Public Comment

The Downtown Berkeley Blues

David Nebenzahl
Friday June 16, 2006

Reading about the recent losses (first Cody’s, now Radstons), gives me a profound sense of déjà vu, as I saw essentially the same thing happen to downtown Palo Alto in the mid-’90s. A thriving central business district that had local shops which actually supplied real needs turned into a frou-frou boutique zone for the nouveau riche (aka “yuppie scum”). As in Berkeley today, the primary culprit was the same: rising rents that forced out long-time tenants. 

When I arrived there in about 1990, there was a real music store plus a sheet-music seller, a sewing machine shop, a long-time local coffee roaster (McMillan Coffee), several independent booksellers (both new and used), and a long-established local stationer. Along with the usual assortment of restaurants were a number of small eateries where one could get a quick bite to eat inexpensively that wasn’t necessarily from some far-off exotic place or the trend-o-matic cuisine du jour. 

All these places are now history. 

The parallels with what’s happening in Berkeley are clear. So what can we learn from this? Why is this happening? Why are rents going sky-high? What, if anything, can be done about it? 

Unfortunately, I’m fairly sure that the answer to the last question is “pretty much nothing.” The yuppification of Palo Alto proceeded fairly quietly, while in Berkeley there is the obligatory hue and cry, accompanied by much liberal hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth. All of which provides balm for our souls, but not much in the way of actual change in the real world. Because, as it turns out, there’s only so much that those in city government can do. Short of a commercial rent-control policy with teeth (yeah, like that’s gonna happen!), what can the city do that would actually reverse rising rents and the flight of businesses? (In the spirit of giving credit where it’s due, the proposed streamlining of business permits for the Telegraph Ave. district is probably a step in the right direction.) 

The irksome thing is that there probably were lots of things that the city could have done in the past to stave off the present situation, starting with not rolling over and playing dead every time an incoming business asked for special favors. But now that the barn door is open ... Since the city’s hands are essentially tied, I’d much prefer it if city officials didn’t grandstand and pretend that they can reverse the remaking of downtown Berkeley in the image of New World Capital. The problem is that this tends to give their constituents false hope that maybe, just maybe, they can “save” Cody’s and Radstons and the Elmwood Pharmacy and Ozzie’s (and while you’re at it, how about Edy’s?) by rallying the good citizens against the evil chains, etc. But I ask them: just how are you going to bring that about? Mind you, I agree with their sentiment. I’d love to see the corporate invaders run out of town and replaced by home-grown businesses. I just don’t see any realistic way to actually make this happen, given current economic realities. So don’t promise what you can’t deliver. 


David Nebenzahl is a North Oakland