Commentary: Perception is Reality: The New Berkeley By BONNIE HUGHES

Tuesday June 07, 2005

Berkeley once was a place where ideals were pursued, where movements to make the world greener and more just were rooted, where openness and free speech were championed.  

Today it seems as though the city has been turned upside down. Benign smiles and cordiality at City Council meetings mask secret meetings that bring forth new alliances and sell out the people. Did I miss the meeting when the council decreed that Perception is Reality? To think we are now using Bush’s play book!  

While the mayor is an enthusiastic advocate for the environment, proclaiming the greenness of Berkeley far and wide, back home he is working to build more parking garages we don’t need, signing secret agreements with UC to further burden the city with the university’s development designs on the downtown, and using the federal Brown Fields money (intended for cleaning up toxic sites) to finance the underground parking at the Brower Center. In the secret agreement, he not only settled for a smaller fee for municipal services than UC offered, but he gave them a voice in and veto power over downtown planning.  

In the meantime the excuses that come from City Hall are an offense to our sensibilities. We have had five years of deceit pouring out of Washington. We surely have enough experience by now to know when a majority of our City Council is misleading us. For those of you troubled by this evaluation, what would you have done if Shirley Dean had made secret deals with the university?  

We all know the heart of our city is in trouble. But the downtown diaspora brought on by mindless development will not likely be fixed by bringing in the university and doing more studies and drawing up yet another plan, which will most likely blame it on the young and less fortunate. It will recommend a more stringent Measure O for panhandlers, locking the gates on those rowdy high school students at lunch time, and of course more parking.  

As a resident of downtown Berkeley I get the picture every day (reflected in the empty store windows) and have reluctantly concluded that there must be an evil god of parking garages that has blinded people to reality. Except to visit the library and to have lunch, there is little reason for anyone to come downtown in the daytime. After 47 years at their Shattuck location, Phoenix Optical moved to North Oakland yesterday. On June 30, after 99 years, Tupper & Reed will be a thing of the past. The small, owner-operated shops that made downtown Berkeley an interesting place have hit the road. Can you remember when downtown meant Edys’ hot fudge sundaes, the Blue and Gold Market, Pooh’s Corner, Huston’s shoes, the Kitchen, Hinks Department Store, Mrs.Bentley’s—she almost always said, “you don’t think you're going to fit into that, do you?”  

For the last 15 years I have watched developers come in and change the face of my street. Now it is an oasis of expensive apartments with revolving tenants and endless blocks of empty storefronts with rents that drove the shops out and keep them away. Buildings boldly carry names that are affronts to their history—the no-Gaia, Gaia Building; the Fine Arts Theater-less, Fine Arts Building, which sports a marquee advertising nothing...is that the whimper T.S. Eliot wrote of?  

But the prize for irony came only last week with the announcement that the new owners of the Seagate Building (the building for which the mayor’s people and the Berkeley Rep and Seagate carved out a secret deal to give the Rep all the mitigated space) have renamed it... the “Arpeggio,” while within the building, there will be not one square foot for music.  

And that’s how ”perception is reality” comes to be proclaimed from the towering rooftops of our city.  

Berkeley once was a place where ideals were pursued, where openness and free speech were championed. After a prolonged illness, that dream died, just the other day.  

The Emperor gave over His domain to the university for a song.  

But not before He etched our new motto onto the rubber stamps who make up a majority of the City Council and the commission members they appoint to carry out His orders.  

Anger gives way to a deep sadness. For the first time in my life, I feel as though there is a possibility that our nation and our city are beyond repair.  


Bonnie Hughes is a long-time Berkeley resident.