Southwest Berkeley: Re-inventing Industry
by Susan Schwartz
This text is from a handout for a walk
sponsored by BPWA on July 8, 2006. The
walk was led by Susan Schwartz and Charlie
West Berkeley has been industrial almost
since Captain Jacobs established
a landing just north of the mouth of
Strawberry Creek during the Gold Rush.
But the coming of rail in 1877-8 spurred
the growth of factories. (At that time,
Berkeley rails were a spur from Oakland;
the transcontinental tracks ran through
Niles Canyon.) Southwest Berkeley’s
only real survivor of that pre-1900 growth
is National Starch and Chemical, whose
current building at the west end of
Grayson dates from the 1950s.
The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake sent
industry as well as residents fleeing
to supposed safety east of the Bay. Dates
and names on the map show the variety
of firms established early in the 20
th Century. Many of these were built
by the Austin Company, a now-international
Ohio firm founded in 1878 that pioneered
a rapid design-build method using standardized
steel-frame modules. Many buildings were
handsome and light-filled, but air could
be almost unbreathable. Waste piped directly
into the Bay fouled the water and Berkeley’s
crescent of sand beach. Rotting waste
from canneries near Ashby ate paint from
buildings and turned Bay water black
The area was never exclusively industrial.
Many blocks were mainly working-class
housing, often with street-level shops.
There were taverns and the like, including
two social clubs for Italian workers.
Almost 50 years after the quake, the
upheaval of World War II brought another
kind of boom, with industries working
multiple shifts to supply the troops.
Short-lived Camp Ashby trained black
MPs for a still-segregated military.
Little new was built due to material
shortages, but pent-up demand after the
war led to imaginative prefabricated
forms of construction, including precast
concrete walls with embedded glass blocks
This boomlet was short-lived. The eclipse
of rail as interstate highways were built,
lower-cost land and labor elsewhere,
and the nationwide decline of “smokestack” industries
all led to widespread plant closing from
the 1960s through the 1980s. Artists
and crafts people began moving into the
vacant spaces in the 1970s, along with
higher-technology firms and specialty
manufacturers, from scientific glass
to snowshoes. Cutter Labs, founded in
1903, metamorphosed into Bayer, making
pharmaceuticals through the most advanced
biotechnological methods. Despite Berkeley’s
plans to maintain well-paying blue-collar
jobs, faux-industrial-style live-work
and condominiums and high-end home-furnishing
businesses have flooded in since the1990s. “Victorian” homes
and rooming houses are being restored
or strikingly refurbished. A rails-to-trails
greenway is partly built (Emeryville
built, Berkeley lagging).
There is plenty to worry and argue about -- artisans’ hopes
to keep low-cost space, plans for a grocery
store, manufacturing vs. gentrification,
lack of green space. But for now, this
is a fascinating, vibrant area to explore.
Many thanks to Dale Smith and the
Berkeley Historical Society. I have
cribbed shamelessly from Dale’s map and essay, The
Evolution of Industry in West Berkeley,” prepared
for a walking tour sponsored by the
Historical Society and available from
them. The responsibility for errors is
entirely my own – Susan Schwartz.
“House” symbol indicates
interesting architecture or gardens,
from a building to a block.
Dotted lines mean interesting for walking – but
explore and find your own route!