Editorial: Crying Wolf Can Backfire By BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday August 12, 2005

The Greek slave Aesop told the story of a shepherd boy watching his flock in the hills above town who repeatedly called for help from fellow villagers, saying a wolf was about to attack the sheep. Each time he called, neighbors came, only to find that nothing was happening. Then one day a wolf did come, and the boy cried out for help again. But this time the villagers thought his cries of “wolf, wolf” were false, as before, so they didn’t come, and the wolf devoured the flock.  

Berkeley is a very densely built city, packed with homes and institutions of all kinds. It is inevitable that when an institution wants to expand, there will be neighbors who will feel that their homes are being crowded by what the institution wants. It is a grievous mistake for members and partisans of Berkeley’s numerous institutions to attribute baser motives to neighborhood opposition to their plans.  

Neighbors of the American Baptist Seminary of the West on the south side of the UC campus successfully opposed its plans to construct a new multi-story building. No one accused opponents of anti-Baptistism. 

Disabled residents of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley’s McKinley School building and historic preservation advocates opposed the church’s plans to demolish it. This didn’t make them anti-Presbyterian. The church eventually came up with a new plan that pleased everyone. 

Community gardeners protested the destruction of plants they had cultivated by the new owners of the plot, the Thai Buddhist temple. That wasn’t anti-Buddhistism. When the monks understood the complaints, they apologized for causing distress. 

UC Berkeley’s many expansion sites have been and will continue to be targets of the wrath of neighbors and other citizens. But opponents should not be charged with anti-intellectualism. (Is there a special word for disliking football?) 

Some institutional expansion projects which were undertaken with sensitivity to community wishes have been greeted with open arms from the start. There’s a new synagogue going up on University Avenue, replacing a liquor store, which has been welcomed enthusiastically. The Presbyterian-sponsored Westminster House expansion on Bancroft is considered a great success. UC’s expansion of the Goldman School on Hearst is thought to be as intelligent and sensitive as next-door Soda Hall is hideous. 

Tastes do differ. The new building that Temple Beth El has finished in north Berkeley looks to some like an architectural masterpiece, and to others like a junior high school in Pacoima. But that’s not the point here. The residual dispute that’s causing neighbors (Jewish and non-Jewish) to post complaining signs on their lawn this week is just about parking, the new Berkeley’s most sensitive political topic, one that has torn apart many neighborhoods.  

Neighbors of the Baptist seminary on the south side are now voicing essentially the same complaints as the Beth El neighbors: Their real beef is with the city of Berkeley’s continuing lax enforcement of conditions on use permits for institutions, all kinds of institutions in all sorts of locations. In both of these cases, institution members and neighbors undertook long negotiations in good faith, but now local residents feel that the deal hasn’t been followed.  

Religious institutions in Berkeley, particularly the large ones with regional drawing power like Beth El and ABSW, should remember that they are guests in this city which is our home, and that we are supporting their religious mission, even if we’re not ourselves believers, by providing them with streets to park on while exempting them from paying property taxes. The specific complaints in both cases are technical, too detailed to discuss in this space, but neighbors have some valid points, and they deserve more help than they’ve gotten from Planning Department staff.  

But, please, let’s leave anti-Semitism out of the discussion. Anti-Semitism has absolutely nothing to do with it. Racism has absolutely nothing to do with it. Anti-Semitism and racism are real, living evils, existing in the world and even in Berkeley at this very moment, but they are not the reason some northside residents are annoyed with the institution which has expanded in their neighborhood. And speaking on behalf of all of us who have married into Irish names, the controversy also has nothing to do with America’s historic bias against unlettered Irish immigrants, despite the fact that the congregation’s president is Julie Kennedy (Mrs. Patrick Kennedy, as old-time society editors would have it). 

The danger here, which Aesop’s fable illustrates, is that if careless accusations of anti-Semitism and racism are tossed around in every land-use dispute, when real anti-Semitism and racism rear their ugly heads (and they will), the public will react as the villagers did to the boy who cried wolf, and ignore them. That’s a scenario for disaster.