First Person: Lamenting the Loss of The Telegraph of Old

By Phil McArdle
Friday September 01, 2006

Telegraph Avenue has been our Broadway, our Hollywood and Vine, our street of dreams, our own theater of excess. Is it still? Perhaps for some. Maybe for newcomers. It isn’t for me, not any more, even though I go there every once in awhile. It is where I shop for books or CDs I can’t find anywhere else. For me, the street doesn’t have its old aura. It doesn’t promise exciting developments in the arts or politics. I no longer expect anything of it except new chain stores and trouble.  

This is personal, no doubt, partly due to the changes in attitude that creep over a person with time and age. I remember mulling over the state of Berkeley with Jackie Maybeck once a long time ago (she was in her youthful mid-eighties then) and Telegraph came up. “It used to be a useful street,” she said. “I don’t go there anymore.” She meant Telegraph when it was neat and clean, frequented by students, university staff and high-style (sometimes affluent) bohemians. The restaurants were good and the stores carried excellent merchandise. Ceramics imported directly from Picasso’s pottery shop in France were displayed in a store window without any special protection. Young women could walk home from work after dark without being afraid. These changes speak volumes.  

But it’s not just a question of age. It is undeniable that Telegraph Avenue had a special aura in the early ’60s in the days when I arrived here as a student. I wasn’t alone in sensing it. Jerry Rubin has been quoted as saying our generation thought it could conquer the world from Telegraph Avenue. That’s a political way of speaking, but essentially correct. One of my friends was a poet, another an architect, another a novelist, and yet another a musician. Somehow or other the place cast a spell which made us all expect to be participants in great events and, individually, to accomplish great things. What Rubin expressed as conquest was our universal bond of confidence in the future.  

There was a lot of feeling (I stress feeling) that our generation could really change the world for the better. The passion in the vibrant Berkeley air, being American, had a moral tang. Of course, our ideas of peace and freedom and equality were not very well formed. We were susceptible to the excitement of the Kennedy administration with its emphasis on youth and its eagerness to sign us up for its own purposes. It wanted us to solve problems the older generation had found intractable. So did everyone else. All sorts of causes—some noble, some ignoble—crowded in on us, including the drug mountebanks. Out and out criminals were not far behind. All together, they scarcely left  

us time to define our own agenda.  

What brought Telegraph Avenue to the attention of the folks in Duluth was, more than anything else, the anti-war movement. It really was a question of generational survival. Johnson and Westmoreland, like the politicians and generals of World War I, were endlessly ready to throw living bodies into the fire they started rather than to take a single step back. Vietnam would have been—almost was—our Verdun. It is amazing to think that people who would normally have been content to sip coffee in the Mediterraneum and browse through books at Cody’s did so much to stop a horrible war. It was a marvelous achievement. Really astounding.  

But the anti-war movement was so difficult that even now we can hardly count the cost. We don’t want to consider seriously whether, for example, it had the unintended consequence of helping to elect Ronald Reagan to state and national offices. We’ll never read the splendid books that might have been written by people whose creative energies were deflected into resistance to the war.