Editorial: Do-It-Yourself Leadership By BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday March 10, 2006

Lately we’ve been privileged to get some short letters from Pat Cody, someone who has always been in the forefront of doing what needs to be done around here. She founded Cody’s Books with her husband Fred, the first bookstore in the Bay Area if not in the country to feature quality paperback books and to stay open for those of us who needed a reading fix late at night. My memory is that the original Cody’s, on the north side of campus, was open 24 hours a day, but that might be an exaggeration. 

Later Pat founded DES Action, a non-profit organization dedicated to informing the public about the dangers of DES (diethylstilbestrol) when taken during pregnancy, and to helping DES-exposed individuals. It’s had international impact.  

Pat’s always been a pioneer, always two steps ahead of everyone else identifying needs and filling them. Now she’s going boldly towards old age, and in the process creating a road map for those of us who hope to follow her there with pointers on what we’re all going to need as we get older. A February letter to the Planet commented that among the deficiencies of the Adeline post office was a lack of seats for older patrons: “South Berkeley has NO numbers system and only ONE chair. Many of the patrons are elderly and will appreciate bringing the station up to date with a numbers system and more chairs.”  

This week she’s sent a similar suggestion: “Many of us elders walk daily for our health and for errands, as we no longer drive. I want to advocate more resting stops, like the ones found at bus stops, but scattered through neighborhoods where buses do not go. Lack of such benches keeps many elders virtually housebound.” 

A place to sit and rest—it’s a simple thing, but much missed if it’s not there when it’s needed. If we’re ever going to be able to give people a real option of getting around without cars, we need to make sure that public places are accommodating for pedestrians whose mobility is limited. 

It’s not just old folks, either. I had a knee injury a few years ago, and was unable to stand for very long even though I could walk pretty well, and it seriously limited my activities. Much of Berkeley is designed for the convenience of people in two wildly disparate categories, bicycle riders and wheelchair users, but there are a lot of folks in between, and their needs are seldom considered.  

In one of the many expensive and pointless remodels of the downtown streetscape a few years ago, some seats were even removed, and others made more uncomfortable, with the stated objective of making it harder for homeless people to hang out there. And also for the rest of us, of course. (The re-done Union Square in San Francisco is the ugliest recent example of this inhospitable theory.)  

Would it be possible to convince whoever makes the decisions about Berkeley streetscapes to install a few benches in our walking neighborhoods? It seems highly unlikely, since the main priority of civic spending these days seems to be bigger and better pensions for civil servants. What if the benches were donated? Would the city allow them to be installed on the strips between the sidewalk and the curb? For a few years there was an inexpensive park bench cemented in next to a bus stop on Ashby near Telegraph, clearly donated by the residents for the convenience of bus riders, but now it’s gone. Did The Authorities make them take it out?  

Here’s a radical idea: What if homeowners and tenants just put benches in our own front yards and invited passers-by to sit down when they needed to? Benches in public places, especially in England, often bear commemorative plaques; this would be a fine way of honoring the memory of departed friends. The East Bay has quite a few local merchants who sell nice garden furniture: Each of these might be persuaded to designate a sturdy, inexpensive model from their stock as an appropriate bench for front yards. (Sadly, these would probably have to be very heavy or else chained down—we put an old metal garden bench in our front yard once and it eventually wandered off.)  

We could start, for example, with the Norine Smith Memorial Bench, to honor another woman who walked everywhere and was never afraid to tackle whatever needed to be done. A do-it-ourselves plan like this one seems much more likely to succeed than any campaign to persuade city mothers and fathers that they should install some seats along our sidewalks. This is an administration, don’t forget, which thought that what the venerable, genteel and cozy Le Bateau Ivre Restaurant on Telegraph really needed was some motorcycle parking spaces out front. We can do better than that on our own. Let’s get on it.