21 November 2006

North Berkeley

A few years ago - quite a few years, in fact - I was having an argument with Tim Armstrong about what was the cover of the first Rancid album. It was a purely academic argument, since the record was coming out on Epitaph, rather than on my label, but since all of Tim's previous records had come out on Lookout, I felt entitled to have my say.

Scratch that; I was the sort of person who felt entitled to have his say regardless. And Tim was the sort of person who was inclined to give my opinions a respectful hearing before telling me I didn't know what I was talking about.

At issue was the large gun which Rancid were planning on using as their cover art. I argued that it was an unnecessarily negative and violent image. Leave that kind of stuff to NWA, I urged.

"Larry," Tim said patiently, "See, you don't know what it's like down in the streets, you know what I'm saying? You live up here in North Berkeley where it's all nice and safe."

A word about local geography: South and West Berkeley are the "bad" parts of town, especially that portion of South Berkeley that juts into Oakland, and it was there that Tim had recently taken up residence after spending his formative years in Albany, which is a good bit north of North Berkeley. A solid working class kind of neighborhood, nothing fancy, but definitely a pretty safe sort of place. Not a lot of gangbangers running riot in the streets of A-town.

And technically, geographically, Tim was right. I did live in North Berkeley; University Avenue is generally considered the dividing line, and I was one block to the north (still am, in fact, as I type these very words). But to me North Berkeley had always meant the antiseptic yuppie precincts of Solano Avenue, the tree-lined streets of million-dollar houses, not my grubby little neighborhood situated only steps away from bum and crime-infested downtown Berkeley.

Anyway, it was a pointless argument. Tim always used to say, "You can tell Operation Ivy, but you can't tell 'em much." Or maybe that's what he said I used to say, but it was true, and now that half of Operation Ivy were in Rancid, it was doubly true. The gun went on the cover, the album sold a lot of copies, and as far as I know, no one ever got shot or otherwise harmed as a result.

Regardless of what Tim had said, though, I never accepted that I was part of North Berkeley. In fact, North Berkeley didn't even register on my radar; just about everything I ever did in Berkeley took place on the south side of University, and most of that within the five or six blocks just beyond University and Shattuck. The old Lookout offices and store, my bank, the post office, the now-defunct Cafe Firenze: what more was there to life, I'd often ask myself. Right before asking myself what I was doing stuck in this wretched little two-bit town, but that's an old story I don't need to go into again here.

The point is that I developed an automatic reflex response that meant I would automatically turn right, never left, when I got to Shattuck Avenue. Occasionally I'd read articles in the paper about Berkeley's "Gourmet Ghetto," supposedly strung out along North Shattuck and no more than a 10 or 15 minute walk away, but it might as well have been in Shanghai or Timbuktu for all I saw of it.

But tonight I was feeling antsy, wanting to go for a slightly longer walk on my still-mending foot, but having, as is often the problem in Berkeley, nowhere in particular to go. Downtown after dark is kind of crappy, and the farther south you go, the crappier it gets. In a pinch, and if you're really bored or jaded, you can always walk to Telegraph, but it's best to do this only when you're already depressed, because you're pretty sure to end up that way once you've got there. So I took a deep breath, turned left at Shattuck, and headed deep into the wilds of North Berkeley.

I must say, it was like visiting a different city than the Berkeley I've known and loathed for so many years. Not necessarily anywhere I'd want to live, but it wasn't bad at all for a brief visit. About a hundred restaurants, at least two or three of which might have been affordable for normal people, but many of which were at least pretty to look at. Lots and lots of cute little shops, and a fair number - especially for a Monday night - of strollers, promenaders, and boulevardiers. Okay, I stretch the point slightly, but at least it wasn't completely desolate and scary the way so much of downtown is.

I was surprised, too, to see only one beggar and two shopping cart scavengers in the whole 15-block stretch that I walked. On the other side of University you'd see double or triple that on any given block. Why is that, I wondered? Downtown there's nobody much to beg from apart from other beggars or the occasional movie-goers; on North Shattuck, there's a steady procession of yuppies, students and elderly baby boomers, all of whom you'd think would be relatively soft touches.

It was also about 99% white, in marked contrast with downtown, which by night is 50 to 75% black. Again, for those not familiar with Berkeley, I'm not talking about some vast geographical divide; the two areas are at most a few blocks apart. How this class and race separation was achieved and maintained is a mystery to me. I didn't see any cops telling "those" people to stay on one side or the other of University; in fact I didn't see any police at all. It seemed as though people knew where they were supposed to be and faithfully gravitated there, much as I imagine things worked in Southern American towns during the days of Jim Crow.

Interesting that I discovered this whole new corner of Berkeley right under my nose; as I say, it's not really my scene, but I'd definitely go strolling there again if I weren't leaving town in a few days. It does help explain why so many Berkeleyans don't understand what I'm talking about when I bemoan the sad state of this town; if you confined your comings and goings to the favored precincts of North Berkeley, I guess life could look pretty darn pleasant. A little boring, true, but pleasant.

So maybe Tim was barking up the right tree when he suggested being from North Berkeley was blinding me to the reality of street and thug life. He just didn't know - how could he? - that all those years I'd been turning right instead of left at Shattuck. Or, that for my few days left here, I'll probably continue to do so. I guess it's just the way I roll.

P.S. I probably can't get away with titling this piece "North Berkeley" without some of you Operation Ivy-Downfall-Rancid connoisseurs wanting to know what's up with that "North Berkeley, scene of the crime" lyric from the legendary lost Downfall album. Well, the answer is, you'll have to ask Tim. I don't have a clue either, but it still sounds cool.


Tim said...

It's not entirely lost.


