75 Years Later, Co-Ops Keep Up Spirit

Photo: Berkeley Co-Ops have a long tradition of providing housing for students and encouraging diversity and community support.
Berkeley Student Cooperative/Courtesy
Berkeley Co-Ops have a long tradition of providing housing for students and encouraging diversity and community support.

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Co-op Timeline

A timeline of the co-ops over the past 75 years accompanied by an excerpt of a speech by Leon Litwack.

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Abolition of the loyalty oath and the ROTC. Anti-discrimination in housing and hiring. They were the bold challenges proposed by a young co-op boarder running for ASUC executive committee in the conservative years of the Cold War.

"I ran four times for ASUC executive committee ... and four times I went down to a resounding defeat, despite the endorsement I received from the UC Cooperative Association," the former co-oper said.

That co-oper is known today as Leon Litwack, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus and Pulitzer Prize winner. During Saturday's 75th anniversary gala of the Berkeley Student Cooperative, Litwack thanked the co-ops for sustaining him not only with hearty meals, but with stimulating debates that questioned convention.

"You know when I look at the platform today, that was a damn good platform," Litwack said.

As a boarder at Cloyne Court, Oxford Hall and Ridge Hall from 1948-51, the co-ops offered a liberal, intellectual atmosphere lacking and suppressed during his college years, he said.

Today the Berkeley Student Cooperative is the largest student co-op in North America, made up of 17 houses and three apartment buildings with about 1,250 members. Berkeley co-op members make up about 13 percent of the nearly 10,000 students who live in co-ops in North America, according to Jim Jones, senior director of development and property services of the North American Students of Cooperation.

Historically, the Berkeley co-ops have served students who are looking for an economical place to live.

"The co-ops have provided an opportunity for people with low income to have affordable housing," said Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates at the gala. "It's been a wonderful blessing to have that resource for people to be able to come to the university and have housing and not pay for an arm or a leg."

Back in 1933, the annual co-op room and board rate was $171, compared to the UC Berkeley dorm rate of $180. Now, 75 years later, it costs $6,096 to live in a co-op annually, while a double room in Units 1, 2 and 3 costs $13,170.

From political activism in the early '60s for racial justice to the recent tree-sitters in Memorial Stadium, the co-ops continue to uphold the city's progressive spirit, said Steven Finacom, local historian and board member of the Berkeley historical society.

For Guy Lillian, a co-op member from 1969-71, tear gas, police dogs and national guards who shot into demonstrators are among his most vivid memories as a Berkeley co-oper.

The co-ops were a place to exchange ideas, influencing him to join causes that supported decency over brutality, he said.

When he stayed at Barrington Hall and Cloyne Court, controversial political figures were invited to talk about the war and for revolutionary change. One speaker was Tom Hayden, a member of the Chicago Eight, charged for conspiracy when he led the 1968 peace demonstration outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Lillian was tear-gassed for the first time at the 1969 Third World Liberation Front strike at Berkeley, led by minority members calling for an ethnic studies department on campus. The demonstrators were aggressive and the protest soon turned ugly as helicopters dropped tear gas on students, leaving many people sick, Lillian said.

"We were being accused and hurt just to make politicians look tough. It was worthwhile, worth doing, you felt there was nothing ideological about it, it was simply decent," Lillian said.

Several co-ops, most notably Barrington Hall, became leaders in political activism on campus, Finacom said.

"I think every protest movement they had a role-in the Third World strike in the late '60s, People's Park, and as you got into the '80s, the anti-apartheid protest," he said.

But activism did not end with the '80s. For the past two years, many co-opers backed the tree-sitters and their cause to save the oaks in Memorial Stadium, said graduate student Felicia Becerra from Davis House.

The co-ops also pushed social boundaries during the '70s and '80s, a time when the houses were notorious for their drug scenes.

During the 1970s, police would raid co-ops in search for drugs, during which members would scatter from the house, said Wally Trujillo, a former house manager for Oxford Hall, which closed in 1977 due to seismic reasons.

"It was my job to notify the rest of the members to go out the back when the cops showed up," Trujillo said.

Berkeley residents complained about drug use at large co-ops in those years, Finacom said, and Barrington Hall closed in 1989 as residents brought legal suits against the co-op for violating fire safety codes and claiming the co-op was involved in drug dealing.

During the '70s, the co-ops often butted heads with the Cal Greek community, which has been around since the 1870s. The Greek community was more conservative than co-ops in the '70s, and its popularity declined while the co-ops grew, Finacom said.

"A lot of the Greek councils closed and several of the co-ops today are located at fraternities and sororities that the co-ops bought in the '70s," he said.But today, co-ops and Greek houses share a strong academic focus, Finacom said. Still, the image of indulgent debauchery sticks in the minds of some Berkeley students today.

"All I know about co-ops is for their wild parties, and they're really hippie," said senior Danny Song.

Junior Gabriel Gordon-Harper, a member in Andres Castro Arms, said the co-ops have adapted well with the times while retaining their culture of love and community.

"I can't imagine a place you can get more bang for your buck, with a loving family, organic five-course meal cooked for you, a stunning view of the bay and surrounded by all your friends," he said.

Tags: CO-OP

Carol Yur covers housing. Contact her at [email protected]

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