After living in Berkeley for the past eight years, I decided to find a way to meet the vast amount of interesting residents packed into our little city. In 2021, I began photographing and interviewing Berkeley writers, artists, business owners, LGBTQ+ leaders, and personalities about their lives and professions.
Thanks to everyone I’ve spoken with for offering their time and insights.
©2022 Jessie Johnson. Interviews edited for length and clarity.
Jessica Ferri is a writer who recently moved to the hills of Berkeley with her husband, son, and French Bulldog Ralphie. Jessica grew up in Georgia and then spent over a decade in New York before moving to California. She is the author of “Silent Cities San Francisco” and “Silent Cities New York”, which explore the region’s burial histories, relocations, and notable grave sites. Now teaching in Berkeley, Jessica is also working on her first novel about art and motherhood.
So is this where you work?
This room is the reason why I wanted to see the house. I found it on Craigslist. And I saw this picture of the built in bookshelves and I was like, we have to go see this house. The dream was always to have an office like this. The first time my husband and I came to Berkeley was when we looked at this house.
Were you an avid reader as a kid?
I always loved to read. We had a fair amount of books in the house. My mom always had interesting books on the bookshelf, like “Wuthering Heights”, “Orlando”… And as a kid, I remember being really curious about them, not knowing what they were about, and not being able to read them.
I always thought I would be an actor, from when I was young. I have a master’s degree in voice performance from Brooklyn College, and I went to Indiana University to study music. But I ended up changing my major to English when I was there.
Do you still think about acting?
All the time. I actually just took an acting class at Berkeley Rep about King Lear. It’s more about having the time! I just started teaching last year at a private school here in Berkeley. It’s my first year teaching, and it’s a unique model. It’s one-on-one instruction, so the classes are student-driven.
How do you reach the more challenging students?
The job is called teacher/mentor. So they try to pair the students with whichever teacher that they think would be a good match. I learn so much from the students. The past three years have been really chaotic, but when I spend time with my students I think, we’d be alright if these kids were in charge.
Until reading your book, “Silent Cities San Francisco,” I had no background on the mass grave exodus from San Francisco to Colma, California, and was especially surprised by how many bodies were left behind.
It’s pretty common, actually. The way that we used to bury people was predominantly in churchyards, and as cities were developing they just ran out of room. It’s pretty devastating to think about. It’s the development of space and sort of just plowing over the history of the area.
Here in Berkeley, the Fourth Street development was and is a shell mound. God knows how many burials are still there. They’re 1000s of years old, and they’re just underneath a Lululemon.
It’s coincidental I guess I’ll say, the timing of COVID and mass deaths, and how we’ve dealt with the pandemic in the United States. You could see the parallels between sort of plowing over the past and the history and the dead and just moving on, like nothing happened. Nothing was there.
I also enjoyed some of your writing on Joan Didion and Shirley Jackson. Favorite stories of theirs?
While her essays collected in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album” are probably her most famous, forever writing, I think Joan Didion’s novels are interesting too. “Play It As It Lays” is really dark and disturbing and very funny. And “Year of Magical Thinking” is perfect. I read it probably once a year. I read that she did a fair amount of revision — she would write something and then let it get cold, take a break and have a drink and go to bed. And then she’d wake up the next day and revise. But it doesn’t feel that way at all, it just feels like this sort of divine monolith that just was dropped onto the earth through her.
I love teaching Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” to the students who haven’t read it, because they wonder, what happened? What’s going on? I don’t understand. So it’s always a lot of fun. You’re exorcising the spirit of Shirley Jackson when you teach that story. Shirley Jackson was a genius; it’s a tragedy that she died young.
In your LA Times review of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “In the Land of the Cyclops,” you quote Knausgaard, “All artists know this, that what they are going to paint already exists within them, as what Gilles Deleuze calls ‘the painting before the painting.’” I love this idea.
I’m really interested in artists. Most of my writing is about writers who are also visual artists or writers who are writing about visual art. I think I’m obsessed with artists because of the control I feel they have over their lives. Just yesterday I read this quote by W. H. Auden, “This fascination is not due to the nature of art itself, but to the way in which the artist works; he, and in our age almost nobody else, is his own master. The idea of being one’s own master appeals to most human beings, and this is apt to lead to the fantastic hope that the capacity for artistic creation is universal, something nearly all human beings, by virtue, not of some special talent, but of their humanity, could do if they tried.”
