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El Cerrito History Day shows community's diversity

Speakers representing the diverse groups that have contributed to the city's history spoke at El Cerrito History Day Dec. 5.

As Councilman Mark Friedman noted in his opening remarks, historical accounts have too often really been the "history of white people." The afternoon's speakers addressed the roles of Chinese, Portuguese, African-American and Japanese people in El Cerrito's history, as well as the individuals' own experiences.

The event, held in the Veterans Hall, was cosponsored by Celebrating Culture & Community, the City of El Cerrito, and the El Cerrito Historical Society.

Art Schroeder, general history

Art Schroeder, chairman of the El Cerrito Historical Society, urged longtime residents to open their doors to researchers wishing to interview them about the history of the area. He said local historians still have many questions. One riddle they are trying to solve is who built the stone walls in Poinsett, Huber and Arlington parks.

Schroeder also read from a description of El Cerrito from a 1933 Federal Writers Project publication:

EL CERRITO (the little hill) 80.6 m. (10-500 alt., 3,870 pop.), straggles along the highway for more than two miles. Beyond a procession of gaudy signboards, gas stations, and road stands, are scattered suburban bungalows; in nearby vacant lots, family goats feed on yellow buttercups in the spring. At the El Cerrito embarcadero, in early days, travelers landed from Don Victor Castro's whaleboat ferry, first to connect San Francisco with Contra Costa; Don Victor acquired it in exchange for his vegetable crop. Travelers were entertained in the 14-room Castro Adobe, which stands in a eucalyptus grove on San Pablo Ave. Its older part, the low south wing, is said to have have been built by Don Francisco himself before 1831. In the 1850's his son Victor built the two-story, balconied central section. Walls four feet thick guard a fountain, a winding staircase, and a tiny chapel, where mission fathers sometimes said mass (now altered beyond recognition).

El Cerrito Creek, 82.3 m., forms the boundary between Contra Costa and Alameda Counties and between the cities of El Cerrito and Albany. On Aug. 16, 1820, Sgt. Luis Peralta, his sons, Domingo and Antonio, his friend, Lieut. Ignacio Martinez, and two or three soldiers, arrived here on horseback. "Unto this point, Senor, I wish possession," said Peralta to Martinez, the Governor's representative. Thus the Arroyo del Cerrito de San Antonio (Sp., gulch of the little hill of St. Anthony) was decreed the boundary between Rancho San Pablo and Peralta's 48,000-acre Rancho San Antonio, within whose boundaries lie today the cities of Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Piedmont, Oakland, Alameda, and San Leandro.

Edith Gong, on Chinese settlers

Having moved to the city 25 years ago, Edith Gong of the Chinese Cultural & Educational Association of West Contra Costa calls herself a relative newcomer.

Her research shows that many Chinese were employed in plants making explosives in the late 1800s. One article told of an explosion in which five white men and six Chinese men were killed. Another article indicates that most of the workers in another explosives plants were Chinese men.

Early Chinese residents of the area lived in shacks at the bottom of Albany Hill, she said.

During prohibition during the 1920s, El Cerrito was an "open town" where bootlegging and gambling were prevalent. In her research, she found information about a business that sold Chinese food in the front, but offered gambling in the back.

The site that is now home to Windrush School at one time housed a home for Chinese boys who were orphans or from broken homes. It was founded in 1920 in Berkeley, and moved to El Cerrito in 1936.

The shipyards in Richmond during World War II drew more Chinese to the area.

In 1975 Chinese-American families with children in area schools started a program to teach their children about their culture, a program that continued until the 1980s. The cultural association now does community work, sponsors cultural events, and offers scholarships.

Patrick Souza, on Portuguese residents

Patrick Souza of the St. John's Society Brotherhood spoke on historical events that led Portuguese people to come to the United States, and on cultural activities that continue today at St John's Hall on Portola Drive.

In 1296 the queen of Portugal asked the people to pray for an end to the famine. Their prayers were answered, and the queen started a parade in honor of the Holy Spirit. The parade went from the castle to a church, and during the parade the queen loaned her crown to a girl to wear.

During the industrial revolution of the 1880s and 1890s poor Portuguese people who had no hope of owning land at home immigrated to the Bay Area in hopes of being able to work and buy their own land.

In the 1920s land was purchased and in 1926 St John's Hall was built. The local Portuguese community continued the tradition of holding a Holy Ghost celebration, parading from the hall to St John's Church. The local celebration is held each year on the fourth Sunday in June.

The hall is used as well by several other ethnic groups, some of whom lost their own meeting places over the years to development.

Vanda Jones, on African-American residents

Although she said El Cerrito was years behind the times in making Martin Luther King Day a holiday, Vanda Jones of the El Cerrito NAACP said she knew no color barrier growing up in El Cerrito.

"El Cerrito to me has always been a diverse town."

She noted that advocates struggled to get El Cerrito to make King's birthday a holiday, something that did not happen until 1994.

"The city of El Cerrito has come a long way," she said. The parade in El Cerrito for Dr. King's birthday now draws an ethnically diverse crowd of hundreds.

