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From Trash to Treasure

Cesar Chavez Park on the Berkeley waterfront is today a gem among urban recreation areas. Thirty years ago, it was the Berkeley municipal dump. This book of original photographs shows off the park’s splendors: the spectacular views from its shoreline and the plants, animals, and people who may be seen inside its boundaries.


Two  hundred years ago, this area was a fertile wetland where indigenous people enjoyed a great and sustainable natural abundance.  Tens of thousands of Europeans invaded and settled the region after the Gold Rush of 1848. They dispossessed, ejected, or killed most of the original inhabitants. 

The newly formed cities used the shoreline as their sewage and garbage dumps. By 1960, dumped waste already filled more than one third of the Bay and destroyed more than 80 per cent of the original wetlands. Trash fires stunk up the sky all along the Berkeley shoreline and glowed red throughout the night. The wind smelled of raw sewage. 

In 1960, the Santa Fe Railroad (which owned most of the shoreline) announced a plan to double the size of Berkeley by filling 2,000 additional acres of the Bay with garbage as a foundation for commercial development. 

The next year, three Berkeley women said “Enough!” and started the Save the Bay Association. Esther Gulick, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Kay Kerr, began a popular movement that soon enlisted the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and many other groups and individuals. These environmental activists, together with local political leaders Tom Bates and Loni Hancock, and their allies in neighboring cities, fought for decades to stop the dumping, preserve or restore the natural habitats, and dedicate the whole East Bay shoreline to public use and enjoyment. 

Cesar Chavez Park is one fruit of that long struggle. Dumping began here around 1909. In 1957, the City built dikes to contain the garbage; these form the boundaries of the park today. I remember dumping an old bed frame and mattress here in the late 1970s. It was a rough place with roaring trucks and bulldozers. Mobs of sea gulls screamed overhead and fought gangs of rats for anything remotely edible. 

In the 1980s, Berkeley voters elected a progressive majority to the city council and passed key ballot initiatives to acquire and preserve coastal park lands. The city stopped dumping on its shoreline. The Ecology Center and Urban Ore took over much of the city’s waste handling and the city began recycling in place of dumping. 

In 1991, with the help of a grant from the Coastal Conservancy, the City of Berkeley sealed the hills of garbage by covering them with clay and topsoil and spreading seeds. Soon thereafter the city opened the area to the public under the name North Waterfront Park. 

In 1996 the city council renamed the park in honor of Cesar Chavez, the founder and leader of the United Farm Workers Union. The creation of Cesar Chavez Park couldn’t restore the original wetlands and their indigenous civilization. But it cleaned up a giant mess and put a stop to further environmental devastation in this area. As I walk among these verdant hills I am mindful of the area’s history and grateful to all those who turned this trash into the treasure it is today.