40 — Okay, 20 — Observations From 40 Years in Berkeley

Tuesday June 29, 2004

I came to Berkeley 40 years ago this month for graduate school at UC. I quickly noticed that the Bay Area was not predominantly flat and gray like my native New Jersey, an annoying land of two temperatures: too hot and too cold. I have ever since considered Berkeley my home, even during two years in Chile and one in Washington in the late 60s.  

I offered the Daily Planet 40 observations from my 40 years in the Peoples Republic. Too long, they said. Here then, for your consternation or amusement, scorn or praise, derision or agreement, are the top 20:  

1. Contrary to its reputation, Berkeley is no more tolerant than other communities. It just tolerates different things than mainstream America. Like anyplace else, it tolerates what it finds acceptable and condemns what it finds offensive. No? A Camel-smoking Bechtel VP moves to Berkeley with a bumper sticker proclaiming “Abortion is Murder” on one side of his 6,400-pound Hummer and on the other, let’s say “From My Cold Dead Hands.” Let’s add a Bush/Cheney sign in the window. If Berkeley had a welcome wagon, it’s be a ‘68 VW van and it would pass this guy right on by.  

2. Berkeley loves diversity; the city’s logo praises diversity—diversity of race and sexual orientation, diversity of income (but not the extremes), diversity of language, culture, and physical abilities. All good. Except the diversity of ideas. Take a letter to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle from Berkeley, tell me the topic, and virtually every time I could tell you the position taken . There isn’t a community in the country as large as Berkeley where the views on controversial issues are more uniform.  

3. The Berkeley polity is dominated by maybe a thousand activists for whom politics is sport. The play politics in exactly the same way others play bridge or tennis. For them, politics is recreational. The activity is more important than the issue. 

4. If you are not one of these activists, you are unlikely to regularly participate in local politics. Ever zealous and often behaviorally challenged, these true-believers drive everyone else out of the process, even those with a predilection to participate. When challenged to get involved, non-activists will always come up with the same mantra: “Life is too short for Berkeley politics.” 

5. These activists do not care that many local government programs neither work as intended nor make any sense, or that they cost way too much or even if they are counter-productive. All that matters is that it feels right and addresses, however lamely, an issue near-and-dear to their collectivist heart. Rather than Do Good Politics, this is Feel Good Politics. 

6. Subscribers to the prevailing Berkeley mindset are obsessed with the distribution of wealth without regard to the generation of wealth. They neither appreciate nor care that wealth is created by human activity; it is not simply lying on the ground like some many gold nuggets to be gathered and distributed in manner that they believe is fair. 

7. This same municipal mindset equates profit with avarice and waste. It neither understands nor appreciates that profit is the driving force behind virtually all wealth and that, as a tool for organizing human activity, profit is way cheaper than bureaucracy. 

8. George Orwell allegedly posited that the problem with socialism is that it takes up too many weekday evenings. Decisions get made by those who are still in their chairs at midnight. To have an impact in Berkeley politics takes an inordinate amount of time. Too bad if you have work the next morning. 

9. Berkeley activists spend a whole lot of time talking to each other. One would think that their goal of social and political change would be better served if they took their signs and leaflets to Piedmont or Hillsborough; better yet, Dallas. 

10. Berkeley is not racist in that neither as a society nor as a polity, does it treat any race in an inferior manner to any other. It is, however, extremely race-conscious, thereby in its own way compensating for perceived racism elsewhere and at other times. This noble sentiment notwithstanding, the concomitant attitudes are paternalistic and patronizing toward the beneficiaries and result in policies that are unfair to others. 

11. Unique in the Bay Area, Berkeley has lost 15-20 percent of its population over the last few decades. This town may be denser than most California cities but Berkeley did not feel overly dense when it had 120,000 people and it doesn’t feel so now. Paradoxically, fewer residents has probably meant more cars on the streets as those who might otherwise live here must drive here.  

12. Berkeley is terribly wire-blighted. Drive up Forest Street from College Avenue and note the difference when the overhead wires disappear. Undergrounding Berkeley’s utility lines would make an immense improvement to the appearance of the community but as long as there is an army of city employees to pay and no Palestinian homeland, our resources and attention will likely remain elsewhere committed. 

13. The City of Berkeley is run by the bureaucrats for the bureaucrats. As labor, city employees get virtually everything the want. In the stale rhetoric of labor and capital, workers and bosses, the subjugated and their rulers, labor prevails uber alles. The City Council is constitutionally incapable of challenging labor, especially unionized labor. As a result, city employees are treated very well. This means not working them too hard, overpaying them, virtually never firing anyone and assuring them a comfortable retirement. 

14. Hayward is six times larger than Berkeley and has 40 percent more people. It has 900 employees: Berkeley has 1,600. What do all these extra people do at $100,000 each? With all this elective activity, dealing with the current budget crisis should be a snap.  

15. Berkeley has the worst drivers in California, probably because too many of them are from Boston, where no one knows how to drive, or New York, where people learn to drive at 30—far too old to garner the essential confidence, physical skills and instincts. 

16. I don’t know why BeTV, (Berkeley's open-access cable station,) can show bare breasts, full-frontal nudity and pretty explicit sexual activity while Howard Stern cannot. I guess one of the participants confined to a wheelchair makes it not pornography. I have no problem with this fare on late night television but I’m not sure such programming is a legitimate function of municipal government. 

17. Berkeley has the greatest concentration of Volvos this side of Scandinavia. They all apparently come with factory-installed leftish bumper stickers. “I’ll take the V-70 station wagon in maroon with air and a sun roof and, oh, maybe, ‘One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Whole Day’ on the bumper.” 

18. “A Nuclear Bomb is Pretty Bad but One Berkeley ‘Progressive’ Can Really Ruin Your Whole Day.” That’d be the bumper sticker on my well-scratched pickup. It is not on my car because I fear that some gentle, peace-loving, tolerant Berkeleyan would respond to my free expression of ideas by taking a key to my trunk. 

19. Everyone in Berkeley hates Emeryville. If Berkeley would accommodate its fair share of larger retailers, traffic would spread out more evenly up and down the bay. The choice here is not having or not having these market-pleasing businesses, but where they go. And, not insignificantly, who gets the substantial tax revenue they generate. 

20. The Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance of 197? has had a mixed impact at best. The initiative likely did prevent the loss of the many good buildings which likely would have been replaced with pretty bad buildings. It also, however, has prevented and continues to prevent the bad from being replaced with the good. Berkeley has plenty of crappy buildings which could and should be replaced. 


Albert Sukoff is an Oakland real estate developer and past president of the Berkeley Property Owners Association.