Billy Curtis, director of the Gender Equity Resource Center (GenEq) at UC Berkeley, has been a force for change in the LGBTQ movement for decades. Originally from the Bahamas, with threats of violence against same-sex relationships prevalent, Billy followed in his sibling’s footsteps and moved to the U.S. Attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Billy found himself accepted and encouraged by the established activist lesbian community who helped expand his understanding of gender identity. After getting his Masters from the University of San Francisco, Billy went on to become UC Berkeley’s first full time LGBT coordinator and eventual director of GenEq, devoting 23 years to aligning his passion for the marginalized with the university’s goals of providing a safe and supportive environment for their students.
Thank you for your time, and for all that you’ve provided to Cal and the LGBTQ community. You came out in 1978, correct?
Well, there’s the coming out and there’s the falling out. Mine wasn’t a coming out, it was a falling out. My gender presentation performance was coded very much toward the fem. I got called sissy before I knew what the word meant. By 1978 I told my first person that I was gay.
I’ve had several types of coming out. I’ve had a long sexuality on many different levels, and genders, to the point where everything’s just basically queer. And using titles or norms based on what makes other people understand me in the moment and the context. So some days I’ll tell someone I’m gay, because it’s easy. And other times when it’s safe to unpack it, or to help folks understand how I’m being rendered in that moment, I’ll say queer.
If I’m doing a workshop and need to get to the point, I’ll use gay because people know that and we can move quicker rather than me becoming the center of the conversation. But I don’t do that too often, because that’s a lot of unpacking and a lot of airtime I’d be taking up.
Do you feel like we’re always waiting for other people to catch up?
I did in the past. But now I’m older and hyper aware of what I’m learning from the younger people.
What’s at the top of my brain right now is the amount of violence and violent language toward our trans community. That has me worried and furious. It’s triggering the warrior in me that hasn’t been there for a while. I have to be ready for whatever’s coming, because I’ve seen it before. That’s the same language that was used.
How do you manage to come in day after day and not let this moment devour you, to stay sane and continue to make progress? I guess there’s no choice.
Yeah, there’s no choice. People ask those questions as if there’s a choice. As a black person there’s no choice. I don’t get to put my skin color away.
But how do we continue to survive and be happy in our own lives, while still fighting, beyond voting?
Thank you for saying vote (laughs). One day at a time, one foot in front of the other. And I can’t allow folk’s judgments or assessments to bug me.
I’ve read that your feminist roots came from your time at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
I was raised by the lesbian wolves of Northampton. They took me under their wings. I absolutely have no idea why I was this queen. These lesbians loved me. And I loved them.
One time during Awareness Week, I was with my group of women friends, and we were going to go out dancing. But first we went to see this speaker, who was great. Afterwards my friends rush forward, gathering around the speaker, as I was standing behind them. They’re mostly white. And the speaker points and says, “Who is he?” My friends push me forward and said, “He’s going to be speaking on the steps of the Student Union.” And she said, “Just remember to take care of him.” The speaker was Audrey Lorde, an amazing black feminist writer. Her essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House,” spoke to me very directly.
What do you make of the divisions we sometimes see between gay men and women?
Well, first of all, it depends on what time period you’re talking about. It was lesbians who took care of men who were dying of AIDS. It all depends on the political circles. Political spaces are far more gender and racially diverse.
I think sexism and transphobia still plays its role. It took talking to a lot of women, in particular cis women who identify as lesbian, to understand how to not take up so much space. So I think the infighting is so much around folks not dealing with sexism and misogyny, and gay men refusing to deal with the fact that they benefit from that.
How do you think student’s needs today are different from when you started?
I think we’ve become more aware of the basic needs around food and housing security. That’s increased dramatically. We now have a better idea of how many queer and trans folks are coming into the university. So what’s changed is the university is now recognizing and learning rather than the other way around.
I can easily take a look at that through another lens, “Oh, there are more non binary people.” What if they were always here we just didn’t have a language for it? We are talking about a community who hasn’t been recognized before, and has no opportunity to dialogue in the same way. So we have to wait another 15 years before we can say that there’s a difference.
