News & Views from 465 California Street

Bess and Joe

Clint Reilly

It was only 1932 when 25% of Americans were unemployed. Hunger was the number one political issue in America. The economy was mired in a deep depression that tested the premises of a capitalistic system and even, according to the historian Arthur Schlesinger, threatened our faith in democratic government’s ability to create economic advancement for the average citizen.

My father, Joe, grew up during the Depression in San Francisco’s Mission District. My mother, Bess, is a Berkeley native who was born and raised on Carrison Street, one block away from the intersection of Ashby and San Pablo Avenues. My mother graduated from Oakland Tech High School. Married after World War II, they initially lived with my mother’s parents in Berkeley and started a family that grew to seven boys and three girls. Later, as their family expanded, they moved again to a larger home in downtown San Leandro where my parents, now in their eighties, still live today.

My father was a milkman for Berkeley Farms Creamery – one of the last generations of milkmen who actually delivered to the home. His route was in the Berkeley Hills where his customers were primarily college professors at the University of California. My father would sometimes take me with him as his box–like milk truck inched its way up Berkeley’s Grizzly Peak Blvd. stopping not just to deliver milk, juice and ice cream but to help an elderly customer water a lawn or give a small half pint of chocolate milk to the kids who played along the way. I noticed two things about the way my dad did his job. First, he strove to be the best at what he did. Second, his customers really appreciated the extra service he gave them. I could see that they looked forward to his coming. While my dad was working six-day weeks to support his family, my mother raised the children. With occasional help from her mother, Dora – our grandmother – my mother managed a household full of children with cheaper-by-the-dozen finesse. Later, my mother went to work at the Oakland Coliseum where she ran a vending stand. When she finally retired after 24 years, my mother was one of the longest serving employees in the history of the Coliseum.

Hundreds of thousands of Bay Area natives raised families in similar circumstances in the postwar years. They settled in San Jose or Contra Costa or Fremont or San Bruno or San Francisco. They helped turn the Bay Area Region into one of the earth’s most powerful economies with one of the most educated work forces. It was these working class families, now in their eighties or gone to their graves – with only high school educations – who helped transform the Bay Area into the most affluent metropolitan area in the nation. A 2003 Stanford University study showed that the median household income in the Bay Area today is 60% above the national average. From the breadlines of the Depression, the Bay Area today has become the culinary capital of America.

The Bay Area grew from a population of 2.6 million in 1950 to over 7 million today. During this expansion, a series of newspapers chronicled the day-to-day story that led to the creation of the Bay Area behemoth. After work each day, my father and mother religiously read the Oakland Tribune. The Trib was the glue that held the East Bay together. For others, it was the Chron, the Ex, the Merc, the Times. Ink flowed through the Bay Area’s veins providing the information that enabled citizens to make enlightened choices about the future. Reading the newspaper was a daily ritual. Staying informed was a way for stakeholders to protect their stake. These working families understood the connection between knowledge of current events and their ability to shape them. Newspapers have not only written the history of the modern Bay Area, they helped our mothers and fathers make it.

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