’s 2019 Graduate Student of Color Fellow

Rudy Mondragón is the Oral History Center’s 2019 Graduate Student of Color Fellow. He  is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles working on a project that looks at the sport of boxing and the ways in which black and brown boxers politically and culturally express themselves via the famous ring entrance.

During the summer of 2019, he traveled to Rhode Island to interview professional boxer Kali Reis. When complete, his interview will be archived in our collection.  Below are his reflections on this experience and how this will shape his graduate work.

“The Heart Beat of Our People”: My Experience With a World Champion

By: Rudy Mondragón

I spent three days in Rhode Island with a world champion. Kali “K.O. Mequinonoag” Reis is a fighter who is of Seaconke Wampanoag, Cherokee, and Nipmuc heritage as well as Cape Verdean. In her 11 years of boxing professionally, Kali has earned the International Boxing Association (IBA), Universal Boxing Federation (UBF), and World Boxing Council (WBC) middleweight world titles. In addition to these prestigious accolades, Kali made history, alongside her opponent Cecilia Brækhus, in becoming the first woman to be on a televised Home Box Office (HBO) fight card. This was the first time in their 45 years of televising fights that HBO showcased a women’s fight.

Kali Belts
Kali Reis with her IBA, UBF, and WBC world titles. Photo by: Rudy Mondragón

My research examines the ways in which boxers (un)intentionally utilize the ring entrance as a political space to communicate their politics, new identities and subjectivities, and at times the performance of dissent and resistance. I first heard about Kali leading up to her May 5, 2018 fight against Cecilia Brækhus. The way she centers her indigenous identity demonstrates the possibilities that exist in ring entrances for boxers to express themselves in a plethora of ways. My initial thought was that she is a curator of her ring entrances, creatively using fashion and style, music, and her entourage to communicate a powerful message of belonging, dignity, empowerment, and storytelling. When I saw her ring entrance that night, I knew it was necessary that her story be documented and incorporated into my dissertation research. 

The timing of the UC Graduate Oral History Center Fellowship was perfect. Being a recipient of this award allowed me to do two things: First, it gave me the necessary resources to make the trip to Rhode Island and meet Kali in person and second, to document a 6-hour oral history that would be archived in The Bancroft Library for future use and public access.

Kali in Ring
Kali Reis training at Big Six Boxing Academy under heat lamps used to simulate
the conditions of fighting under the hot lights. Photo by: Rudy Mondragón

I made the trip to Pawtucket, Rhode Island in mid-June. Immediately after landing in Boston, I hopped into my white Hyundai rental car and made the drive an hour south in the pouring rain to Kali’s home. There were warehouse buildings to my left and to my right was McCoy Stadium, the home of the Pawtucket Red Sox minor league baseball team. I finally arrived at her home, which was on the corner of a residential intersection. I knocked on the front door and out came Kali with a big smile and welcomed me inside.  

I waited in the living room as she prepared for our first of three interviews. In her living room were her three championship belts as well as a signed purple 8-ounce Cleto Reyes glove that she intended to wear for her fight against Brækhus. Due to boxing politics and the demands of her opponents’ team, Kali was forced to wear 10-ounce gloves instead. 

Kali called me over and walked me down to the basement of her home, which is a multifunctional space. In the room is a meditation tapestry wall hanging, a buddha, massage table for her reiki healing treatments, and tranquil waterfall sounds. The other part of the room is used by her partner, Stephanie, for her hairdressing and nail-tech work. The time had finally come for our first conversation.

Kali Day 3
Day 3 of interview with Kali Reis. Photo by: Rudy Mondragón

As a critical sports studies researcher who uses ethnographic methods and conducts in-depth interviews and oral histories, centering the voices of professional fighters is a critical priority. The stories that fighters share are not simply stories. They are a way to remember the past and connect it with the future. Storytelling, according to Russell Bishop, is a useful and culturally appropriate way to represent multiple truths because the storyteller retains control of their narrative.  

