California 9th District
On the East Bay opposite San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley stand today on one of the lushest sites in America, overlooking the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge and basking in the sunshine that is more common here than across the bay. Both cities host great institutions, but in different ways they are also museum pieces, antiques from a moment in the 1960s when both, especially Berkeley, gained identities that became hard to shake.
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Berkeley was founded as a university town, named after the 18th-century Irish philosopher Bishop George Berkeley for his proclamation, “Westward the course of empire takes its way.” Famous for years as the home of first-rate scholarship at the University of California, Berkeley became famous politically in 1964 as ground zero of student rebellion when an administrator’s refusal to let students set up a table to sign up volunteers for Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign led to months of riots, student strikes, and classroom confrontation. In 1969, students led protests at “People’s Park,” a lot owned by the university, and Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan sent in the National Guard to protect state property: an episode in which both sides relished the confrontation. Berkeley gave birth to a street culture that still exists. Its denizens made common cause with the quasi-political Black Panthers from nearby Oakland, and smoked marijuana with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. With its view of the bay, the campus is beautiful, and old buildings like the shingled Claremont Hotel are grand, although construction of new offices and apartment buildings created a more modern feel by 2008. All of those yoga classes, bean sprouts, and healthy lifestyles led in 2007 to a life expectancy in Berkeley of 83 years, five years longer than the national average.
Oakland has a different history, centered on commerce and building its own civic institutions. (Gertrude Stein was wrong: There is a there there.) It became the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad in 1870 and was connected by ferry to San Francisco. It has always had heavy industry, and its port today is the busiest on the bay. The docks attracted young roustabouts like the writer Jack London, after whom a downtown square is named. Civic affairs were run by the local elite, like the Knowland family who owned the Oakland Tribune. With the Bay Area’s largest black community, Oakland spawned the Black Panthers. African-American leaders began to dominate city government in the 1970s and the Tribune in the 1980s. Then Jerry Brown came on the scene. Governor of California 20 years earlier and an unsuccessful presidential candidate several times over, he ran an unorthodox campaign for mayor, and won. Brown irritated local factions by firing department heads and ignoring long-standing alliances, but he seemed to take seriously his mission of propelling Oakland to prominence. With his tough talk on crime and advocacy of big commercial-development projects that drove up rents, he sounded like a conservative. He even set up a military high school. Crime rates dropped, and the local economy thrived, partly with the growth of middle-income refugees from the exorbitant housing costs of San Francisco. But many longtime residents, especially African-Americans, complained about rising costs, and they in turn moved to the outskirts. The black population fell from 47% in 1980 to about 30% in 2007. In 2006, Brown was elected state attorney general. His successor as mayor was former Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums.
The 9th Congressional District of California consists of Oakland and Berkeley, plus Castro Valley. It has the largest African-American percentage of any northern California district (22.1% in 2007), and also has high percentages of Hispanics (21.5%) and Asians (16.2%). Politically, it may be the most left-wing district in the nation. It voted 86%-13% for John Kerry in 2004 and 88%-10% for Barack Obama in 2008.