Where do you think the LGBTQ community will be in 10 years?
If you think about someone who’s been observing since 1978, it’s cyclical. There will be an ebb and flow. I think in 10 years, we’ll have gone through some pain and will come out the other side. On the other side where there’s more space for trans folk. It brings us back to that MLK quote about the Ark of justice (“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”).
For someone like myself, though, it’s really always been about having the university prepared for what’s the next emerging understanding of sexuality and gender, because that is a constant. That’s a constant, but it’s more emergent.
Even in the moments where I’m like, oh, that feels very different, to not be what I’ve observed from other gay and lesbian people who push back against trans, push back against intersex, and now pushing back against non binary and almost join the conservative movement to beat up on gender minorities. And I see that and go, I’ll never want to be that.
Dianna Dar and Birgitta Durell own and operate Cult Crackers, an artisan cracker manufacturing business in West Berkeley. Their four-person team works out of The Berkeley Kitchens on 8th Street which houses a community of small food businesses from bagels and French pastries to mochi donuts and sourdough breads. Cult Crackers creates small-batch organic crackers, loaded with seeds (sunflower, flax, sesame, chia, pumpkin, and hemp) that are sold in more than 400 grocery and specialty food stores across the country.
How did you come up with the name Cult Crackers?
We tossed around many ideas from traditional Swedish cracker words to modern brand names. We also spent a day in Whole Foods going up and down the aisles looking at all the different CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) brands, and that’s where Cult Crackers came to us. We liked the alliteration and thought it would look good on the packaging. We knew we had a good product, a cracker with a following, and hoped we would become like a cult winery (small boutique wineries). We were also inspired by the cracker culture in Sweden. Birgitta will tell you the one thing Sweden outshine America is with their selection of crackers. They have aisles of different crackers, hence the cracker cul-ture.
You two met and became friends as your daughters were in school together. How did this friendship turn into conversations of starting a business together?
Yes, our daughters were at the Berkeley School. Birgitta would bring her Swedish crackers to school events and everyone just loved them. One night our families were having dinner together and Birgitta’s husband, Mitch, asked Dianna, who has a marketing and culinary background, if she would help Birgitta start a business making and selling her Swedish crackers.
How do Cult Crackers differ from Birgitta’s original Swedish recipe?
The original recipe for our Classic Seed Crackers came from a Swedish friend of Birgitta’s. We adapted it by replacing some of the ingredients and changed the baking process so we could scale it for production. Our second cracker flavor, Crunchy Cassava Crackers, came from a request for a grain-free cracker from Three Stone Hearth, a local Berkeley institution.
What were those early days like as you quickly built up the business?
We started in 2017 subleasing space from Muffin Revolution at the Berkeley Kitchens. We would buy our ingredients in bulk at Berkeley Natural Grocery, and test bake recipes with a bowl and a few sheet pans. With every new store we would get into, we allowed ourselves to buy a few more sheet pans, so we were financing our own growth. We’re pretty scrappy and are still completely self funded.
Our first package was a compostable container that melted on sunny days at our stand at the North Berkeley Farmers Market, popped open during shipping, and didn’t stay fresh for that long. Along the way, we had to tweak the baking process so the crackers could withstand shipping. We’re now in a recyclable pouch that is heat sealed.
We still make each batch of crackers by hand, but now we have several hundred sheet pans and two bowls. Dianna’s husband, Youval, a physicist and engineer, helped us scale our production and improve our workflow for efficiency. If we’re baking 120 sheet pans a day and we can shave off a minute of the process, we’ve saved two hours of production time. It all adds up.
It’s definitely a labor of love and requires a lot of determination and drive. Every day, there’s a new problem that didn’t exist yesterday, so a lot of our days are spent solving problems, which can be fun, as well as challenging. When we started, the two of us were doing everything ourselves – baking, packaging, sales, marketing, delivering, bookkeeping, washing the dishes, and mopping the floors. Thankfully, we now have a wonderful team helping us. To be honest, it’s now much more than just baking crackers, we’re running a successful business, employing people and supplying stores all over the country.
How did your previous careers inform what you do now?
Dianna, a Cal grad, has a background in Marketing and a degree from the California Culinary Academy, and brings together the business and food background, and Birgitta worked for her family’s Swedish bakeware business and had a successful career in real estate.
