Berkeley History

Berkeley Historical Plaques: Crowd-sourcing history

“S.P. Train, Shattuck Ave.,” postcard (ca.1909), Sarah Wikander collection

Finding out about Berkeley’s history just got a whole lot easier.

The organizations responsible for putting up green and white oval plaques on historical sites around the city have created a new website, but one with a twist.

In addition to short articles about the background of each of the 100 plaques around town, there is a section devoted to other historical and cultural markers that make Berkeley interesting. The “E-Plaque” section of the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project doesn’t just have descriptions of important and imposing buildings, but includes the zany and unusual things that make Berkeley unique. In short, the E-Plaques celebrate people and ideas, not necessarily just places.

There is an E-Plaque about the newt crossing in Tilden Park. There is an E-Plaque about the 1908 Morrell Airship collapse – the nation’s first major airship disaster, which happened in Berkeley. Other E-Plaques include histories of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and Patty Hearst’s kidnapping from her Benvenue Avenue apartment. Coming attractions will include information about the summer Bill and Hilary Clinton stayed in Berkeley, the “Waving Man,” the singer Malvina Reynolds, Star Grocery, and more.

“All plaques, be they virtual or real, relate to place,” said Robert Kehlmann, artist, former chair of the Landmarks Commission and the chairman and founder of the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project. “Ultimately the idea is to get a portrait of Berkeley, written by Berkeley. Kind of a self-portrait.”

The installation of the physical plaques on historic buildings began in 1997 and was spearheaded by the city of Berkeley, its Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Berkeley Architectural Historical Association.  There are now around 100 plaques affixed to historic sites around town, places like Old City Hall, the Berkeley Municipal Pier, and the Santa Fe Railway Depot on University Avenue.

The new website, which came online on July 4, 2012, aims to be a place where people can crowd-source Berkeley’s history by writing their own vignettes and uploading historic photos and videos. The site is filled with vintage pictures of Berkeley, including dozens of pictures from the collection of Sarah Wikander, whose 2005 book, Picturing Berkeley, had many historic postcards. There are also historic photos from the BAHA archives and the personal collection of Anthony Bruce, BAHA’s executive director.

Fred Block, a Berkeley resident who teaches sociology at UC Davis, was so taken with the idea of creating a community-centered collaborative historical website about Berkeley, one that tried to capture its zeitgeist, that he decided to write an entry on the now-defunct Buttercup Bakery on College Avenue. Block had spent time there when he was a graduate student at UC Berkeley and he was intrigued about the way it was linked to the growth of three major industries – personal finance, computers, and biotech.

It holds that distinction because Suze Orman, the financial guru, was a waitress there; Kary Mullis, a UC Berkeley PhD who helped to create a process that helped the rapid replication of a single strand of DNA, was a manager there; and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple, ate there.

“While well-loved for its breakfasts and baked goods, the Buttercup Bakery should also be remembered for four people who exemplify Berkeley’s role in the strange and sudden transition from the anti-establishment counterculture of the 1970s to mainstream business successes,” Block wrote in his entry.

The website “to me, is a great idea,” said Block. “It’s a way to give people a stronger connection to the places they pass by on a daily basis. I have been telling people that story of the Buttercup and its connection to the businesses of the 1980s for quite a while.”

Donna Graves was the project director and lead historian for California Japantowns, a statewide project that documents the numerous pre-World War II Japantowns. She studied Berkeley’s thriving Japanese community for the project and now plans to write up some of her findings for the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project, including an entry on Chiura Obata, a renowned painter and UC Berkeley professor. She has also spearheaded an interpretive project for the city on Frances Albrier and San Pablo Park, and that information is also heading to the website.

“There are obviously barriers to getting up a (physical) plaque and this is a great way to get up information about the local community,” said Graves. “There’s a flexibility to what’s being recognized. What’s nice about this website is it can capture many dimensions abut what is important to a community.”

The non-profit Berkeley Historical Plaque Project is all volunteer run and relies on financial support from the community to keep going. Supporters can even sponsor a plaque.

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  • Graham Chisholm

    Wonderful project.  While described as a history crowd-sourcing site, it doesn’t appear easy to upload words and images related to current plaques nor potential plaques or at least yet.  There are a number of interesting tools that could be used to upload information easily such as HistoryPin.  Look forward to seeing the site develop.  Thanks.  Graham Chisholm

  • Lou

    Cool thing! Will there be those fully little images on the plaques so people can call up the website on their portable devices? That should be essential in this day and age!

  • http://twitter.com/looneyrooneycom Chris Rooney

    With the huge archive of vintage Berkeley photos out there and probably stored away gathering dust in various places, something like this site that geocodes old photos of San Francisco would be cool too: http://www.oldsf.org 

  • Frances Dinkelspiel

     As of now people have to email in their contributions. By crowd sourcing, I meant the organizers are hoping lots of people will send in photos or write mini histories for E-Plaques

  • serkes

    Consider adding the sites, photos and comments to Foursquare too.    The tips will pop up if you’re nearby.

    https://foursquare.com

    I geocode most of my photos around town (iPhone does it automatically)

    Would be great if they set up a flickr group (perhaps they already have) so people can share photos – that’s the way Berkeleyside does it.

    http://www.flickr.com/groups/berkeleyside

    Ira