A latchkey kid roams Berkeley ghost town full of promise

Aged 11, Greg Fuson wandered the hallways of the old School for the Deaf and Blind "in idle search of who knows what". Photo: Jason Holmberg

By Greg Fuson

Nostalgia, like politics and real estate, is local.

Which helps explain how a 40-something man returns to the Berkeley California School for the Deaf and Blind (Clark Kerr Campus, as you know it today) and becomes the 11-year-old boy of his childhood.

I spent the better part of two years at that school, daydreaming in its classrooms, kicking a football across its playing fields, climbing its rooftops when adventure or mischief (or both) swelled up in me, but mostly just wandering its hallways in idle search of who knows what.

I confess: I broke some things. Windows. Drywall. Light fixtures. Toilet paper dispensers.

No teachers ever told me to stop. How could they?

The place was abandoned.

We moved to Berkeley in the summer of 1980. My mom was an art student at Cal, and she and I lived in family housing adjacent to the Deaf and Blind school, which by then had relocated to its new campus in Fremont.

Longtime Berkeley residents will recall the legal and political battles that ensued over what should become of the site, a contentious land-use tug of war among the city, the university and the community. But for the purposes of this story, all that really matters is that the 50-acre campus — all of its buildings and facilities — sat vacant for the next two years. And it was mine to explore.

My mom’s parenting was lax even by the latchkey standards of that time, and I was free to roam unsupervised until sunset — eventually drawn home not by her edict, but by darkness and hunger. For hours on end I would venture into this mysterious, irresistible ghost town, sometimes with a pack of friends, but more often in solitude. It was quieter on your own, eerier, more surreal. And, for an introvert like me, more gratifying.

The buildings, illuminated only by diffuse sunlight, were dim labyrinths to navigate and plunder. Windowless rooms — or even, if you had the balls for it, basements — were tests of resolve, daring you to enter, flushing your body with adrenaline, excitement and fear. I never thought to bring a flashlight with me — or to consider what kinds of sketchy people I might encounter there.

Exploring the campus wasn’t a wholesome, Boy Scout, nature-and-woodworking sort of upbringing. Photo : Jason Holmberg

1981 delivered two of my generation’s cult films, “The Road Warrior” and “Escape From New York,” and I channeled them to imagine my own post-apocalyptic world of struggle and survival, of hunting and being hunted. Was it juvenile escapism? Of course. But with each step farther removed from my “real” life — a life of divorced parents, emotionally absent mom, physically absent dad; of preadolescent hormones and awkwardness and insecurity — I felt more and more like the young man I would become.

That place is a part of me, even well into adulthood, and I suspect it always will be. I smoked my first cigarette there — Kool menthol, hawked from my mom’s purse — enjoying the nicotine buzz before vomiting into the bushes. In a literal sense, too, I still bear its scars. On my thumb, gashed while climbing through a broken window. On my hip, from a nasty skateboarding abrasion. On my ankle, when I stepped through a glass skylight (and nearly fell ten feet onto the desks and chairs below).

It wasn’t a wholesome, Boy Scout, nature-and-woodworking sort of upbringing, and I cringe at the thought of my own children being (quite) so reckless and brazen. But it was formative, and it was — I only now realize — what I desperately needed: a real-life Dangerous Book for Boys experience that built my courage, curiosity and imagination in ways I never would have gotten at home.

I moved away in 1983, the same year that Clark Kerr Campus opened its first residential units. I started high school and became consumed by sports and the pursuit of girls. Then college. A job that grew into a career. Marriage. Mortgage. Kids.

Now, almost three decades later, I return to visit the old Deaf and Blind school (it will never be anything else to me). It’s winter break for Cal students, and, other than a few maintenance workers, the place is empty.

Squint your eyes a little, filter out the repairs and fresh paint, and nothing’s changed. I’m a child again, retracing familiar corridors, of the campus, of my memory.

I don’t break anything this time around, or even smoke a cigarette.

But it’s oddly tempting.

Greg Fuson is a freelance writer, blogger and conference organizer. He and his wife live in Sacramento with their two young children. And, while he hasn’t turned them loose on any abandoned buildings, he actively resists the parental instinct to over-shelter them.

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  • Bishop G. Berkeley

    99% sure it was the California School for the Deaf, not Berkeley School for the Deaf and Blind.  We called it “CSD” growing up, and a quick trip to Wikipedia seems to confirm the California School for the Deaf and California School for the Blind were (a) the names, and (b) split in 1929 or so.

  • http://berkeleyside.com Tracey Taylor

    Bishop G: Thanks for clarifying that. We have made the correction.

  • Bishop G. Berkeley

    Oh…and I loved the story by the way.  Beautifully-told experience that I think many of us probably shared growing up in Berkeley back then.  I still feel the shadows of CSD whenever I walk through “Clark Kerr.”

  • http://dashandbella.blogspot.com/ Phyllis Grant

    it will always be the deaf and blind school to me. i grew up 200 feet from there. i smoked my first cigarette one block from there (between 2 fences on claremont blvd; menthol too, i do believe), and i wandered those deserted buildings. beautifully written.

  • Denese Bottrell

    so that’s where you got that passion for curiosity… while it wouldn’t be so smart to let your kids do the same, it would be great to give kids more room to roam, to explore, imagine and cultivate the ability to create their own safe haven… or, happiness. great article!

  • Jeanveach

    for those who read here, this is written by my fine nephew who has matured into a wonderful, creative, caring, super-talented man in spite of a challenging past.   I am so proud.   To Greg, rock on.   Love you so much.   Jean

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.osborn.587 David Osborn

    Hello,
    My name is David Osborn and I am deaf and blindness person. Right now I am 48 years old.
    I live in Nevada.  I was the student at the old California school for the Deaf and Blind in Berkeley in 1969 to 1982.
    We have moved to new California school for the deaf and blind Fremont.  I love both Berkeley and Fremont. They are so beautiful.. I miss my both schools from Berkeley and Fremont.  Anyone who can leave me message on my facebook. So, I can read your message on my facebook. Smile :) :)

  • Azaruba07

    I grew up at CSDB, Yes, there some ghosts around at the campus. They never really bother us but of course it is so creepy. I am pretty sure they do make alot of notices, but Lucky for us that we cannot hear them but do see them! 

  • Azaruba07

    xx noticesxxx Noises… 

  • celestial99

    I’m really glad to find out the CSD is still standing in berkeley. I have wanted to “roam through the ghostly hallways” there for quite some time and am planning on going there tomorrow. I grew up in a different way with CSD. Both my father and mother worked there (and met there) from 1962 until retirement (from fremont campus) in 2000. They worked in the administration. My dad was property controller and he would often take me to work with him there in berkeley. I remember how much I loved it there, not as a student, but just as a kid walking around with my dad and having lunch with my mom in her office. Both my parents passed away last summer, but I am looking forward to going to the old CSD campus and I bet I will be able to feel their presence with me.