07 May 2007

Urban Renewal

"Big Plans For Making Downtown Berkeley A Cultural Hub," says the Chronicle, which has been running a similarly headlined story semi-annually for at least 25 years now. You might question why a town with a distinguished history as "The Athens of the West," home to one of the world's great universities, and located smack in the middle of what is alleged to be a major American cosmopolis, would need to be "planning" to become a cultural hub? Shouldn't it be one by default?

Berkeley is forever coming up with plans to "restore" or "revive" or "beautify" downtown; its last stroke of genius was to cut down all the trees and replace them with saplings which, if they're lucky enough to survive 20 years of being backed into cars and being broken off by mentally deranged ferals, just might make downtown look as pleasantly shady as it was before they cut down all the old trees. That bit of "beautification" cost the city over a million bucks (they got some new paving and park benches out of it too, I think), and guess what: downtown is just as unpleasant, unlovely as ever. Vacant storefronts abound, and begging and mugging remain major industries (after 9 or 10 pm, the only ones).

What Berkeley's planners seem never to comprehend is that you can't design or plan or build your way out of a social problem. Nearly all of downtown's problems can be laid at the door of Berkeley's willingness - eagerness, even - to tolerate levels of criminal and antisocial behavior that will turn any neighborhood, no matter how nicely built or designed into an instant slum.

I'm reminded of that by The Devil's Playground: A Century Of Pleasure And Profit In Times Square, which recounts the rise, fall, and rebirth of America's crossroads. When Times Square was it its worst in the 70s and 80s, city officials private foundations argued and agonized over a plethora of urban renewal programs, none of which were to do any good at all until the city finally, under Mayor Giuliani, did what a police commander had pleaded for back in the 1980s: "Go back to the old style of police work, when men on the beat could enforce standards of public decency and order."

The author, James Traub, goes on to suggest that the degree of public and private expenditure that finally went into remaking Times Square may have been unnecessary. Based on what has happened in other neighborhoods which flourished of their own accord once Giuliani made the city livable again, I'm inclined to agree. Make downtown Berkeley a pleasant and inviting place by removing or at least restraining the deranged, demented and hostile individuals who currently dominate its streets, and a similar result would obtain. Or, alternatively, spend millions of tax dollars creating yet another "civic/cultural hub," aka bum magnet.


erika said...

It's expensive to rent there to boot.

Nick g said...

i agree, and i think that if they try to do any more "improvements" downtown im going to have some serious words (at least) with the so called city government.