10 May 2006

Telegraph: The Cows Going Home

Sad news: Cody's Books, one of the long-time linchpins of Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, is closing. Tom Bates, Berkeley's 60s-retro-style mayor, tries to put the blame anywhere but where it belongs when he says:
It's a terrible blow for us. Cody's is an institution. But they've been struggling for years. It's just part of the changing times we live in. With the Internet and all the other innovations, these (stores) have all taken a hit.
Bates goes on to posit that people feel comfortable in Berkeley's nouveau Fourth Street shopping district on the city's far west side, a suburban-style mini-mall accessible mainly by car, where Cody's will continue to operate another store, but Dave Yetter, from Moe's Books down the block, puts his finger far more accurately and honestly on the problem:
The Berkeley City Council left Telegraph to go to seed with a lack of upkeep and lack of interest. After dark, nobody's here, nowhere.
That's not completely true: there are always beggars, and bums sleeping in doorways, and people willing to sell you drugs (or an unreasonable facsimile thereof), and a fair sprinkling of potential muggers, but thanks to Berkeley's ideological bias against imposing any kind of behavioral standards on "the poor" and "the oppressed," very few people in a position to use the cafes, bookstores and specialty shops that once made Telegraph Avenue one of the most colorful and interesting districts in the Bay Area. Now - especially after dark - it's a depressing and sometimes dangerous slum, a collection point and dumping ground for the human and cultural refuse of the "revolution."


Nick G. said...

well i think that a lot of it becoming a slum has to do with two things:
1. its right next to peoples park, which has become just a place for people to sleep, no one else is ever actually in it unless they are playing basketball, i feel that needs some work...not that people having a place to sleep is bad...but its seem conflicting that they let people sleep there yet they took away the free clothes bin.
2. its the 'cool' 'punk rock' place to be when your a rich kid from danville or piedmont. your there, to quote a queers song about it, with your little puprple mohawk, panhandleing outside of the med, with $150 dr martens on. no i dont consider them to be particularly dangerous, but i feel like they add to the scene of telegraph being down and out or slummy (after all, berkeley is the punk rock wonderland, as they say)

joseph said...

I walk that stretch of Telegraph regularly. I hadn’t really given it much thought until a couple of weeks ago. My 10-year old niece was visiting. As we walked toward Amoeba, I felt compelled to explain the situation. She, after all, was from a comfortable slice of Southern California suburbia. The filthy, drug-addled beggars were a new experience. She was a bit bewildered, I was a bit embarrassed. Her bewilderment turned to excitement when she reported what she had read scrawled on the wall: Smoke weed ‘til ya eyes bleed. Welcome to Berkeley.

CW Nevius wrote a little story about People’s Park and the free clothes bin recently:
Cal moves to get rid of the 'free box' – SF Chronicle -April 26, 2006

thissmallplanet said...

I miss the old, bleeding heart Lawrence...

jenna alive said...

I didn't feel particularly comfortable on Telegraph during the daytime, nevermind after dark.

There's something to be said for suburbia. As much as people want to knock it for being generic or homogenized or what have you, it's comfortable, and you can walk down the street without some scumbag offering to sell you drugs, or some homeless lady demanding "Rich people, buy me a burrito!"

The Bay Area definitely did not win my heart, that's for sure.

Nick G. said...

Maybe its just because ive grown up in Berkeley and spent so much time on telegraph, but ive just never seen it as being particularly threatening in any real way, day or night. i mean sure sometimes people try to sell you drugs, and ask you for money, but thats just something that you kind of learn how to deal with when it comes up; which isnt even all that often, in my experience.
Ive always felt much more theatened in parts of downtown broadway in oakland and in the tenderloin in SF.
I just find it hard to believe that anyone could find any part of telegraph from campus to around 40th or so, to be very threatening.

Larry Livermore said...

Nick, a couple things to consider:
First, you're no doubt right that growing up in Berkeley has inured you to aspects of Telegraph Avenue that might seem dubious or threatening to people from other places. It's important to remember - for me, as well, because of all the years that I spent in Berkeley - that what seems "normal" in that town is anything but in most parts of the country. Very few major universities, especially among those located in mid-sized college towns as opposed to big cities, have a strip like Telegraph just off campus. Comparable universities - like Michigan or Wisconsin, for example - have similar streets, lined with coffee houses and bookshops, but the atmosphere is very different, in that they're hangouts mainly for college students and the bohemian types that like to cluster around college campuses.

That was once true of Telegraph, too, but is much less so today. The so-called "People's Park" (accurately named only if the definition of "people" is limited to drug dealers, beggars, petty criminals and the homeless)is part of the difference, but so too is Berkeley's super-tolerant attitude toward behaviour that would be considered unacceptable almost anywhere else.

Another thing to consider is that you are presumably young, healthy and, having grown up in Berkeley, street-wise. I remember someone trying to tell me the Mission District was "perfectly safe" the day after my then 78-year-old father was attacked in broad daylight on 16th Street. Sure, I walk on Telegraph without particularly fearing for my safety, but would I advise my elderly mother to do the same? Not a chance, and when a certain district becomes off limits to those who aren't either strong or fast, it's not only unfair to those who aren't, it virtually guarantees that area is headed in a very wrong direction.

Also, while I wouldn't be afraid to walk on Telegraph either day or night - though I wouldn't be enthusiastic about going much too far toward Oakland after dark - going "to Telegraph" doesn't mean only the street itself, but the surrounding streets, and there, I think, there is a significant danger of being attacked, especially after dark. Don't believe me? Read the Berkelely crime stats, and bear in mind that many muggings and assaults in South Campus are never reported because so many people in that area have come to accept crime, even violent crime, as "just the way it is." I wouldn't necessarily tell tourists or visitors to stay away from Telegraph, but neither would I send them there without cautioning them about what to expect there. For many years, when I lived in South Campus, Telegraph was essentially my living room and playground, but that was a long time ago. I think most people would agree with me that it's not a very nice place at all these days.