Column: The View From Here: Forget Derby Street — Do Something About MLK

By P.M. Price
Friday September 08, 2006

And what is my view from here? As I look out on my street, Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, I hear more than see it. The rumble of trucks, the screeching of bad brakes as another pedestrian barely escapes the peril of crossing MLK at Stuart Street. I smell it, too. The toxic exhaust from far too many cars streaming through this residential neighborhood, cutting it in half, covering what used to be delicious, edible frontyard blackberries and plums with scary brown dust.  

Without any consideration for what this neighborhood used to be, perhaps the most ethnically and financially diverse community in this fair town—our city managers chose to turn the southern part of MLK into a mini-highway so that those who do not live nearby can more easily race to and from the freeway. 

My children have suffered from headaches since they were toddlers. The constant outside noise makes it difficult to sleep without some sort of numbing inside noise—a fan, soft music or one of those sound machines pretending to be ocean waves or soft rain or whatever it takes to cocoon you to sleep. Open the front door and dust particles fly through the air, covering window sills, sneaking into the hallway, the dusty din drowning out whatever conversation you were trying to hold on your front porch.  

For years, I have been talking up the idea of turning MLK between Dwight and Ashby into what it used to be, a single lane each way street with a green median strip down the middle where a streetcar used to run. Traffic can be diverted onto Adeline and Shattuck—business streets—instead. My neighbors and I have requested relief in the form of additional slow streets, signage warning of children and pedestrians crossing, lighted crosswalks like they have on College and Solano and signs doubling fines for not yielding to pedestrians, like they have up on northern MLK, just before it magically turns into The Alameda.  

Hundreds of children cross MLK at Stuart every day on their way to and from Willard Middle School, Longfellow Elementary School and Berkeley High School and most drivers do not stop for them. Most drivers do not seem to care if you are elderly, pregnant, a child or an adult—they do not stop. More than one person has been struck in this intersection and barely a month goes by without a car accident. Still, there is only one poorly demarcated, unlit crosswalk at MLK and Stuart and no signage warning of pedestrians or fines at all. 

What we don’t need is additional traffic brought into our neighborhood to play and watch baseball.  

If you were to look at an aerial view of Berkeley, it would be easy to see where the abundance of trees, parks and open space lies. It ain’t around here. Before it was fenced in, the Derby Street field gave us some breathing room, a place where neighbors could meet, with and without their dogs, and play catch with their children, read a book or even fly a kite. A bench or a tree would have been nice but even without that, we enjoyed the space. It was a focal point in a community lacking open space, just as the Derby Street Farmer’s Market and the Ashby Flea Market are both focal points and are both now threatened by a city government not in touch with this community. 

Sure it would be nice if the BHS baseball team had a field nearby they could walk to—would they actually be walking or would they be driven to this field? And what about other BHS athletes without adequate playing space? Do they want to share this field as well? And what about the needs of the taxpayers who support BHS—not the parents who live elsewhere, but the parents who live right here, all set to be bombarded by the night lights, cheers, screams, cursing, traffic and garbage bound to pile up in the game’s wake. What about our families, our sensibilities, our needs?  

This community has already tolerated being turned into a highway for the convenience of others. We have plenty of liquor stores but no bookstores. We have plenty of access to unhealthy fast foods but there ain’t no “gourmet” in this ghetto. (With the notable exceptions of the Berkeley Bowl—which is always so crowded we neighbors can barely make it in the door, much less the parking lot—and the delicious new addition of Sweet Adeline, our very own community bakery.)  

The other day as I stepped into a clearly marked crosswalk (not at MLK and Stuart) a guy with thick black hair driving a fancy black car almost ran me over. I glared at him as I walked around his ride.  

“Ya wouldn’t have that problem if ya was drivin’!” he yelled at me in a thick New Jersey accent.  

I kid you not. And therein lies the problem. We don’t make things our problems until they are actually our problems. And by then, it’s usually too late.