Berkeley in the 1960s: An Unforgettable Character

Berkeley hills with Campanile

A view from the Berkeley hills

During recent visits, I have often found the city of Berkeley to be a garden on a hill, lush in its vegetation and breathtaking in its panoramas. In the stunning hill neighborhoods, redwoods soar from a neighbor’s yard as the eye feasts on tangled beach roses. Meanwhile, west beyond the flatlands and the bay, the blinding evening sun drops through the Golden Gate. A glass of wine in such a place is unlike a glass of wine anywhere else. The senses revel and rebel, and so do we.

When I wrote Playground Zero, a coming-of-age novel set in Berkeley during the counterculture movement of the 1960s, I wanted to convey something of the city’s splendor, along with the anarchy of those years. I wanted a backdrop that would contrast with the story of Alice Rayson, a girl growing up under fraying social norms as large numbers of people sought to jettison the past. The lush landscape would serve to counterbalance unsettling aspects of Alice’s story, offsetting them—not only for the reader, but also for myself during the long process of producing a novel. More ambiguously, I hoped to shine the city’s light on some of the forgotten corners of those countercultural years. After all, contrast creates meaning.

Berkeley: A Study in Jaw-Dropping Contrasts

Berkeley in the late 1960s, when psychedelic drugs were the modern moonshine, exploded with contrasts. While left-wing professors were buying up homes in the hills, blacks remained segregated in the flatlands due to a history of redlining. Telegraph Avenue, long known for its book stores and student coffee shops, was fast becoming a countercultural ground zero. Hippie communes mingled with middle-class homes throughout my family’s South Campus neighborhood. Only blocks away on a quiet cul-de-sac, Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda’s Red Family Commune was preparing for the Revolution.


Meanwhile, up in Sacramento, Ronald and Nancy Reagan had brought Hollywood-style anti-communism and astrology to the California governor’s mansion.

A Bold and Complex Character

As my work on Playground Zero progressed, the city of Berkeley—its landmark sites and events, its schools and young people, its social and political ferment—evolved into much more than a backdrop. It demanded a role as a major player in the story.

How could it be otherwise? I had lived in Berkeley from 1967–1971. I was nine through thirteen years old. As a sixth grader, I hung out with some of the younger kids on Telegraph Avenue. I was middle-class (as were some of the others; two of the boys from that group were the sons of Berkeley professors), and I managed to evade some of the uglier dimensions of the Telegraph scene, while witnessing or experiencing others. I moved to an L.A. suburb and eventually went to Harvard.

Playground Zero explores 1960s Berkeley from multiple perspectives, but mostly from a child’s eye view. We see the schools (including the experimental schools of the day), People’s Park and Bloody Thursday, the psychedelic scene, the Fillmore West—all beckoning (or was it summoning?) an adventurous and unsupervised sixth grader such as myself.

Although I remembered that place and time extremely vividly, my memories were necessarily based on incomplete understanding. I would need to do much research. Yet, grounded with convincing detail, the city of Berkeley—in its splendor and anarchy, its endless contradictions—was begging to become a character. I heard its unsettling call and followed, resolved to go where I must.

(Originally published in Have Coffee Need Books)


International Book Awards

2021 International Book Awards Finalist in Fiction: Literary

Sarah Relyea

Sarah Relyea is the author of Playground Zero, a coming-of-age novel for adults about the 1960s. Playground Zero is published by She Writes Press and available wherever books are sold.

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