Public Comment

Commentary: Berkeley’s Image After Forty Years

By Krishna P. Bhattacharjee
Friday July 14, 2006

I visited the city of Berkeley and the campus of the University of California after a period of forty years, on my way back from participating at the U.N. World Urban Forum conference held during June 19 to 24, 2006 in Vancouver, Canada. 

I am a former graduate student of UC Berkeley; and by profession, an architect, city planner, former professor in architecture and a freelance writer & author, based in Calcutta. I worked as a professional in San Francisco and Oakland for a couple of years prior to returning to India. 

It was a great experience to re-visit Berkeley, a friendly city and known throughout the world for the famous university around which the city has grown and developed. The institutional buildings abutting Bancroft Avenue, the Student Union building, Sproul Hall, the Law building and the recently developed Museum complex have remained intact. Many new buildings have been added beyond Sather Gate; however, there is no dramatic change in campus landscape. 

The city of Berkeley has changed, but it was difficult to judge whether the city has changed to provide better living conditions along with access to basic amenities, such as housing, green open space, schools and social facilities, commercial and services at an affordable price. On the other hand, it is to be seen whether the city is being driven by the commercial forces. 

During a walk down Bancroft Way, Telegraph, Durant, and the surrounding blocks, and having talked to some local shop keepers and local residents, I discovered that rent for shops and commercial establishments is going up fast; the old small shop owners are moving out. This has happened to the camera shop (which I found had closed on June 26, 2006) located opposite to Rexall Drugstore on Telegraph Avenue. Other well-known shops have closed too: recently, Cody’s bookstore. Cal Book store at the corner of Telegraph and Bancroft closed long ago; it was a landmark for the students. Back in the late ’60s there was a restaurant and coffee shop on Telegraph (opposite Rexall drugstore), where the film “The Graduate” was shot and Dustin Hoffman acted; the place was a landmark; it does not exist any more. It is indeed sad that these prominent landmarks do not exist anymore. 

What is a city without landmarks and historical buildings? Image of cities have close relationship with landmarks, historical buildings and a vibrant living environment.  

A city must preserve its historical buildings and landmarks to provide an exciting living environment. These issues have been stressed by well-known author, architect and planner Jane Jacob, who taught at Berkeley and who described her vision of a living city in her book Death and Life of Great American Cities. 

She championed her cause for preserving the quality of neighborhood by preserving the stores and popular coffee shops/eateries, museums, cultural centers and even historical buildings where people frequently visit, and remembering the city with those images. For this she was honored this past June 19 at the World Urban Forum in Vancouver, Canada. 

Canadian by birth, she is now an icon in Canada for her determination to create livable cities where people get preference over commercialization and competition. 

Kevin Lynch in his book Image of the Cities lays stress on preserving landmarks, monuments, parks and playgrounds to have a clearer view of the city; as these objects are easily remembered by citizens. Berkeley’s citizens and local authority must come forward to preserve its landmarks and monuments as well as its green spaces. 

At this year’s World Urban Forum in Vancouver, Prof. John Friedman, City Planner, who taught for many years in University of Southern California, delivered a special lecture on the “Wealth of Cities” in which he echoed the thoughts of Jane Jacob and Kevin Lynch and at the same time talked about the development of infrastructure and services for expansion of airports and new information technology based industries. He also highlighted that utmost attention be directed towards the people of the city and the living environment.  

It is indeed heartening to read the Letters to the Editors of Berkeley Daily Planet (June 20-22), where George Beier has written on “A 12 Point Plan for Revitalizing Telegraph,” which includes some positive steps for the city, such as: establishing a Telegraph Avenue Commission; completely re-thinking the quota system; maintaining a close relationship between the city and the university; building long term affordable housing and condominiums; preserving the parks and increase their usage; considering the Free Speech Trail. 

The Commentary article titled “How to create a Lively ‘Green’ Oasis in Downtown” by Kirstin Miller (April 28-May 1, 2006) makes positive suggestions on how to provide a large green space within the heart of Berkeley, so that “within this green urban oasis, human voices and sound of running water and singing birds would come alive without the usual competition from cars and traffic. It would be a beautiful downtown center celebrating Berkeley’s natural and architectural past while demonstrating a commitment to the sustainable future.” Such green oases exists on both sides of Orchard Street in Singapore and that is why the city is evergreen and people from around the world love to go there and walk and sit within the green spaces. 

It’s disturbing to hear news that a strained relationship between the city and the UC Berkeley has been brewing for some time; this must come to a peaceful end through discussions and consensus. A symbiotic relationship must exist between the city and the university as they are complementary to each other. The sooner this is achieved the better it will be for the city and the university. Former residents of Berkeley, like myself, would like to return to the city again and remember it as a friendly and vibrant city preserving historical buildings, shops, cultural centers and neighborhood parks and green spaces. 

Let’s make it a sustainable green city (it may be the first of its kind). To achieve this, recycling of waste is essential; moreover, due consideration should be given to generating power from non-conventional energy, so that less harmful greenhouse gases are emitted, and the city can preserve its green character. 



Krishna P. Bhattacharjee is an architect and city planner living in Calcutta, India.