“...The window is busted, and the landlord ain’t home/And Butch joined the army, yeah that’s where he’s been/And the jackhammer’s diggin’ up the sidewalks again...”
– Tom Waits, “In the Neighborhood”
While noise, vandalism and discomfort form the holy trinity of all too many neighborhoods, a Berkeley block has mounted an effort to preserve its sanctity from a perceived threat.
Residents of Peralta Street just off Solano have waged a yearlong war against Pacific Bell’s installation of a second telephone switching box (those metallic objects on the roadside resembling a small tool shed and containing a mass of brightly colored wires and sockets).
“Sometimes they come twice a day, sometimes three times a day,” says 30-year area resident Nel Watkins of Pac Bell employees coming to work on the new box. “Because of the narrowness of the street, I can hear the music from their radios, their conversations, the trucks backing up. It’s quite an intrusion.”
Watkins and other residents of Peralta Street claim the large Pac Bell trucks clog up an already precariously narrow street, leading to the occasional fender bender. The box has also been characterized as extremely unsightly, a target for graffiti, and potential cover for a mugger to hide behind.
“In essence, it creates a permanent construction site in front of our house,” said Joseph Nichols, who estimates the new box is roughly 10 feet from his front door. “Usually they send out just one truck to work on that box, but sometimes it’s two or three trucks.”
When the new box – which Pac Bell claims will replace the old box, not serve in addition to it – was installed roughly a year back, concerned neighbors held meetings with city and Pac Bell officials. Following the meeting, Mayor Shirley Dean wrote a recommendation for a moratorium on any new or rebuilt “telephone service pedestals, switching boxes or hubs” until the implementation of a master plan for telecommunications. The City Council passed the recommendation in its March 21 session, passing the matter to the City Manager’s office for an ongoing study of the legal and political ramifications of such a moratorium.
At the heart of Peralta neighborhood’s objection is a feeling of “Why here? Why on such a narrow, residential block?” Pacific Bell’s answer mirrors the words of the mountaineer’s motto: “Because it’s there.”
“We have to replace and upgrade the present (box). All the facilities are there (by the old box),” says Mindy Ahluwalia, Pac Bell’s design engineer for the Albany/El Cerrito area. “If we went further on, we’d have to trench it. We went the city and mayor and they asked how much it would cost to relocate, to go around the corner to the little park next to Solano and Peralta. It came out to be very expensive ($44,000). They said no, no, we cannot pay.”
Ahluwalia emphasized that once the new box is up and running – and it has stood dormant during this yearlong controversy – the old one will be removed. He added that replacements such as this are necessary due to a need to double existing phone service to keep up with consumer demand.
“Now almost every person has a minimum of three lines,” says Ahluwalia. “The facilities are exhausted. We have to double (the number of lines). In a business area, maybe more. Maybe four or five times.
“I don’t know what they mean by ‘moratorium,’” continues the engineer. “If we’re not allowed to put in any more boxes and upgrade boxes, we can’t meet the requirements of the people. We’re already a year behind (on Peralta). We’re short facilities in that area.”
Meanwhile, the analysis of the proposed moratorium may be reaching its conclusion. Chris Mead, Berkeley’s information systems manager, says the city attorney’s office may have an answer on the legal quandaries of a moratorium as soon as next week, while the policy analysts could require several more weeks.
“I think the City Council felt a lot more policy needed to be developed regarding these issues,” says Mead. “There’s an enormous rush to deploy lots of telecommunication services, and all the cities in the Bay Area are really struggling on how to administrate this.”
But whatever the result of the potential moratorium, it looks like the box on Peralta Street may be here to stay, much to the chagrin of its neighbors.
“Every time I look at that box and see they put it that close to the entrance of somebody’s home, I get angry,” says Watkins. “It really is a most unacceptable thing.”