We originally came to the Bay Area expecting to stay exclusively in San Francisco, but our timing was off: my work required a long daily slog, and Rachel’s semester of fashion classes kept her nights early and her days long.
So what were we doing in crowded San Francisco when what we really needed was more space and a slower pace? After an excursion on a food tour of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, I was enchanted by what I saw.
The North Berkeley Hills (in spring, mind you) are a wonderland of lush winding paths, and bountiful gardens where ancient redwoods nestle between 100 year-old homes.
You want to pause at every front yard and meditate carefully on the blooms in front of you, hoping you’re adequately saving a mental picture (and aroma) to conjure up later.
“Serenity Now!” you shout as you thank the Lord for the pacific marine layer and volcanic soil that make this Garden of Eden possible.
Nearly every day in the North Berkeley Hills, I got lost on walks in our neighborhood.
I took time to greet and sniff strange new flowers. I talked to ducks in a neighbor’s front yard, I marveled at a local “Hobbit House,” and I gawked at upcycled garden decor, and I’m pretty sure I randomly burst into song.
After showing our friend Ellen my favorite hills sights, she made some thought-provoking observations that inspired me to do a little research.
When I learned about the area’s history, it opened my eyes to the incredible power of good urban planning.
This area is the intentional realization of a late-1800’s counterculture collective known as the Hillside Club.
In the late 19th century, the North Berkeley Hills established itself as “Nut Hill,” as told in Berkeley, A City in History by Charles Wollenberg. He adds, “The ‘Nut’ may have either referred to the vegetarian diet of some of the residents, or to the fact that hill-dwellers were often considered pretty weird by their fellow citizens.”
Enter the hero of the story: Charles Keeler.
Keeler was a naturalist and poet who in the 1890’s, recognized the beauty of the pristine Berkeley Hills. In building his home, Keeler rejected the gawdy Victorian buildings of the era in favor of something that would blend with, and preserve, the landscape.
Wollenberg describes Keeler as a vegetarian who kept an unfashionably long beard and wore a beret. Another telling anecdote explains how Keeler and his wife named their son “boy” so that at the appropriate age, he could choose his own name.
Keeler hired superstar San Francisco architect Bernard Maybeck (of the Palace of Fine Arts) to build him a wooden home with shingles over the entire thing. Today, most other houses in North Berkeley are in this style (mixed with a few Victorian-style homes). The shingled house became a major statement of the American Arts and Crafts movement, according to Wollenberg.
The Arts and Crafts movement rejected industrial production in favor of independent artists and craftsmen, and I see tremendous parallels with today’s anti-digital and anti-corporate movements like the rise of handmade goods, sustainable and fair trade practices, upcycling, and the Occupy movement.
“The few native trees that have survived centuries should be jealously preserved … Bend the road, divide the lots, place the houses to accommodate them!”, cries a Hillside Club pamphlet.
Today, many cities are returning to the notions Charles Keeler and the Hillside Club launched over 100 years ago.
Visionaries and city planners around the world are rethinking urbanization, realizing that sprawl doesn’t work, and are returning to “The City Beautiful” movement espoused by urban renewal visionaries like Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida.
How ironic that a more human plan was espoused by “nuts” all along.
I’m still astounded that over 100 years ago, the Hillside Club figured out the beautiful balance between nature and neighborhood. From the philosophical to the technical tidbits of rightsizing the road and socially publicizing their ideas, they created a long-lasting special place that I got to enjoy frolicking through.
100 years after the fact, the Hillside Club’s landscape legacy continues to inspire, and their tradition is carried forward in new ways: bike boulevards, solar panels, California cuisine (it was invented here!), and a cool arts & crafts-inspired font on all City signage.
I will always remember the awakening of my naturalist tendencies on Nut Hill.
Back then, I was worried what the neighbors thought seeing me stop in every yard to smell the roses. Now I know that if I hadn’t stopped, they would have had cause for concern.