What have your experiences been like operating a small business in Berkeley?
One of the reasons for our success is Berkeley. People here appreciate artisan, local, organic foods. Our community has embraced us from the many local stores who carry our crackers to the people who buy them. We still get excited every time an order comes in knowing that we’re making a product that people love, that brings us so much joy.
What other types of crackers or products do you have planned?
We’ve been developing a third cracker flavor with buckwheat flour that’s got a crispy toasty flavor. Because of the supply chain issues out there, we’re reevaluating the recipe, and still working on it.
Ian Wood, a Berkeley native, studiously documents local garages on Instagram at berkeleygarages. From lavishly themed garages as extensions of a house, to the vine infested and dilapidated, Ian has cataloged thousands of garages in and around Berkeley. Ian’s own garage door in North Berkeley features an unpretentious mural of Mount Tamalpais in the background, which holds memories of hiking with his wife when they first met, and California poppies, representing his daughter, and his dog Milky in the foreground.
How did you get started photographing garages?
I started taking walks with my dog around the neighborhood and up in the hills and I would kind of just get, you know, I hate to say it, but bored, you know? So I started to look at how I could entertain myself. Around 2016 I just started taking photos of garages for some reason. I put them on Instagram, then some friends said, you know, that look so Berkeley! You should keep this up. It’s a niche and boring thing for a lot of people.
I think niche and boring perfectly encapsulates what I often like in photography.
There’s definitely a market for niche and boring. But some people follow me, I’ll put up a garage picture, and then they unfollow me. “Well, this is boring.” I’m like, well, okay, it’s not for everybody. But it’s fun.
It’s interesting, because I think the garage, especially in Berkeley, is one way people can express themselves in a way they wouldn’t with the rest of their house. It’s kind of a thumbprint of Berkeley and what people are thinking.
My wife’s family are up in North Bay, Santa Rosa, Petaluma. I’ll spend the whole day trying to walk around and find something. San Ramon, Pleasanton, you know, all these big suburbs, there’s just not as much of this. People just leave their stuff alone. They don’t want to ruin the value of their home maybe.
Have you noticed differences in the way people decorate their garages from one part of Berkeley to another, from the wealthier areas in the hills to the outer flats?
That’s interesting question. Up in the hills every now and then you do see a really nice, really exquisitely painted garage. Actually, every neighborhood has got them. I expect to see more around campus, honestly. With all the students and young people, and there’s some, don’t get me wrong. I kind of expected it to be like the Mission District in SF, where you can’t really walk more than five minutes without seeing some sort of street art. And maybe that’s just because students are renting and they don’t feel empowered to do it.
When I’m taking pictures I don’t really know the demographics of who’s living in these houses. But it may not be a priority for someone who’s working two or three jobs or have kids in school.
Taking photos of people’s home or garage can be tricky. I assume there have been some interesting places that, for one reason or another, you had to pass up?
Once time around Gilman Street, near the beer garden, I walked down and saw a garage that just had an old diamond on it, it wasn’t even like a mural. And I was like, I’ll just go down as far as I can and take a picture and then some dude ran out of a house. I guess he was like, a landlord at an apartment or a duplex or something like that. And he yelled at me. And I was like, I’m just taking photos. But yeah, I guess if I looked out the window and saw, you know, people trying to take photos of my house, I’d probably be like, what are you doing?
Sometimes I’ll knock on a door and say, Hey, I’ve been looking at your garage, but it’s just behind the fence. Do you mind if I walked down your driveway to take a picture through the cracks? I give them my business card and they look at it and look at me for a long time. “What do you do?” And I tell them it’s just a hobby. They’re just not used to strangers taking pictures of their garage. But I’ve never been told no, you can’t. So it always works out.
Rosemary Mucklow moved from Edinburgh, Scotland to the United States in 1959 with her father, and later settled into Berkeley. She worked for 55 years in the U.S. meat industry, and served as the Executive Director of the National Meat Association from 1982 to 2007. Rosemary’s cottage-like home on Terrace Walk, where she has lived for 60 years, is a stopping point along the path for many Berkeley friends, neighbors, and wanderers. She turned 90 in 2022.
