December in Berkeley. Rusty notes from flocks of geese heading south at last. A trickle of warblers and flycatchers continue to visit streets where fall colors are still on display only a few days before the solstice.
On neighborhood streets seasonal lights and small herds of confused looking white wire reindeer are appearing. Corny? Tacky? Tasteless? I don’t care, I love it. For the next couple of weeks any evening expedition is an excuse to admire my town all gussied up just for the fun of it.
But in daylight, there really isn’t a bad time of year for a stroll around Berkeley. This is only partly because we have so many well-designed, well-preserved older buildings. As much as I enjoy a deft detail in a 19th century gable, it’s the large and small way s present-day residents express themselves that are essential to the appeal of a street. I love to see creative landscaping complement fine old architecture, but even residents of WWII-era bungalows often turn their unpromising tiny front yards into charm ing gardens.
Most any flatland block has things to see that have no purpose but to delight, from a skillfully contrived rock garden with cacti and succulents in all sizes and shapes, to a sculpture of vertical copper wires mirroring adjacent boxed clust ers of horsetails (both on Channing Way below Martin Luther King Jr. Way).
Antique bottles on a front windowsill, a flowering vine trained over an arched gate, a rooftop vent cover serving as garden stupa—On McGee Avenue south of Dwight Way a waterfall i nto a six-foot long rocky stream flows to an 18-inch-wide pool, where an underwater grill protects three small goldfish from cats and raccoons. Another water sculpture, quite different, cascades from a copper pipe into concrete basins in front of a home on Wallace Street.
There are jokes, too. In the mostly African American neighborhood of Idaho Street, if you had a horse, you could tie it to a pink-faced stable boy. At Halloween a front-porch pumpkin on California Street had eight fat legs transforming it into a giant spider.
Even when monsters and reindeer are out of season, fantastic animals in every shape and size are all over town. Some are alive but not lively: topiary vertebrates. Others are constructed with everything from CDs to driftwood. Of c ourse there are real creatures to be seen wherever people have worked to attract birds. On Ward Street above Shattuck Avenue, peek through an intricate wrought-iron gate into a yard alive with twittering, to see a small community of birdbaths and tricklin g fountains.
Of course, there are shades of house paint the first amendment perhaps should not protect. I, or you, might take issue with some folks’ esthetic choices, but since I not only don’t know anything about art, but don’t even always know right aw ay what I like, I love the variety, and enjoy the junky and oddball creations along with the impeccably tasteful.
And I suppose things sometimes get stolen or damaged. I like to think the people—the artists—doing this are ready to accept losses philosop hically, as a cost of enriching their community.
For that is what they are doing, whether they have planted and tended a handsome front garden or fashioned a gargoyle to guard a yardful of found art (on 67th Street near Acton.) By putting their gardenin g, their art, the ornamentation of their homes out front for all to enjoy, they’ve made a generous gift to anyone who passes along Berkeley’s streets. My life is the richer for it, and I’m grateful..