In the three days and six hours of interview time with Kali, we were able to peel back the layers of her elaborate ring entrance. She described the parallels of her ring entrance with her experiences in attending powwows and fancy dancing: 

“It’s a grand entry. So, at the beginning of a pow wow, to open up ceremony of a pow wow, you’ll have your warriors, your veterans, and you have the tribal flags. And there’s usually no video taking. It’s very sacred, you’re opening up the circle, you’re allowing your elders and everybody to open up that circle for you. So, basically my (ring) entrance is the same way. It’s becoming a grand entry, because every time I fight at home, there’s more and more dancers. But it’s a grand entry into that battlefield, into that square circle.” 

Kali’s breakdown here demonstrates the ways in which her lived experiences as an indigenous person directly inform and manifest in her ring entrance. Her ring entrance is very similar to a powwow’s grand entry, the only difference, as she states, is that the end of her entrance marks the beginning of her battle inside the ring. 

Her ring attire, created by Angel Alejandro from Double A Boxing, consists of a process that includes Kali sharing her vision for her ring robe and trunks with Angel. That is followed up by conversations between the two so that visionary and designer are on the same page. The ring attire she wore in her fight against Brækhus for example, included the colors white and purple, which represent royalty. Purple is the color of wampum shells, used for jewelry and belts made for Sachems and Chiefs. On the back of her sleeveless robe are two feathers, which represent her two spiritedness. Since the feathers are placed upward, they signify war. Feathers down, she states, symbolizes peace.

Kali Trunks
Kali Reis’s ring attire for her May 5, 2018 fight. Photo courtesy of Kali Reis

Kali’s entourage is something that is created on a fight to fight basis. In addition to making sure that she has “strong women dancing” her to the ring, she also believes “that the creator will send the right people to dance in front of me.” This is exactly what she did for her fight against Brækhus. The week prior to her Cinco de Mayo showdown, Kali put out a call on her social media platforms, calling on all “CALIFORNIA NATIVES.” She specifically asked if there were drummers and dancers willing to walk her to the ring. On the night of the fight, she had three dancers walk her to the ring. Two were of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara heritage and one was Mashpee Wampanoag. 

And in terms of her music, Kali described the drums in her ring entrance as “the heartbeat of our people” and “the voices that sing those songs are the cries of mother earth.” If Kali has indigenous people walk her to the ring, she allows them to pick whatever drums and songs they want. She does this because she firmly believes it’s the right way to honor them for honoring her and the collective of indigenous peoples around the world.

The original vision for my dissertation was to breakdown chapters thematically, intersecting boxing with how boxers deploy fashion and style, music and soundscapes, and entourages in their ring entrances. In the six hours I spent with Kali, she deconstructed her ring entrance to the extent that the three themes of expressive culture I analyze in my research were strongly articulated. This presented a new possibility, which has inspired a shift in the vision for my dissertation to add an additional chapter on oral history as a method and case-study that will focus solely on Kali Reis.

I reflected on my trip to Rhode Island a couple of days later and remembered a moment that meant a great deal to me. As Kali and I drove back to her home after enjoying a delicious vegan meal at the Garden Grille, she asked me who I thought would win in the upcoming fight between Manny Pacquiao and Keith Thurman. Here I was, sitting in a car with a professional practitioner of the sweet science, asking me for my thoughts on an upcoming fight. She asked me a meaningful question that resulted in a rich conversation. It made me think of the first time I ever reached out to Kali via Instagram and subsequent conversations that followed. Since then, Kali and I have built rapport and collective trust that contributed to the in-depth stories that she shared with me. 

I can never see Kali as solely a research subject. I see her as a multifaceted and complex person who is the narrator of her story. She’s also become a friend of mine. There is no distancing myself from Kali as I begin the process of analyzing her oral history. On the contrary, there is going to be ongoing communication as well as ever increasing pressure. This pressure that I feel is not bad at all. I see it as an ongoing reminder that I have an obligation and responsibility to represent Kali’s story in an honorable, humanized, and just way.  

