Park People Profile: Carl Anthony

Environmental Justice pioneer Carl Anthony speaking at a Bioneer event in 2006

Carl Anthony, a leader in the movement for environmental justice, played a pivotal role in the establishment of what is today Cesar Chavez Park. In 1984, the architectural firm he headed won a contract with the City of Berkeley to develop a plan for the waterfront. Through a series of public hearings, they developed a comprehensive plan to develop the waterfront as a shoreline park that would connect with similar parks in the neighboring cities north and south. Anthony emerged as the chief professional architect of the whole waterfront development planning process. In his recent book, The Earth, the City, and the Hidden Narrative of Race, he describes the context:

On the north side of the Berkeley Marina now lies César Chávez Park, a ninety-acre park on former landfill that is a well-loved spot for walking, picnicking, and kite flying. Looking west across the San Francisco Bay from its grassy slopes, one beholds magnificent panoramic views of the San Francisco skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marin Headlands. The value of this view, however, has not always been recognized and appreciated.

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century when the gold rush brought hordes of people to the San Francisco Bay Area, the dumping of construction debris, sewage, and all sorts of discards into the shallow edges of the bay became common practice. These landfills served a two-fold purpose: convenient waste disposal sites and the creation of valuable new land on the bay’s edge, commonly referred to as bayfill.

When the bay was deepened starting in the early nineteenth century to enable larger ships to enter and navigate its harbors, the dredged material was also deposited at the bay’s shallow edges.

When I moved to Berkeley in the earlier 1970s, I heard from friends who had grown up in the area that the Berkeley waterfront had been used as a landfill for a hundred years. In 1957, the City of Berkeley declared the site an official dump and constructed dikes to contain municipal waste. They charged residents a fee to deposit their old refrigerators, furniture, leftover building materials, cans, bottles, newspapers, and other refuse on the western side of the railroad tracks.

Most of the land on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay, much of it bayfill, was owned by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, commonly abbreviated as Santa Fe. Controversy arose over proposals by Santa Fe Realty, the company that handled the railroad’s properties, to develop this land. Railroads and their holding companies owned huge tracts of land in every major city in California, and many were trying to come up with real estate development plans for the sites. In the early 1980s, Santa Fe Realty advocated for office and retail development in Berkeley’s waterfront that would amount to a new downtown, asserting that this was the best use for the land because it would result in the highest monetary value. If the city decided to keep the land as open space, Santa Fe threatened to sue, protesting that by doing so, the city would be denying the company the land’s full potential value.

The conflict between the City and Santa Fe was a legendary battle in which the City emerged victorious. (Sierra club leader Norman La Force describes it in detail in his book, Creating the Eastshore State Park: An Activist History.) As Anthony notes, the City at the time had a black Mayor (Gus Newport), a black City Manager (Wise Allen), and four of the nine City Council members were black (Newport, Maudelle Shirek, Wesley Hester, and Barbara Lashley). The role of African-American political leaders was so key in this struggle that Santa Fe hired a prominent black planning firm to promote its development scheme. But although black advocates played prominent roles on both sides, the black working-class community in South Berkeley, which then made up about 20 per cent of the city, had almost no voice in the process. This silence deeply troubled Anthony. While his professional career flourished — he also worked on the development of Mission Bay in San Francisco — he felt a sinking feeling inside. He had been an activist for social and racial justice for a quarter century, and felt deeply distressed by the narrowness of black involvement in environmental and urban planning issues. Seeking to arouse wider engagement, he writes the essay, “Why African Americans Should Be Environmentalists.” Not long after, he meets environmental activist David Brower. Brower invites him to join the board of his Earth Island Institute. Anthony hesitates:

I was skeptical about the value of getting involved with a bunch of environmentalists whom I was certain had little understanding of how racism causes social and environmental injustice and even less interest in finding out. I understood that the issues people were complaining about—global warming, chopping down trees, or squandering resources—could not be addressed without considering the predicaments and needs of workers and inner-city residents.

But Brower eventually wins him over. Anthony joins on condition that Earth Island will start a new project focusing on the urban social justice issues that the environmental movement had been avoiding. Anthony founds The Urban Habitat Program, the first organization with a multiracial social justice agenda in the environmental movement. At the same time, Anthony becomes a member and then chair of the Berkeley Planning Commission, and works to resolve land use conflicts such as the Bayer Company development and the West Berkeley plan. Together with others, he founds Race, Poverty and the Environment: A Newsletter for Social and Environmental Justice, the first publication of its kind. He works on his life’s task of linking the struggle for justice with issues of design, planning, and conservation in a great variety of settings, all described in The Earth, the City, and the Hidden Narrative of Race. (Disclosure: I narrated the audiobook edition.) After many travels Anthony is again a resident of Berkeley. With Paloma Pavel, he has founded Breakthrough Communities, a project dedicated to building multiracial leadership for sustainable communities in California and the rest of the nation. Among his other engagements, Anthony is a member of the Board of Directors of the Chavez Park Conservancy.

Our big sister nonprofit, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, has just published a very useful list of readings and other media, titled “Anti-Racism and Social Justice Resources for the Parks and Beyond.” Do check it out. I’m pulling out here three of the dozens of offerings that I looked at and found particularly provocative.

For those who want more detail about Carl Anthony’s book, The Earth, the City, and the Hidden Narrative of Race, I’ve written a review, available here.

One thought on “Park People Profile: Carl Anthony

  • July 3, 2020 at 9:28 pm

    this is great! I didn’t know this history or about Carl Anthony. Thank you!!

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