New: Book Report: The Berkeley Pit

Cousin Eric was in town this weekend. There was some sight-seeing. One place of interest was Berkeley. My parents pointed out some places of interest for the Free Speech Movement: here was the place where folks stood atop the police car. Ah, Berkeley history, the subject of The Berkeley Pit.

It's a history of Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue; it's a story of a place turned toxic; it's a story of liberals ripping each other apart. It's "an historical novel", a story of Berkeley that reaches from the 60s to the 80s.

One of the story's protagonists is from Butte, home of The Berkeley Pit, a huge abandoned pit mine, a superfund site, a hole in the ground full of toxins. In perhaps a dozen years, enough water will leach into the pit to overflow, sending out an evil flood to poison Montana's water supply. Where did the Berkeley Pit come from? Our protagonist found out by studying his family history. Butte was a copper mining city. It wasn't always a pit mine. But when the copper started to run out, the mining companies dug the pit--tearing down the city itself to dig.

The protagonist comes to Berkeley and sees the same thing happen again. Folks in Berkeley and Oakland, trying to make the world a better place. It's the time of the Free Speech Movement. There is a resource to be mined here--a community of people willing to act. But as time goes on, saner voices are shouted down by those who don't care what the protest movement does but know that if they protest something then they can lead that protest.

The narrator--not to be confused with "the protagonist" (OK, really, the book has more that one protagonist, depending on how you count these things)--is strange. She is a writing teacher; she encourages her students to write clearly, strongly, not hold anything back. And yet we know she does this herself. When corresponding with our protagonist...

I saw no need to send Harry bad news from here, bbut perhaps I should have mentioned, for instance, the first murder in People's Park. Instead I wrote him about our "Writers' Campus Sit-in" for divestment in apartheid South Africa... I sent him a photo of my grand-daughter, but I never sent the Daily Cal photo of two middle-aged "progressive" city council members grinning in fierce defiance at constituents (including me and my neighbors) who had defeated another of their misbegotten schemes.

It's painful to write about the sometimes-bad results of our well-intended acts. You try a lot of stuff; it doesn't always work out. It's not nice to face the fact that your stuff didn't all work out well, to tell other folks about it. But if we don't do so, others follow in our footsteps.

Years pass; hippies retreat to their houses. A few street people are still good-hearted free spirits, but they are mostly crowded out by thieving addicts and kids playing at homelessness. That guy who used to live in a communal hippie squat is now running a crack house.

Along the way: the Black Panthers, Peoples Park, the rise of AIDS. Oh, and the hard life of Berkeley bookstores: this book goes well with The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah, the Codys keep showing up.

A bleak book and a darned good read. Check it out.

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Posted 2009-12-21