The beloved poet died in early December, leaving behind a legacy of poems that capture a bygone Berkeley.
Julia Vinograd—resistance icon, the Bubble Lady, Berkeley’s very own bard—died on December 4 after a long battle with colon cancer. She was 74.
Vinograd has been a staple of Telegraph Avenue since the late 60’s, selling poetry books, blowing bubbles, and watching the world go by. She was a neighborhood icon, as reliable as the Berkeley Inn or Cafe Mediterraneum, and many of the other physical landmarks of Berkeley counterculture that are starting to vanish.
But Vinograd’s influence remains, even in her absence. Through her poetry, she captured the character of the lost, the misfits, the downtrodden, the disinherited, and the abandoned—all of the people who built Telegraph into the landmark it is today. “Living in poverty herself, she’s stuck to her guns and kept writing poetry for well over 30 years,” reads a Street Spirit article from 2005.
“She’s written so many poems about this neighborhood, about the park,” said Ed Monroe, an artists and street vendor who founded the Telegraph Avenue Street Fair. “She’s our poet of this neighborhood.”
Though many know her for her poems, Vinograd also played an active role in shaping the physical environment of Telegraph Avenue— namely, through the preservation of People’s Park. “Nobody knows this story, but I was there and I know it’s true. Julia is one of the big reasons the park looks the way it does today” Monroe said.
In 1979, a group of homeless activists were gathered in People’s Park, playing guitar and singing songs in opposition to a new, student-only parking lot on the west side of the park. All of a sudden, about fifteen police officers arrived with a bulldozer. “It looked like a military operation,” Monroe said.
The bulldozer was there to remove the logs separating the field and the parking lot, although no one knew exactly why this needed to be done. Nonetheless, the protest was disrupted, as the bulldozer began to remove the first log. While the protesters scrambled in confusion, “Julia Vinograd said, ‘Let’s sit on the logs,’” Monroe recalled.
Following Vinograd’s lead, the protestors sat on the remaining logs, setting in motion a standoff with police that lasted the rest of the day, and attracted countless more protesters. By evening, Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport ordered the police out. “The sun went down, and people went and got picks and shovels and started peeling the asphalt up,” Monroe said. The next morning “there were trees and bushes where there used to be a parking lot.”
Thus began the people’s demolition of the parking lot in People’s Park, hardly a vestige of which still exists. The current look and feel of the park might be one of Vinograd’s most tangible legacies. “It really was her. It was that moment when she exhibited that leadership,” Monroe said. “She was not a loud, outspoken member of the community, she was just Julia. Sometimes almost understated, the way she was. A lot of times that’s more powerful.”
Vinograd’s understated presence could in part be because of her limp, a legacy of a childhood bout of polio. In fact, her limp was the reason she became the bubble lady. Having recently arrived returned to Berkeley, where she did her undergraduate studies, from the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Vinograd stepped into an intense activist culture. During the initial People’s Park Uprising in the spring of 1969, Vinograd wanted to participate, but couldn’t enter the melee due to her leg. Her solution: Blow bubbles in the midst of the chaos. The community was charmed by her act of quiet resistance, and from that point onward, bubbles became a key part of Vinograd’s identity.
Those who read her poetry were struck by its stark, and brutally honest portrayals of street life in Berkeley. Vinograd’s work “showed me a little bit of the dark side of Berkeley,” said Marco Lazo, one of many Telegraph Avenue vendors with whom she has traded wares.
Vinograd’s countless hours selling poetry in the street, and the time she spent at the Rag Theater and, in more recent years, Cafe Med, made her a widely known Berkeley personality.
At a recent poetry reading at Harold’s Art House, held as a fundraiser for Vinograd’s medical expenses, local activist Michael Delacour was struck by the turnout. “I couldn’t believe the amount of people
that she had there,” estimating a crowd in the hundreds over the course
of the night. “There were people there all the way from Las Vegas. I realized that she had a lot of support.” Vinograd’s words travelled widely, too. Her publisher Bruce Isaacson estimated she has sold 150,000 copies of her 68 poetry collections.
As her old haunts, like Cafe Mediterraneum and the Berkeley Inn, closed their doors, People’s Park remained a constant in Vinograd’s life. “I don’t think there was one time that she didn’t do a poem at the anniversary,” Delacour said. With People’s Park’s 50th anniversary coming up this spring, it, too, is under threat of closure once again. A new generation of activists who hardly knew her will surely miss her creative and peaceful forms of resistance. Those on both sides of the impending People’s Park fight will be wise to remember Vinograd’s words from “People’s Park”:
“There are many hearts buried in People’s Park,/ and part of my own as well./ Oh leave them alone.”
Benjamin Schneider is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco.