A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, November 24, 2008

The last Republican mayor of Berkeley

(Above: Downtown Berkeley BART station)

How come the BART stations in Richmond, El Cerrito and North Oakland are above ground, but the ones in Berkeley aren't?
It's due to one man: Wallace Johnson, the last Republican mayor of Berkeley.
Yes, Republican. The G.O.P. dominated the city council well into the 1960s.
That all changed, of course. But Johnson had one last hurrah when he ran for re-election in 1967. He won with 71 percent of the vote, defeating Yippee leader Jerry Rubin, Trotskyite Peter Camejo and Fred Huntley of the John Birch Society. (I told you Berkeley was a different town in those days, didn't I?)
BART planned to build an underground station in downtown Berkeley; but the north Berkeley and south Berkeley stations would be above ground, and so would the tracks between stations.
Johnson, who knew a little something about civil engineering himself - he graduated with honors from Cal Tech - thought that would be a disaster for Berkeley. The elevated tracks would be a scar running straight through the middle of town, exacerbating the city's class and racial divisions by creating a right side and a wrong side of the tracks.
BART stonewalled him for 3 1/2 years, but Johnson was undaunted. At his own expense, he constructed scaffolding at the sites of the proposed north and south Berkeley stations. The scaffolding was the same height as the proposed stations, to show people how much the stations would encroach on the neighborhood.
In 1966, again using his own money, he launched the Bury The Tracks campaign, a drive to hold a special election for a ballot measure that would tax Berkeley residents to pay for undergrounding all three stations plus 3 1/4 miles of track.
Drawing support from across the political spectrum, the Bury The Tracks campaign was backed by both the Community for New Politics on the left and the Berkeley Taxpayers Association on the right.
The ballot measure won with an astounding 83 percent of the vote.
"It's amazing, even now, to think about it," marvels Johnson's friend, Jim Hartman, chairman emeritus of the Alameda County Republican Central Committee. "Eighty-three percent of the taxpayers voted to take money out of their own pockets!"
And it's all due to one man. Wally Johnson saved Berkeley from sharing the same fate that West Oakland suffered when it was cut in half by the Cypress structure.
And yet there's no statue of him in this city. Not even a plaque. It's a disgrace.
When he died in 1979 at age 66, the now-defunct Berkeley Gazette editorialized that the best tribute would be to name the downtown Berkeley BART station after him.
That was almost 30 years ago, but nothing has happened.
If you think this is a miscarriage of justice as much as I do, please contact the BART board and let them have a piece of your mind. Write them at P.O. Box 12688, Oakland, CA 94604-2688; e-mail boardofdirectors@bart.gov ; or call 510-464-6095.
By the way, Johnson was no Johnny one-note. He was also the mayor who established curbside recycling in Berkeley, and, as a member of the BART board, he was decades ahead of his time in pushing for disability access at BART stations.
He was a successful businessman/inventor whose patented portable aluminum scaffolding and wine grape harvesting machines were sold worldwide by Up-Right Inc., a company he founded in Berkeley in 1947.
He held more than 70 patents, including a baseball pitching machine, a swimming pool cover and a flush toilet for dogs.
He also donated land in the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Boy Scouts for Camp Lindblad, which thousands of Cub Scouts throughout the Bay Area enjoy each summer. And together with his wife, Marion, he founded Chaparral House, a pioneering non-profit intermediate care facility serving 49 low and moderate income seniors in Berkeley.
Wally Johnson was a true original. And he deserves to be remembered


Richards Lyon MD said...

I knew the man well. He was all you claim, and his machine picker was a first for sure. I was at the meetings with Jerry Rubin, often sitting beside him, and recognized what he really was but could not visualize what he meant to do, save take control As Wally knew, the only bone I had to pick with him was the length of the council meetings, for we Berkeleyans had to get some sleep for next day's work, and Rubin and his buddies would out-stay us. Wally was shooting for the Presidency, so can be excused as these early morning meetings made useful headlines. However, undergrounding the train did not prevent the downhill slide that started in those days.

Anonymous said...

Wallace Johnson's Healdsburg ranch is the Field Stone Winery. The winery is still owned by family members. Their wine tour made a special effort to discuss the Berkeley connection when we said we were from Berkeley. It's well worth the trip.