Crumbly said...

I don't get it. Did you turn right or left at Shattuck? You say right, but did you mean left? I guess it would depend from which direction you approached Shattuck, but knowing where you live, I would think you'd be headed towards the hills. So if you meant the Gourmet Ghetto direction, you'd have turned left, right? Or am I just confused....

Larry Livermore said...

You are correct. Perhaps it becomes clearer now why I've never been able to find my way around Berkeley! Anyway, I've fixed the mistake now, so people may not be able to tell exactly what it is you were asking about, but rest assured, people, she was right and I was wrong.

Wes said...

You mean you were left, right?

Even without knowing the class divisions of Berkeley geography, I always took "North Berkeley" to be a bit tongue-in-cheek. If it had been Rancid I wouldn't have been so sure, but that song is as winky-nudgy as the Berkeley "rap" mystery track on Tilt's "Til It Kills".

Anonymous said...

As a lifelong Southern Californian, it is not easy for me to admit that Berkeley is a rather nice town.

In few years of living in Berkeley, I found it absolutely liveable for two main reasons - the brisk, clean, blue skies, and the University.

I didn't really even mind the bums so much, mostly because Berkeley bums are a different breed from normal city bums. Berkeley bums are almost neighborhood fixtures. Some are funny, some are maniacal, but they all become familiar faces after while, unlike in other cities, where you hardly ever see the same bum twice.

The only thing I really found objectionable about Berkeley were the outrageously tenant-biased rent control regulations, and the lack of any normal chain restaurants, gas stations, or grocery stores. The lack of convenience gets real old, real fast.

As for geography, I never really went to North Berkeley much, except to go to a few restaurants on Shattuck north of University, like Oscar's, that one tapas place, that one Jewish deli place, and that one Italian place, all of whose names I forget.

The only parts of town which I found scary, unliveable, and in need of serious help were the furthest southern portions of town, south of Ashby, and the furthest western portions of town, west of about MLK.

Rent control and the city's hostility to new development is destroying those areas and preventing any kind of revitalization.

Overall, great place to live if you have a connection to the University. Otherwise I'd try Santa Monica - same great feel, but a tiny bit warmer, much bigger, more stuff to do, and to-die-for suci.

Anonymous said...

Well, not sure about the suci, but the sushi is good.

Tom H said...

are you kidding? there are way too many chains in Berkeley as it is! as it stands now, chevron has bought all of the good local gas stations, there are WAY too many starbucks, there are Safeways all over the place, theres a mcdonalds, and a million other chains...kinkos, UA theatres, etc. etc. were just lucky that they closed the burger king and the kfc.
i dont know anything about living in Berkeley in association with the university...only with the actual citizens the first 18 years of my life until i left for school.

Anonymous said...

Tom H - since you spent your first 18 years of life in Berkeley, perhaps that explains why you're unable to see the deficiency. You have no point of reference.

Ask any Cal student or professor - or anyone else who is not a "townie." I'm sure they'd concur.

Larry Livermore said...

Contrary to some opinions, Berkeley is not run solely for the benefit and comfort of University staff and students. Since a preponderance of students do come from California, it's understandable that they might be nonplussed and flummoxed over the relative absence of the mini-malls and chain stores indigenous to their native habitat.

However, while there are many, MANY things wrong with Berkeley, a lack of chain stores and restaurants is certainly not one of them.

Anonymous said...

Let's not take the importance of the University lightly.

I shudder to imagine what would have become of the town of Berkeley were it not for the infusion of tens of thousands of young, smart, creative minds year in and year out.

Berkeley without the University of California is, literally and figuratively, just a cross between Oakland and Albany.

Larry Livermore said...

Agreed, Berkeley wouldn't be much without the university. However, it is the task of the university - and the town that hosts it - to mold and shape the minds and character of its students, not the other way around. There are plenty of universities located more conveniently to shopping malls and acres of free parking if that's what young people prefer.

Anonymous said...

I see your point. I'm not suggesting Berkeley become San Jose. I'm suggesting Berkeley undertake bold measures to galvanize and modernize its decaying retail infrastructure.

But there are many older, urban California cities much like Berkeley (Santa Monica, Pasadena, West Hollywood/Hollywood come to mind) that have successfully incorporated dense, mixed use developments, with top of the line retail establishments, into the cites' historic character.

Chains, inevitably, are a part of what it takes.

When I say "chains" I'm not talking McDonalds and Walmart. I'm talking new and improved pedestrian oriented shopping districts, brand name clothing establishments, clubs, bars, grocery stores (whether high end/organic, or more economical ones), restaurants, movie theaters, gas stations, and the like.

I'd shut Shattuck between University and Dwight completely off to traffic and create a pedestrian oriented shopping district like M Street in Georgetown/DC, Colorada Boulevard in Pasadena, or Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

Berkeley's world famous reputation, its architectural and infrastructural assets, and its location, could attract the best of what any city has to offer.

Instead, the city continues to grasp onto defeated policies of stagnant retail development, rent control choke offs of rental property income (deterring development of newer and better apartments), and we see the result of it with Cody's and other establishments being unable to survive in Berkeley's current commercial environment.

Anonymous said...

So I googled and this came up. I went for a walk today towards tilden park and went towards shasta road, miller street etc. It was dusky and I am new in town. I felt like if someone decided to step out of their house or from the side of the road and mess with me, there wasn't a soul in sight whom I might call for help. But at the same time, it was a beautiful walk. Is it safe to go out there in early mornings at about 7 am or between 5-7 PM? If it seems a dumb question to folk more familiar with the city, my excuse is that I am just not (familiar), I'm alone and in a foreign land. Thank you in advance for your response.