Editorial: April 1st Brings Memories By Becky O'Malley

Friday March 31, 2006

Last week I pulled an unopened box of shredded wheat off the top shelf in our pantry to offer to grandchildren, and happened to notice that its “sell by” date was 2003. That’s how long it’s been since I visited that shelf, and, not coincidentally, that’s how long we’ve been running this paper. Many things in our lives stopped when this enterprise started. The relentless pressure of twice-weekly deadlines, coupled with the never-ending minutiae of running an understaffed small business, leaves little time for frivolous entertainments like eating shredded wheat.  

The first issue of the revived Berkeley Daily Planet came out on April 1, 2003, an amusing date which is also the anniversary of the city charter. For literature majors of my generation, T.S. Eliot was hands-down the poet most taught and most read in academia, and few of us turn the calendar page to April without thinking of the first lines of “The Waste Land”:  


April is the cruelest month, breeding 

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing 

Memory and desire, stirring  

Dull roots with spring rain. 


For a bred-in-the-bone Californian, these lines are perhaps less poignant, but those of us who have spent any time in places where everything dies in winter can’t fail to be moved by them. April is the month of hope, cruel because the hope is inevitably touched by nostalgia and anxiety.  

What were our hopes for the Planet three years ago? Here’s part of it: 

“Local coverage well done can give local citizens the information they need to take responsibility for the actions of local government.” Have we succeeded in this goal? Some would say we’ve succeeded too well, since we’ve just lost one of our liveliest writers to participation in the political process. There’s certainly been more talk about what local governments, not only Berkeley’s but those of our neighbors north and south, are up to. But has it affected their actions? Have outcomes been altered? That’s not clear. 

As we were launching, the Fine Arts Theater was being demolished, and the UC Theater stood empty. Despite the developer’s pious and hypocritical promises that Fine Arts would be rebuilt, neither theater has been revived as a film venue. This week we’ve heard that another Berkeley movie house, the Landmark Act 1&2, is closing. Could the Berkeley city government have done anything to prevent this, or are we simply at the mercy of international economic forces which are destroying local movie houses everywhere?  

This is just one example. There’s a host of other failures and missed opportunities for government responsibility in other arenas which the paper has chronicled but not yet affected. Thanks to the Planet, citizens have learned about the infinite variety of casinos being foisted on the East Bay, but have they been stopped? Will the Albany shore be turned into a hideous and vulgar shopping center?  

Is it worth the time and effort it takes to shine a little light on what’s going on for our readers?  

And would it have been worth it after all….? asked Eliot’s Prufrock.  

Many of our readers live very comfortable lives despite the storms raging around us. Northern California is as close to paradise on earth as makes no difference. Berkeley has become Valhalla for many successful warriors who have made their mark elsewhere. They’ve moved to Berkeley (or just “winter” in Berkeley) to live peacefully in some Maybeckian eyrie in the hills, venturing out occasionally to one of our many exquisite restaurants, submitting to an occasional interview by a member of the Eastern media in a lovely hillside garden. For readers like this, the daily struggles of flatland readers with congestion and pollution as chronicled in these pages must seem remote. It must be hard for them to imagine the indignation felt by those whose major neighborhood open space is the BART parking lot, now coveted as a development site by those who profit from the building process.  

But for all of us here, in hills and flats alike, there’s a constant temptation to abandon today’s fray in whatever way we can afford, to enjoy whatever serenity and comfort we can manage. For many, it’s mostly in our much-maligned Back Yard, a place of refuge—but only until it’s assaulted by someone who wants to shadow it with a big ugly building. And we get the same anguished complaints from hill-dwellers who face losing a precious view. 

It’s a shame that Eliot died before hyperlinks were available. “The Waste Land,” his central work, is loaded with allusions, some of which are modestly footnoted, but he could have gone wild with modern tools for connecting the dots. He quotes there a line of Baudelaire’s which is a favorite of mine. I think of it frequently when I’m at any gathering of Berkeley notables, or when I’m reading the letters to the editor in the Planet:  

“…hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere..” (Hypocritical reader, my look-alike, my brother.) 

The paper has had a spate of letters recently from self-righteous people who challenge other residents’ rights to defend their own little corner of the earth, hollering NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) as if it were an insult instead of the rallying cry of the Love Canal victims. As an Ashby Avenue resident of 35 years, I can’t help being offended myself by the writer who is more than willing to add to the enormous traffic burden that those of us who live on this residential street carry (probably at significant risk to our health) just so that he can have a cheap grocery store in his own back yard. But that’s what the paper is for, to put all kinds of ideas out in the open for scrutiny and challenge, even though some of them are offensive to some of us some of the time. It all comes down to a question of whose ox is being gored, or whose backyard is being invaded.