What first brought you to Berkeley?
My sister and her husband, who lived in Berkeley, were expecting their first child. I was 26. I had just done five years as a nanny to a family in the British Foreign Service. So I thought I knew something about children.
They used to come to this house every weekend for dinner, and he came for years after she died. The house was built as a single story in 1933, but I had a top floor added on so that my mother could live with me.
What kind of work did you do later?
I began working in the U.S. meat industry in 1961. I developed an organization representing meat processors. In public affairs, union activities, rulemaking issues, and so on. I still work a little bit – I’m the chair of a trust fund that administers pension benefits, and a chair of another that administers health benefits for union workers. So I’m very glad that I have an active mind.
I knit all the time and earlier this year made a nice, pink beanie and sent it to the Queen, and told her how much I respected her family. Thanked her for the leadership they provided over many, many years. And I hope when she was walking her corgis on the Scottish Moors, she put a little beanie hat over her ears.
You do what you can, and what the spirit moves you to do. My whole life has been bringing people together in organizations. And what is missing in our society today, especially in Washington, is bringing people together. To make them find the common ground. I used to hate the unions. I learned to get along with them. I learned how to find common ground with them. You know, they’ll never be my brother, or sister. But we can find common ground to work from. And that’s what’s so important. Issues that we share together.
How do you feel about unions beginning to surface again in America?
It’s one of the ways in which hard working, hourly paid workers can be heard. And if they choose to come together in some organization, such as a union, then that strengthens the voice they have. And quite often, those kinds of organizations are not listening to their employees very well. They’re so big. And so overwhelming. And they forget that these people work hard, late at night, early in the morning, because people don’t want their coffee at 11. They want it at eight o’clock in the morning on their way to work.
So I believe unionization has a niche in our society and we have to respect that niche. Sometimes unions forget that they have to represent people in those kinds of niches.
What was it like to survive and grow in an industry that must’ve been dominated by men?
Well, I climbed my way slowly. By proving I could do things that could really help them during a difficult time. In the 1980s I spent a lot of time in Vernon, CA, which was a meat enclave. Regulators became very high handed. I knew the Washington people and could get them to rein in the regulators a little bit to be more sensible. They didn’t have to persecute them quite the way they did. We put it all back together as a national organization, as it had been split up in 1946 when the Western and old Chicago Boys broke it up. So it was a very interesting time to build back the industry together.
Maybe being a woman helped me see it differently, too. I could crawl in and listen. I became very good friends with the chief inspector in Washington. His door was always open to me. He died in 1988.
And a few years later the love of my life died, and I haven’t had a love life since then. But we had a great sex life! He was a mate pilot – he got on the ships when they got inside the Golden Gate and docked them. Docking ships with the high tides on the waterfront was very difficult. And he was very good at that. He was used to taking tremendous risks.
You’re lucky to have settled into such a nice home and neighborhood when you did, and situated along one of Berkley’s walking paths.
I love to sit here and chat with people who walk by. Some days are more quiet than others. There’s a young woman who’s a caregiver for a 12 year old boy who’s fallen in love with my cat, Jackie. He comes about once a month, and picks her up and cuddles her, which she loves. It’s so sweet.
There’s a man who comes for dinner almost every week now. I met him through the Berkeley City Club. His wife died last September, and he misses her greatly. He brings his Newfoundlander named Napoleon which lays down in the kitchen. He’s like having a horse in the kitchen.
I love coming home to my little house. It’s very comfortable. I tell people I want to leave here in a box, feet first.
JC Orton is Berkeley institution as individual. Offering everything from free meals to tax preparation, JC can be found Monday through Saturday from 7:00-9:00 a.m. parked in front of Peet’s Coffee at Shattuck Avenue and Kittredge Street. Sitting at a foldout table in the back of his Volkswagen Vanagon, JC alternates between his phone and an open window, providing granola bars and juice boxes, housing resources, assistance with taxes and applying for Social Security and Medicaid, and bundles of Street Sheets. Then on Sunday mornings he serves breakfast at People’s Park and Civic Center Park, assisted by other local volunteers and members of his nonprofit, Night on the Streets Catholic Worker.
JC’s legacy falls in the hands of other local residents he hopes will volunteer their time towards helping Berkeleyites in need.