Commentary: A Modest Proposal For a Berkeley Roadside Attraction By ALBERT SUKOFF

Friday August 20, 2004

After decades of living in Berkeley, I have come to the conclusion that the dominant political forces in this town are sufficiently entrenched that significant change in the short term is unlikely. Their view of the world, somewhere between left-of-center and way-left-of-center, does not consume everyone in Berkeley, but it is sufficiently widespread that the current flavor of local governance will probably endure for the foreseeable future. As the rest of the country has gone decidedly, if fitfully, to the right, Berkeley has stayed with its basic 1960s mentality. Almost certainly Berkeley has attracted those who find it conducive to their own political proclivities and repelled those who feel otherwise, thereby reinforcing itself as a the nation’s citadel of collectivist wisdom.  

Official Berkeley operates from a premise that there is more or less a monolithic polity in this town and that the local government, by word and by deed, should promote the credo pertaining thereto. The Mods and the Progs duke it out and those who do not subscribe to one camp or the other are Trogs. They deserve—and get—no consideration.  

Paradoxically this city has a reputation as a bastion of “progressive” politics but is at the same time reactionary in the truest sense of the word, i.e. it reacts negatively to virtually any proposal for change. Berkeley, in fact, strives very hard not to change. While Emeryville thrived and Oakland prospered throughout the ‘90s, Berkeley chose to spurn a decade of opportunity offered by some of the most sustained economic growth in history. The Bay Area may be the heart of the new economy but Berkeley wants none of it. Is it any wonder that Silicon Valley spun out of Stanford and not UCB? Even San Francisco, like-minded to a degree, allowed the industrial South of Market area to grow and change and become a vibrant urban place. Berkeley, on the other hand, has no interest in more of anything. It wants no more housing, no more cars, no more CAL, no more offices, no more stores, no more, no more, no. No! NO! Berkeley’s municipal mantra is: “We don’t want any!” Several years ago, a spokesperson for the so-called Berkeley Party summed it up: “We’ve done our growth.”  

If truth be told, “progressive” Berkeley does not want to progress but rather to regress. To where? The more accurate question would be: to when? The obvious answer: back to the glorious ‘60s, of course. I say, let’s do it. If economic development in the usual sense is such an anathema, Berkeley should adopt the model of Williamsburg, VA. Berkeley could become a community frozen in the 1960s, just as Williamsburg, for the edification and amusement of tourists, is a colonial town frozen in the 1760s. I would propose that the area from Sather Gate, through the Sproul Plaza and down Telegraph Avenue to Dwight Way, become a dedicated theme park named, of course—ta da—SIXTIESLAND.  

Tourists could be bussed in from San Francisco to see this living anthropological display. Daily demonstrations would be scheduled on the plaza: the Free Speech Movement would be recreated at 10 o’clock, filthy speech at noon and an generic anti-war theme would take center stage at 2 o’clock. The highlight of the day would come every afternoon at 4 o’clock with a recreation of the 1964 incident when demonstrators encircled a police car, a bronze replica of which would be installed as a permanent sculpture on Sproul Plaza. A Mario Savio look-alike would take to the roof and give the memorable throw-your-bodies-on-the-levers-of-the-machine speech. Holy Hubert would threaten all with hell and damnation at Ludwig’s Fountain a few feet away. (A little theatrical license compacting time and space for dramatic effect is permissible here.) All this would culminate when, taunted as “pigs,” the police stage an attack, a pair of paddy wagons roar in with sirens blaring, the demonstrators go limp and are carried off one-by-one, chanting as they are thrown into the vehicles. End of show. Round of applause. The actors emerge from the wagons, take a bow, sing a few choruses of Kumbaya and pass the hat for a monetary expression of appreciation from the tourists. At the height of the summer season, simultaneous demonstrations on the upper AND lower plazas would be offered and maybe even an occasional appearance by hometown ‘60s celebs Country Joe McDonald and Wavy Gravy.  

Telegraph Avenue would be reconstituted with shops and street venders, each a fitting exemplar of the politics and/or craftsmanship of the period. Tourists would watch ersatz hippies as they tie-dye t-shirts, dip scented candles, tool leather and macramé basket hangers; all items available for a few filthy establishment lucre. Also on sale: beaded curtains, sandals, bell-bottoms pants, lava lamps, peace symbol jewelry, fringed leather jackets and, of course, time-appropriate bumper stickers. Anticipated as very big sellers: reproduction concert posters featuring classic artists who never saw their 30s; i.e. the ever-popular Janis and Jimi collection. And, of course, this homage to the ‘60s would not be complete without a head shop featuring a wide array of drug paraphernalia, with maybe something like the world’s largest collection of roach clips in the window. (The city attorney advises that the actual drugs cannot be a formal part of the program but a wafting odor of marijuana in the air would likely be ignored.) At the reestablished Cinema Guild (Pauline Kael’s little repertory movie house) a double bill of Easy Rider and The Seventh Seal would run daily from morning to late evening, to be followed by a midnight-only showing of Reefer Madness.  

The economic benefits on this program are obvious. Students could be employed as period hippies and street people as, well, street people. Hippies, both vestigial and reconstituted, would wander up and down Telegraph Avenue excoriating capitalism and the “system.” A cottage industry would emerge to make all the ‘60s memorabilia. Eventually, if all goes well, Berkeley could build the “Museum of the ‘60s” with a psychedelic VW bus on the front steps and inside, maybe a wax vignette of Max Scheer putting together the first issue of the Berkeley Barb. If done right, Berkeley could proclaim its values to the world. Ya’know, a little peace, a little love, some sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and a whole lot of government to run your life. Berkeley knows how the world should be and this is its chance to show it. Man, it would be soooo groooovy.  


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