This approach, in my opinion, is the right way to honor Kali’s story.


#notoralhistory

by Shanna Farrell

@shanna_farrell

During the first few months that I was settling into life in the Bay Area after moving across the country, I often listened to WNYC, a New York City-based radio station. One morning, as I was riding my bike to work, the host of their call-in show, akin to KQED’s Forum, announced the upcoming segment.

“What was better back in the day?” the host asked. “It’s an oral history of nostalgia, starring you. Tell us about what you think was better from a previous era, why you miss it, and whether you think it’s better because of nostalgia, or because things were, empirically, better back in the day. Call us or post below.”

My heart started to race. This call out felt so personal. They had gotten it so wrong. I pulled over and dialed their number. A producer answered, unaware of their error. 

“I just heard your next segment is on the oral history of nostalgia,” I said. “But that’s not oral history.”

Confused, she asked me to explain what I meant. It was October of 2013, and I was fresh off earning a Master’s Degree in Oral History. I had spent a year taking method and theory classes, learning about what defines the discipline, exploring its boundaries. I had my interviews critiqued, my questions workshopped, and had been pushed to dig deeper into my research, all in the name of preparation. This felt dismissive of the work that we oral historians put into our interviews. It devalued the time (and money) that I’d put into my degree, and the job that I had just landed at UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center. 

As I tried to explain what oral history is and how what they were doing in this segment wasn’t it, I realized it would be impossible to fit into a two sentence elevator pitch. There’s so much that defines oral history, that makes it unique, distinct from other methods, that I could feel myself having trouble reducing it to something easy to pitch, just as they had to listeners. 

Looking back on that moment, I wish I would have said that oral history is defined by the planning, the transparency, the collaboration, the recording, intersubjectivity, the preservation, the legacy. I wish I would have said that it could take weeks to carefully research and write an interview outline, hours to build rapport, and months to complete an interview series. I wish I would have said that it takes practice to craft questions and to listen in stereo, picking up on the things that aren’t said, and to be comfortable sitting in silence. 

After I hung up the phone, I thought about why they called this segment “oral history.” I’m still thinking about it. The term became popular when magazines started running vox populi style interviews weaving together soundbites from different people to create a narrative. They ran pieces about the about the making of a movie, like Jurassic Park, or a TV show, like The Simpsons. Later, it became a household term when StoryCorps partnered with NPR to bring us our Friday driveway moments, produced from a carefully edited interview excerpt. Lately, it has seeped into literature. More and more, I see “oral history” to describe a work of memoir, creative nonfiction, and even fiction. Recently, I was reading the Sunday New York Times book review section and they positioned a new memoir as “part oral history, part urban history.” I couldn’t wrap my head around what this meant. How was it oral history? Had the author done interviews? How was this different from a regular memoir? And lately, I’ve seen a few journalists refer to themselves as oral historians without seeming like they have a solid understanding of what the term means, aside from it involving interviews.

 Simpsons

Where does this lack of understanding stem from? Why is the term “oral history” battered around so easily? When did it first get misappropriated? The origin of the Entertainment Weekly and Vanity Fair versions are relatively straightforward, descending from the Jean Stein-style books like Edie: American Biography, which is constructed from interviews with people who knew Edie Sedgwick after her death in 1971, or books that recounted musical eras, like We Got the Neutron Bomb by Mark Spitz and Brendan Mullen (which also served as my first introduction to oral history when I was in high school) or Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. As for where the rest of it came from – like the recent trend in literature – it’s anyone’s guess. 

