Commentary: West Berkeley’s Silent Majority Wants a Grocery Store By CHRISTINE STAPLES

Tuesday December 13, 2005

Welcome to my neighborhood. We live in the block just east of San Pablo Avenue. We describe each other’s houses based on their “S.P. Factor”—N. and her husband and 2-year-old, they’re as close as you can be to San Pablo, so they have the highest S.P. factor. They mostly deal with the hookers. L. and her husband and 2-year-old live up the block, where the issue is more the drug dealers and the midnight “donuts.” Me, I live in the middle of the block with my husband and 5-year-old; I call about domestic violence and gunshots. The east side of San Pablo is the “tony” side; one block to the west is where things really get exciting. 

My neighborhood is the place where the businesses that people want (but not in their neighborhoods) wash up: auto shops, salvage yards, an impound lot, housing projects, a medical marijuana dispensary. And chemicals; I don’t know how many Berkeley residents have the “When you hear the safety sirens” instructions magnet from Bayer labs up on their refrigerator, but we all do. There’s a place around the corner called “Ali Baba Beef Kebab,” which was closed because of toxic ground contaminants. I hear from my neighbor Ted that the food there was great; now it’s a parking lot for the neighboring auto repair shop. And we have liquor stores—boy, do we have liquor stores. It’s really weird how some areas of the neighborhood, totally residential areas, have one on every other corner. (Typically, the “other” corner is a church.) And of course, there’s prostitution and drug dealing. The one thing we don’t have is a full-service grocery store. 

How much actual benefit do the residents of South and West Berkeley derive from the businesses we host? I’m not saying that these businesses have no merit; hey, you’ve got to get your car repaired somewhere, and, yeah, rescuing stuff from the landfill is a good thing. But do these things directly benefit my neighbors?  

There’s this concept called “environmental justice.” Basically, it means that all of the freeways and toxic waste sites somehow manage to land in the poorest parts of town. Well, that’s us. Hey, we didn’t ask to be the auto-repair and used-toilet capitol of Berkeley, but here we are. Poor people tend to be an accommodating group. See, one of the problems is, poor people don’t necessarily write letters to the editor or attend Planning Commission meetings. Heck, some of them can’t read or speak English. So nobody spoke up when those businesses moved into the neighborhood. And now, not very many of them are showing up at the planning meetings about the proposed West Berkeley Bowl either, so they aren’t there to say, “Well of course we’d like a grocery store!” 

According to the most recent City of Berkeley Health Status Report, “Health data shows that African Americans in Berkeley have significantly higher premature death rates for preventable or manageable diseases such as hypertension, stroke and diabetes” than whites and Asians. The report also shows that premature deaths in South and West Berkeley occur at close to four times the rate of the more affluent parts of the city, and that hospitalization for diabetes occurs at rates ten times higher for African Americans and three times higher for Latinos than for the white and Asian populations. Have you noticed who lives in my neighborhood? Am I getting my point across? 

Our neighborhood, unfortunately, tends to sit there and take it. Well, for the first time in my memory, a business that would directly benefit the residents of that neighborhood in a very real, tangible way wants to move in. A business that would benefit more people than any other business, any other land use that I can think of.  

I have heard most of the arguments against the West Berkeley Bowl, and I couldn’t help but notice that most of them are from people who don’t actually live in the neighborhood; they’re mostly people whose businesses are in the neighborhood or who frequent the neighborhood. They have a right to their opinions, but why are their opinions heard so much louder and more often than everyone else’s, with lawyers along for counterpoint? It’s the same stuff over and over. I’d like to point out: We didn’t complain when they moved their businesses to our neighborhood; now we’d like them to return the favor.  

The citizens of West Berkeley deserve to have access to healthy, affordable food. They should not be treated as second-class citizens, worthy only of the dumping grounds of the wealthier neighborhoods. The question is, will the disenfranchised, silent majority most in need of this project wind up with a grocery store, or will the vocal, powerful minority drown them out? 


Christine Staples is a West Berkeley resident and a stay-at-home mom.