17 March 2008


I'm not sure why, but lately I've been terribly nostalgic for places I used to live. London most of all, but also Spy Rock and Sydney. Was it only a matter of time, I wondered, before I started missing Berkeley, too?

And then just the other day it happened. It was the briefest of flashes, true, but I momentarily found myself reminiscing about quieter, simpler days in the dingy little room on Berkeley Way, about daily strolls to the Post Office and Fred's Market, Cafes Hell and Firenze, Big and Little Chinaland, and El Sombrero, the burrito joint otherwise known as The Hat.

True, some of those places aren't there anymore, and others have cut back their hours as life in downtown Berkeley dwindled down to a trickle after dark, but it was a simple and easy life, if a bit repetitive. And, thanks to rent control, I could live there so cheaply that I might never had to worry about money again.

It's unlikely that those days or anything like them will ever come again. Where once I could wander the streets of downtown at almost any time of day or night and stand a fair chance of running into a friend or three, I now only know one couple who still live in the area, and if you stray off the main drags, it's not all that safe, either. So for better or worse, Berkeley, which was pretty central to my existence for about 30 years, looks likely to go on disappearing in the rear view mirror of my life.

But not completely. For as long the Berkeley Daily Planet remains available online, I'll always be able to tap into the sheer loopiness that is both the charm and the shame of that time capsule town. On one level, it's not a bad paper at all, in that it reflects the values and views of the community in a way that only a handful of local papers do anymore. The letters to the editor pages alone provide a treasure trove of the sublime, the ridiculous, and the sublimely ridiculous.

You might think it unlikely that everyone in Berkeley is a left wing lunatic, but you'd find scant evidence for that theory in the Daily Planet's letter pages. But nutty or not, a surprising number of the correspondents are literate and/or witty, and even the nuttiest of them seem motivated by a passionate concern for their city, something else which is increasingly rare in the anomie and alienation of post-urban America.

Berkeley being Berkeley, of course, you're as likely to find people as outraged about the plight of the Colombian guerrillas as you are about "stamping a footprint into nature" (i.e., decorating some rock in the park as a memorial to lefty hero Cesar Chavez). Another perennial topic is the fate of the "homeless," a term which in Berkeley is only tangentially connected to the question of whether someone has a place to live or not.

What it more accurately refers to is the population of beggars, alcoholics, drug addicts, drug dealers, petty criminals, and the marginally or totally insane who, with the blessing of the City Council and the good people of Berkeley, have been, if not encouraged, certainly allowed to occupy large areas of sidewalk space in the downtown and south campus areas.

Not everyone is happy about this, and debates often rage in the letters column about what can or should be done, but seen through a Berkeley prism, the "homeless" are most often viewed as helpless victims of Bush's (or Reagan's, or Nixon's, depending on the age of the viewer) economic policies and poster children for the failure of capitalism (which, somewhat anomalously, seems to be thriving in the neighborhoods of million-dollar homes in North Berkeley and the Hills). Result: any proposal aimed at restricting anti-social behavior is met with bellows of outrage and charges of "criminalizing the poor." And of course, nothing changes, except that people keep on living and dying on the streets and the downtown and south campus areas continue to deteriorate.

Having been reading the Daily Planet for quite a while, it's rare that anything in it can shock or annoy me, but I had to make an exception the other day for editor Becky O'Malley's phenomenally arrogant contention that "Downtown Berkeley is irrelevant." Her evidence for this: well, she almost never goes there, and hasn't done so for years. She goes on to list all the other neighborhoods and shopping centers where she and her husbands have lived and conducted their business over the past 50 years and concludes that "It’s been a half-century since downtown Berkeley has had any relevance as a commercial center for most of the population."

Now I'd always figured O'Malley for a befuddled but basically benign old hippie, but here she comes off sounding like a blinkered self-absorbed suburbanite who sees inner cities as little more than than drive-through territory. As someone who spent the majority of my time in Berkeley living and working downtown, and who watched my neighborhood steadily deteriorate during those years, I found her remarks truly offensive.

Offensive but not surprising: when you get down to basics, many if not most Berkeley lefties are at heart blinkered suburbanites. All the rhetoric about Darfur and Iraq and Tibet notwithstanding, closer to home their interests revolve around maintaining a comfortable status quo for themselves. As long as the "homeless" hang out out in "irrelevant" places (i.e., somewhere other than where the bien-pensants live, what's the problem? And while you might think providing new housing for the "homeless" might rank high on their agenda, of far greater importance is the stopping of any development like, say, an apartment building, that might intrude upon their leafy little enclaves of radicalism.

The idea of Berkeley as a selfish little suburb seemed all the more pertinent to me when I read this San Francisco Chronicle article on the phenomenon becoming known as "Slumburbia," the trend whereby inner cities become gentrified and expensive and the poor and desperate are forced to the outer edges of the metropolis. Although the article specifically excludes "inner suburbs" like Berkeley from its analysis, the term seemed particularly appropriate for large parts of Berkeley that feature the crime rates, failing schools, and general shabbiness that you would normally associate with incipient slums. It doesn't help, of course, that Berkeley is sandwiched in between the urban equivalent of two failed states, namely Oakland and Richmond.

Chances are, however, that the forces of gentrification will ultimately transform Berkeley (and perhaps even Oakland) in much the same way they have much of Brooklyn, though current economic trends make that appear less likely than it would have a year or two ago. Perhaps when that day comes we'll see Ms. O'Malley and her dwindling tribe retiring to the malled-over outer suburbs that appear to be their true spiritual home.


erin said...

I was required to attend a really boring lecture by one of the regional community planning directors of my state. The lecture was all about growth management...how it magically lowers housing prices etc. similar in vain to the article which you refer to....talks of urban "blight"...when i first heard the term i thought they were talking about diseases in agriculture...really they were just talking about the poor...the worst is when they zone areas "for" street vendors...

Anonymous said...

This post is spot on. Please send this to the Berkeley Daily Planet for publication in the letters section.