Edie
Edie by Jean Stein

I’m not the only one who has been noticing this trend. In 2014, the anonymous user @notoralhistory joined Twitter. For a while, they tweeted examples of people labeling articles or projects as oral history that were, indeed, not actually oral history. They now promote examples of oral history and engage in conversations around best practices. There are practitioners who also tweet bad examples of oral history, using #notoralhistory, which are often amusing, and then maddening, and then amusing again.

The problem with these mediums is that they can’t accomplish the same things that actual oral history does. These narratives just provide soundbites, while oral history gives us much more context. They don’t include any audio (or video), so we lose the ability to connect with a human voice. They are highly edited, whereas oral history allows people to speak in their own style. They are usually layered with other voices, instead of giving someone individual space to fully narrate their own story.

The link in @notoralhistory’s bio takes you to the Oral History Association’s website, to the page where they define oral history. Here, they share a quote from Donald Ritchie’s book, Doing Oral History. He writes:

“Oral History collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews.  An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format.  Recordings of the interviews are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives. These interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatization or other form of public presentation. Recordings, transcripts, catalogs, photographs and related documentary materials can also be posted on the Internet. Oral history does not include random taping, such as President Richard Nixon’s surreptitious recording of his White House conversations, nor does it refer to recorded speeches, wiretapping, personal diaries on tape, or other sound recordings that lack the dialogue between interviewer and interviewee.”

Oral history can accomplish so much. It gives us insight into the past, hearing directly from the people who lived through various moments in history. By archiving the recordings, we can listen to how narrators tell their stories, and gain insight into why they told it this way. We can put a human face on history and learn from those who came before us. And, when oral history is done right, through careful preparation, research, and recording, we can ensure that these people are not forgotten, their stories not reduced to a soundbite. 

It is with similar intention that we are devoting many of our articles this month that revolve around the boundaries of oral history. You’ll hear from us about our experience doing oral history and what makes it different from other disciplines and methods. We hope you follow along.


Episode 3 of OHC’s 4th Season of the Berkeley Remix Explores the Connection Between Campus and Local Restaurant Chez Panisse

This season of the Berkeley Remix we’re bringing to life stories about our home — UC Berkeley — from our collection of thousands of oral histories. Please join us for our fourth season, Let There Be Light: 150 Years at UC Berkeley, inspired by the University’s motto, Fiat Lux. Our episodes this season explore issues of identity — where we’ve been, who we are now, the powerful impact Berkeley’s identity as a public institution has had on student and academic life, and the intertwined history of campus and community.

The three-episode season explores how housing has been on the front lines of the battle for student welfare throughout the University’s history; how UC Berkeley created a culture of innovation that made game-changing technologies possible; and how political activism on campus was a motivator for the farm-to-table food scene in the city of Berkeley. All episodes include audio from interviews from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library.

Chez Panisse

“What Alice Waters and the Chez Panisse team did was probably the most radical gesture in restaurants and cooking in America in the last century. It’s important that it happened in Berkeley.” -Chef Christopher Lee

Episode 3, Berkeley After Dark, written and produced by interviewer Shanna Farrell, is about the connection between the history of farm-to-table eating and the campus community. Alice Waters helped pioneer the concept of eating local, seasonal, and organic food at her restaurant, Chez Panisse, located just a few blocks from campus on Shattuck Avenue.  This grew out of her combined love of feeding people and political activism, evolved into a culinary revolution. And it couldn’t have happened without UC Berkeley. The intertwined history between campus and the community gave Chez Panisse an audience, and a workforce, creating a symbiotic relationship.

This episode includes audio from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library, including: Christopher Lee, Narsai David, and Dylan O’Brien. Voiceover of Marion Cunningham’s interview by Amanda Tewes and Paul Bertolli’s interview by John Fragola. Supplemental interviews with Chris Ying.

Following is a written version of the The Berkeley Remix Podcast Season 4, Episode 3

Martin Meeker:

Hello and welcome to the Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. I’m Martin Meeker, Director of the Center. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. This season, we’re bringing to life stories about our home, UC Berkeley, from our collection of thousands of oral history interviews. Please join us for our fourth season, inspired by the University’s motto, Let There Be Light: 150 Years at UC Berkeley. The third and final episode of this season, Berkeley After Dark, was produced by Shanna Farrell. 