The next one will be Jan. 17.

"We need to keep our history going," Jones said. She noted that historical accounts are not always accurate, and that it is important that we correct what needs to be corrected.

She noted that areas of El Cerrito and Richmond used to be known as the town of Stege, and that it was a big deal for people from other areas of the Bay Area to ride trolley cars to visit this area.

George Yoshida on Japanese residents

George Yoshida of the Japanese American Citizens' League was born in 1922 and lived in Los Angeles as a child. He was held in an internment camp in Arizona for a year, then entered the US Army, and later lived in Chicago.

Now a resident of El Cerrito, he says it is "one of the best places to live."

He recounted a brief history of Isaburo Adachi, one of the first Japanese people to settle in the area. Yoshida noted that when Adachi arrived, he found mostly cows and sheep. Adachi set up a nursery, and eventually turned to growing roses. The roses were taken by ferry to wholesale markets in San Francisco.

The site of the original Adachi nursery is now occupied by Home Depot and Taco Bell.

Yoshida came to El Cerrito in 1950 and purchased land in the hills above Portola Middle School. Restrictions on the property said it was to be sold to whites only, a clause the sellers fortunately ignored.

When he went to UC Berkeley in 1950 to be trained as a teacher he was warned, "You better be twice as good." When he completed the program in September 1952 he was still without a job, though all of his white friends had already found positions. But Washington School in Berkeley needed a teacher in a hurry because one of its teachers was pregnant. He became the district's second Asian teacher. There was only one African-American teacher there at the time.

Yoshida said he was happy to have his children grow up in a racially diverse community. While there was a lot of segregation when he was younger, "Things have changed for the better."

The presentations of the different speakers, he said, show "We have more in common than we are different."

The program concluded with an El Cerrito trivia contest, with audience members answering questions such as "Where was El Cerrito's dog race track located?" (the current site of the El Cerrito Plaza) and who raised frogs in the area? (Richard Stege, to provide frogs' legs to San Francisco restaurants.)

Historical materials were on display, including transcripts from the 25 interviews Celebrating Culture & Community is conducting which are aimed at showing the diverse communities that have contributed. The group also plans to reprint historical photos.

The interviews, the photos, and History Day program have been made possible largely through support from the California Council for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the Naitonal Endowment for the Humanities.

For more information about El Cerrito History Day, Celebrating Culture & Community , contact Eve Ma at 236-3255 or ccandc_97@yahoo.com .

Tell us about the good old days!

Do you remember the good old days in El Cerrito? This section is reserved for information on the history of El Cerrito. If you'd like to share your remembrances, please send them to bbuginas@hotmail.com We'd also like to hear about links to information on the Internet pertaining to the history of El Cerrito.

Community Profile

The following profile of El Cerrito is from the draft of the General Plan, published in 1999.

As El Cerrito enters the 21st Century, there are a number of current and projected trends that are affecting, or will affect, the City's development by creating demands for new housing, shopping, and recreational facilities.

1. The City's population has been relatively stable during the past two decades, growing by only a few hundred from the 1980 census figure of 22,731 to the 1998 estimate of 23,596 (California Department of Finance, Demographics Unit).

2. The average household size is declining, from 2.76 persons in 1970 to 2.29 persons in 1990, lower than the regional average of 2.61 in 1990. The January 1998 estimate of household size was 2.32 (California Department of Finance, Demographics Unit).

3. El Cerrito's population is getting older, with a significant decrease in the number of children in the community over the past several decades (children, age 18 and under, made up 36 percent of the population in 1960, decreasing to 16 percent in 1990). There has also been a marked increase in the number of seniors (55 and older), growing from 15 percent of the population in 1960 to 32 percent in 1990. (Note that in many cases, the figures in this Community Profile rely on the 1990 Census data because more current data are not available.)

4. El Cerrito's population is becoming increasingly diverse, with significant growth in the City's Asian populations. However, in the 1990 census the City had fewer foreign-born residents than the slate average (20 percent as compared to 22 percent) and fewer residents speaking a language other than English at home (26 percent compared to 32 percent).

5. El Cerrito is a well-educated community, with 70 percent of people age 25 and over in the 1990 census having attended college (compared to 64 percent in Contra Costa County and 59 percent in Alameda County).

6. El Cerrito's average household income is lower than the county and regional averages ($63,300 in El Cerrito; $70,700 in Contra Costa County; $66,900 in the Bay Area region). This is partially due to a higher than average percentage of seniors. (Based on 1995 estimates from the National Planning Data Corporation.)

7. Multiple-unit housing has increased in the city, and the percentage of - owner-occupied units has decreased. Multiple-unit housing represented 19 percent of the City's housing stock in 1970 and 26 percent in 1997 (based on 1970 census data and January 1998 estimates from the California Department of Finance). Also, from 1970 to 1990, home ownership dropped from 70 percent of all units, to 66 percent (based on census data).


Run dates: 1999-12-05 - 2000-01-01
 


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