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Four Myths About Berkeley

Becky O'Malley
Tuesday July 08, 2003

Discussions about the future of Berkeley are often built around cherished myths, fiercely debated without recourse to fact.  

Let’s look at a few: 

1) Berkeley is a city. In fact, much of Berkeley was designed as suburbs of various kinds. Southeast Berkeley, thousand Oaks and most of the Berkeley Hills were streetcar suburbs, where the streetcars went in first and subdivisions followed. Developers of subdivisions along the streetcar routes made big profits in this era, a pattern which BART development repeated in the seventies. Original residents of these subdivisions commuted first by ferry and then by Key System train to jobs in San Francisco, or rode the streetcar to work at the University of California. In the flats, once home to blue-collar workers, the streets were designed in the urban grid pattern common to American towns at the turn of the century. In the seventies the installation of barriers transformed the flatlands’ urban grid into the prevalent suburban pattern of quiet cul-de-sacs served by fast through streets which move autos around quickly. Berkeley never had much of a downtown shopping district, though it did boast one big department store, Hink’s, and a couple of dime stores in its heyday. At best, Berkeley has been a company town, with one big employer, the University of California, and many interesting quirky small businesses. 

2) If you build dense housing, mass transit will follow. Someone ought to tell that to AC Transit, which is busy reducing routes and raising fares in order to save money, just as big dense projects are being built on bus lines. To be fair, they don’t have much choice, given the lack of commitment on the state and federal level to supporting mass transit with funding. By targeting available income to a few designated rapid transit routes like San Pablo, the transit agency is enabling the old money-making strategy which made fortunes for land-owners in the past: promote new transit routes, buy up property on them and make a killing on development. However, if this development comes at the expense of taking transit away from already built-up areas, and if residents perversely choose to continue to use automobiles anyway, only builders benefit in the long run. Building first and hoping transit will follow, on the other hand, is akin to the cargo cults which supposedly flourished on remote Pacific islands in the past. 

3) Apartment buildings on big streets will turn Berkeley into Paris. Oh sure. Here are a few things Berkeley does not have: Baron Haussman, the 19th century equivalent of Robert Moses, who leveled much of the city and rebuilt it according to his grand plan. Right or wrong, that strategy just wouldn’t play in Berkeley. Also: family-sized apartments. Both the central city of Paris and its suburban ring have large apartments with at least three bedrooms and generous living rooms. The older city apartments are still not very expensive by the standards of New York or San Francisco. (Berkeley residents have been known to buy Paris apartments as second homes.) Even Belleville, Paris’s gritty working class suburbs, has low-rise apartment buildings surrounded by open space with play areas attached. Berkeley built a few nice low-income family developments of this kind in the seventies and eighties, but our new buildings are mostly luxury dorms for well-off students, with a few token less expensive units for elderly or disabled singles or couples. Unlike Paris, we have no big parks or playgrounds downtown for prospective residents to use. 

Berkeley also lacks Paris’s Culture with a capital C. The University of California does offer the institutional fare common to college towns like Bloomington and Lubbock, mostly traveling attractions and student productions. We have a few small university-run museums, none even as grand as Ann Arbor’s, but no city art museum. We provide no large public concert-hall for well-regarded local groups like the Berkeley Symphony, which must pay exhorbitant rates to use UC’s Zellerbach Auditorium. We don’t even have a commercial repertory film house any more. As a suburb, we do have access to San Francisco, but BART stops at midnight. Berkeley restaurants stop serving at ten, because many residents of this bedroom community complain if they stay open later. 

4) Berkeley needs more jobs. Unless we can precisely specify what kind of jobs, more jobs only make things worse. Minimum wage retail chains like Eddie Bauer and Blockbuster Video produce some sales tax revenue, but their employees must commute to work, burdening public services enough to wash out the revenue advantage. The University of California  

increasingly relies on under-paid lecturers and graduate students to teach its growing student body, and these employees can’t afford to live in Berkeley either. It’s a chicken-and-egg proposition. If we build predominantly small market-price apartments, and if prices of single-family houses continue to escalate, and if rent-controlled units increasingly house only current residents because of vacancy de-control, we can’t absorb more workers. 

Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Planet.