Narrator:

When you think of Berkeley, you might think of revolution. From the Free Speech movement, to Apartheid divestment, to recent protests on the UC Berkeley campus — the university has a reputation for fighting the power. But the university campus isn’t the only site of revolution in Berkeley. Just a few blocks away, Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto is home to a very different type of revolution — a delicious one. Take it from food writer Chris Ying.

Chris Ying:

What Alice Waters and the Chez Panisse team did was probably the most radical gesture in restaurants and cooking in America in the last century. [17:30] It’s important that it happened in Berkeley. 

Narrator:

Chez Panisse is a legendary California restaurant that opened in 1971. It’s located in an iconic, A-frame style craft house, just a few blocks north of the UC Berkeley campus, on Shattuck Avenue. It was founded by Paul Aratow and Alice Waters, and she’s the one who made the restaurant famous. They had an idea that was both radical and simple: they wanted to serve food that was grown locally, organically, and sustainably – using classic French cooking techniques. They believed  fresh, seasonal ingredients should be the star of any dish.This concept may not seem revolutionary now, but then, it was. This was the 70s –  a time when canned vegetables were everywhere and tv dinners were king. 

Christopher Lee:

It had such an enlightened approach…Alice’s vision…built upon French food with local ingredients. Her brilliance was to say, ‘Hey, we’re here in California and there’s all this wonderful stuff here. Use it! Cook with it!”

Narrator: 

That was chef Christopher Lee, who recorded an interview with the Oral History Center in 2004. He worked at Chez Panisse for over ten years, learning how to cook in a way that highlighted California’s rich agricultural produce.

[kitchen sounds] 

Narrator:

For Alice Waters, who founded the restaurant, eating is a political act. She’s written about this in her many cookbooks – 16, to be exact – and the memoir that she published in 2017, Coming to My Senses. Waters grew up in New Jersey, and arrived in Berkeley as a college student in the mid-1960s. She transferred from UC Santa Barbara during a moment of unrest. Again, this was Berkeley in the 1960s. Waters quickly  got caught up in the Free Speech movement and started working for anti-Vietnam War politician Robert Scheer. Here’s food writer Marion Cunningham from our 2001 interview with her, as read by Amanda Tewes. 

Marion Cunningham:

[Record voice over] I came to know Alice early on. She belonged to a group of people who were rebelling at the university, politically. They had an underground letter, a political letter. She was looking for a place, because these people had no money, and she was worried about how they were going to eat. That was the motivator.

Narrator:

Waters had traveled abroad to France during her junior year, where she learned about food and cooking. She’d gone to farmers’ markets and learned about the way that French culture approaches food. This experience inspired Waters when she returned to Berkeley.  She wanted to bring the food she’d fallen in love with in France to her  own community in the East Bay — and she wanted it to be accessible across barriers, especially financial ones. She began cooking dinners for friends, then circulating that underground political letter Marion Cunningham mentioned. Waters was looking for a place to build her vision. Chez Panisse opened in 1971, and it soon attracted other like-minded revolutionaries and chefs.

Paul Bertolli:

[Recorded voiceover] My nose led me there. I could smell really good stock being made. I could smell that there was something good going on – really good. It was the smell of the place that attracted me, mostly.

Narrator:

That was Paul Bertolli, James Beard award-winning chef and writer, from the Oral History Center’s 2004 interview with him, as read by John Fragola. Bertolli got his start in the Chez Panisse kitchen, before going on to be the executive chef at Oakland’s Oliveto. Bertolli says when Waters launched Chez Panisse in 1971, she put flavor first.  She bought all her food in season, from organic farmers within 50 miles of the restaurant. 

