In the midst of developing Spenger’s Fish Grotto on Berkeley’s chic Fourth Street into a commercial shopping zone in 2016, ancient human remains were discovered. This was known as the Shellmound of the Lisjan Ohlone people. According to historian and archeologist Richard Schwartz, the “West Berkeley Shellmound dates back 5,800 years and is the oldest Shellmound in the area by about 1,000 years.”
Directly across the street, at 1900 Fourth Street, aka “Spenger’s Parking Lot,” developers were proposing 207,590 square feet of stores, restaurants, luxury apartments and an underground parking lot that would excavate eleven feet down into the historic village site, where more burials likely remain.Community opposition, led by Ohlone leader Corrina Gould, generated 1,800 letters in opposition to the condo plans, and the developers abandoned the project.
Subsequently, the property owners of the empty lot used SB35 to seek ministerial approval to build a five-story commercial structure with fifty percent affordable housing. The city of Berkeley, which had declared this land an historic landmark in 2000, denied the permit, and when the owners sued the city, the Confederated Villages of the Lisjan teamed up with the city to defend this historic structure and sacred cultural site. A lower court victory was overturned by the California Court of Appeals. In June 2021, the California Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal on the proposed housing complex, which meant that the use permit was issued and construction could soon go forward. Yet the lot remains undeveloped
News of the reported finding of ancient human remains brought me back to a summer when I traveled to Iran, my parents’ country, where I heard tales of a much different burial site. My grandmother and great-aunt recounted the most intriguing memory of their childhood home in the province of Kermanshah.
Their village, Kangavar, set in northwestern Iran, was built on a few hills in the belly of the valley. It was a quiet and uneventful village, which had a legend. The legend was created by those who, while digging foundations for homes, etc., found interesting vessels and odd-looking remains.
Children believed that a serpent lived under them, who would sacrifice humans. They lived in the shadow of this demon until the 1960s, when archeologists came to investigate. The latter claimed that the village was built on top of 2,000-year-old remains, which had to be studied to learn about an ancient civilization. In 1968, half of the village was moved to an adjacent hill, paid for by the government. Soon after archeologists unearthed the Anahita Temple, along with a portion of the summer palace of the Achaemenid kings.
Anahita is the ancient Persian goddess of fertility, water, health healing and wisdom. Owing to her association with life-giving properties, she also came to be connected with ancient Persian warfare, as soldiers would pray to her for their survival before entering battle.
So, not only were notions of a serpent put to rest, but the village, taking pride in its recovered history, set in the middle of the city center large pillars that had been unearthed from the site. The Anahita Temple put this small village on the map and it became a tourist destination.
To date, the Fourth Street development has only yielded high-priced boutiques and restaurants and further gentrified Berkeley while threatening to permanently close the doors to our past and starve future generations of priceless knowledge about the earth that they walk upon. It is painful to watch the senseless business protocol that places short-term financial gains for the few ahead of the rich history and cultural wealth of our community.
The original inhabitants of this land should be celebrated and honored and the undeveloped lot should be ceded to them. As a community, let’s ensure this land is returned to its rightful owners for the benefit of present and future generations.
This story was first published in the Berkeley Times on March 30, 2023.