Page One

Fate of Controversial Sculpture May Be Decided in Council Chambers By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday May 17, 2005

A $50,000 public art project to delineate the border between South Berkeley and North Oakland has created a rift among Berkeley officials and appears headed for a City Council vote. 

By the end of next week, a grassy hill where the BART tracks go underground near the Ashby station is scheduled to be home to eight-foot steel letters proclaiming “Here” to motorists entering Berkeley and “There” to those heading towards Oakland. 

The proposal, one of 19 submitted, was unanimously selected by the Civic Arts Commission and approved by the City Council in 2003, but now that the letters are ready at least two councilmembers want to scuttle the work. 

“It can be seen as a put-down to Oakland,” said Councilmember Dona Spring, adding that she intended to call for a council vote to halt the work’s installation. The project is currently listed on the council’s agenda as an information report. 

Other items on Tuesday’s agenda: The council is scheduled to consider proposals to reduce the number of annual meetings for about two dozen city commissions and to vote on a Precautionary Principle ordinance, a model for making proactive environmentally sensitive decisions in city purchasing, contracting and other activities. 

A public hearing on the proposed budget for fiscal year 2006 is also scheduled for the meeting. 

Opponents of the “Here, There” sculpture say they fear the work would call attention to a Berkeley-Oakland divide at a time when Oakland police have said drug dealers from both cities have engaged in border wars. 

“The turf war is real,” said Laura Menard, president of a South Berkeley Crime Prevention Council, “I think it will underscore the type of base logic that goes on with these territorial wars.” 

Besides fear of violence, opponents say they are hesitant to label Oakland as “there” in light of the oft-quoted statement by writer Gertrude Stein, who said of Oakland, the city where she was born, “There’s no there there.”  

“By using a literary reference, what it says is ‘we’re smart and rich and you’re nowhere,’” said Civic Arts Commissioner Bonnie Hughes, who voted in favor of the project, but has since reversed her position. The quote from Stein, who left the city as a girl after her parents died, meant not that Oakland had nothing to offer, but that the Oakland of her youth no longer existed. 

“Why can’t people lighten up a little bit?” said Steven Gillman, an Oakland artist, who along with Katherine Keefer, designed the work. Gillman described the sculpture as an artistic alternative to putting up signage alerting motorists that they had entered a different city, and didn’t understand why “Here/There” would be more divisive than a standard sign. 

“It seems people can turn just about anything into some kind of negative problem,” he said. 

Oakland officials haven’t raised any objections, according to David Snippen, former chair of the Civic Arts Commission and a fan of the work. 

“The Oakland committee thought it was great. They saw the humor in it,” he said, adding that Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown was expected to attend a celebration for the project on June 7. 

Councilmembers who don’t quite get the humor haven’t given up trying change it. Kriss Worthington, whose district borders Oakland, has proposed making the sculpture read, “Here, There and Everywhere,” referencing a Beatles song. 

“It’s an opportunity to turn it into something more humorous,” he said. 

Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, with tongue in cheek, suggested placing the letters on a rotating platform so both cities could at different times be “here” and “there.” 

“For Christ’s sake,” said Gillman, upon learning of the proposals. “I don’t understand why these issues weren’t addressed when the council approved the budget two years ago, not one week before it’s installed.” 

Mary Ann Merker, the city’s civic arts coordinator, said financial constraints would make it difficult to approve last-second modifications. Adding a platform or additional words, she said, would send the project above the $50,000 already budgeted and spent through a city policy allocating 1.5 percent of capital improvement projects to public art. 

Gillman insisted the work is a bargain for the price and that the council should be content with it. 

“They’re getting a world-class piece,” he said. “And now they seem like a bunch of scared chickens running around worried and frightened.”