Chris Ying:

It was so radical and so different from what other people were doing, and so bold. It’s important that the legacy of radical thought and free speech that people associate with Berkeley really play a part in her being able to do that at Chez Panisse. The Bay Area is home to a lot of innovation because of that spirit. 

Narrator:

That’s Chris Ying, food writer and co-founder of the late Lucky Peach magazine, as well as a Cal alum. We sat down recently to talk about Berkeley’s culinary legacy. When Chez Panisse started, people weren’t talking about where food was coming from or how it was grown. Most restaurants at the time relied on third party vendors that are typically delivered in bulk by distributors. They didn’t have direct relationships with the farmers who supplied their food. Now, Waters was trying to change all that. Waters cultivated individual relationships with some of the best producers around. Here’s Dylan O’Brien, who interned at Chez Panisse kitchen in the early 2000s while bartending next door at Cesar, a restaurant in the Chez Panisse family. He now owns of Prizefighter in Emeryville, California, a bar that’s just a short drive from Shattuck Avenue.

Dylan O’Brien:

That was such a cool experience because it’s such a beautiful kitchen that couldn’t exist in any restaurant that was built today. The incredible ingredients and the number of purveyors they worked with was totally mind-blowing to me that you know some guy would show up with a box the size of a shoe box with like the greatest persimmons that had ever been grown. They get lettuces from some guy who lives in the Berkeley Hills who just grows the coolest lettuces.

[musical interlude]

[kitchen sounds]

Narrator:

Great food needs an audience, and the people of Berkeley were there to provide. In 1970, undergraduate enrollment hit more than 18,000, bringing lots of hungry people to Berkeley. Here’s Paul Bertolli again, talking about taking advantage of the affordable midnight dinners that Waters ran for a few months in 1974, as read by John Fragola. 

 Paul Bertolli:

I came to Cal the same year that Chez Panisse opened. I ate there frequently. I remember when the menu was $4. I went to the midnight steak and red wine feeds.

Narrator:

Of course, to anyone familiar with Chez Panisse, these cheap student dinners might sound incredible. A meal there today could cost a hundred dollars per person, instead. So what changed? Chez Panisse served meals to students for next-to-nothing, until the restaurant lost so much money that Waters was forced to stop. But by then, the restaurant was attracting a different clientele – Parents of students, looking for a nice place to bring their children, and professors, in need of a place to either impress or unwind. These guests gave Chez Panisse a steady stream of customers with disposable income. Narsai David, a chef who has worked in the Bay Area since the 1970s, attributes the type of professionals that Berkeley attracts to the restaurant’s success. Here he is in a 2011 interview.

Narsai David:

Well,  I think it’s a lot more than just food. I think in Berkeley, first you can’t escape the fact that you have a very, very liberal, very highly educated, very sophisticated town, with the history of the university and the Lawrence Lab up on the hill, and these businesses in West Berkeley that depended on scientists and technicians who had engineering skills and laboratory skills. There was a pretty sophisticated bunch of people around here.

Narrator:

Suddenly, Chez Panisse wasn’t just a restaurant with a unique approach to local ingredients. It was gathering attention as a fine dining establishment — filled with academic elites. Here’s Christopher Lee again. 

Christopher Lee:

There was a joke at Chez Panisse that even the dishwasher had a PhD. It was kind of funny, because there were three bussers who were PhD candidates. 

Narrator:

While the original mission of feeding hungry college students was shifting — that didn’t mean UC Berkeley’s campus community was being left behind. Fortunately, Chez Panisse’s location on the fringe of Berkeley’s campus meant there was a steady supply of student workers. Students needed to work to pay for their education at Berkeley. In 1975, tuition was free for Californians, but by the end of the decade it was rising sharply. Today, tuition costs almost 15 thousand dollars for undergraduate in-state residents and about 43 thousand dollars  for out of state residents. On top of tuition, there are books, food, and housing to pay for  — in a city where the cost of living is one of the highest in the country. Since the 1970s, students  like Chris Ying and Christopher Lee have been drawn to Berkeley’s restaurants jobs where tips are often paid in cash, and there is free food before the start of a shift. Ying says he was also drawn to the late hours — perfect for a college student’s schedule. 

Chris Ying:

I went to school until 3 or 4 and then went straight to the restaurant and worked all night. 

Narrator:

And here’s Dylan O’Brien again, talking about his restaurant job when he was a student around the same time as Ying in the early 2000s. 

Dylan O’Brien:

I was making $150 to $250 dollars in tips. I worked every Friday and Saturday night. My friends were out partying or going to the football game on Saturday, and I wasn’t because I’d go to work.

Narrator:

Narsai David also turned to restaurant work when he was a student at Cal in the 1960s.

Narsai David: 

Through my college years, I worked at Hy’s Drive-in, at Mel’s Drive. I was working, I think it was thirty hours a week. It was a substantial thing; but I didn’t have any choice. I would send money home to my mother, even when I was working up here. There was no way I could’ve made it otherwise.

Narrator:

Berkeley’s growing restaurant industry has become a staple of student employment. And Chez Panisse was once again at the center of this change. Christopher Lee says Waters insisted on  paying her employees fairly

Christopher Lee:

That was always one of Alice’s mandates; she wanted to offer people a livable wage, as a lot of places didn’t in the old days. 

Narrator:

As a result, many student workers fell in love with the restaurant industry during their time at Cal. Again, here’s Chris Ying.

Chris Ying:

I started seeing Cal as not just a school. You start to see it as representative of something important, and how much of a role Berkeley played in food. As food became more important to me, it really gave me this deeper appreciation for where I was. 

Narrator:

This growing appreciation for food and community helped launch the careers of other influential people in the food world around the country. Many of them opened restaurants nearby, bringing more eateries close to campus. San Francisco Chronicle journalist Herb Caen even coined a term: “Gourmet Ghetto,” in his column to describe the wave of restaurants opening on Shattuck Avenue that shared Waters’ socially conscious approach to food. 

Narsai David:

He was joking about how only in a place like Berkeley could the word ghetto apply to something like food. The gourmet ghetto, in and about the environs of Chez Panisse, Shattuck, between Cedar and Vine. 

Chris Ying:

As far as the influential Berkeley chefs, it’s Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower, Paul Bertolli, the people who often get credited as having started this California Cuisine movement. There’s so many players that descend from there, whether it’s Cal Petronelli, who was part of the Chez Panisse family or Steven Singer who has become a very important wine importer and a huge figure in the Berkeley world.  Everything started with Chez Panisse though. Chez Panisse was the best and most important restaurant in the world that it happened to be down the street from us.

Narrator:

Chez Panisse’s radical impact is hard to measure. The concept of eating local, seasonal, and organic food, which grew out of Alice Water’s combined love of feeding people and political activism, evolved into a culinary revolution. Her restaurant changed the way that we think about food and how we cook at home. It launched the careers of renowned chefs like Paul Bertolli and Christopher Lee. It inspired countless chefs to model their own restaurants after farm-to-table eating, which is now cultural currency. And it couldn’t have happened without UC Berkeley. The intertwined history between campus and the community gave Chez Panisse an audience, and a workforce, creating a symbiotic relationship. This relationship continues today, evident when you walk into a restaurant near campus, after dark, long after the sun has set. 

Martin Meeker:

This episode was written and narrated by Shanna Farrell with assistance from Amanda Tewes,  Francesca Fenzi, and Oral History Center staff. The Berkeley Remix theme music by Paul Burnett and additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to The Bancroft Library. Interviews in this episode are from the Oral History Center’s collections. To learn more about these interviews, visit our website, listed in the show notes. I’m Martin Meeker and thank you for listening to the Berkeley Remix, and please join us next time.