By Carol Denney
Another day, another short-sighted plan for Berkeley’s shuttered-up downtown. Longtime observers will yawn, put down their papers, and actually be completely up to date on the local planning groups’ most current recommendations, which are nearly identical to the last set.
Berkeley craves a bustling, economically healthy downtown, but refuses to acknowledge that those people need a place to sit, a place to park, a reason to be there, and a place to use a restroom from time to time. Movie houses collapse, businesses of nearly 100 years’ duration finally can’t make the rent required for the new lease, landlords double the cost of business’ overhead, and the Berkeley City Council and the cronies they’re still content to appoint can’t figure out what the street people downtown figured out a long time ago; downtown Berkeley is a very uncomfortable place to be.
People who spend a lot of time on the street, i.e. “homeless” people, sound a lot like people who remember Berkeley from several decades ago when they discuss the matter. There’s no place where you can sit with a friend and just enjoy the day for a reasonable stretch of time, since there is no place with a consistently clean bathroom to use when needed.
There’s no place you can safely leave your vehicle so that you can see a movie, or so that you don’t have to cart around everything you’ve picked up during the day, without running the risk of an extremely expensive ticket or worse, or having everything you own towed away and possibly destroyed.
Even the police rely on parking in residential neighborhoods, and can be seen sprinting to move their cars just ahead of the parking enforcement operators, that is, those that don’t have a “special understanding” with the department to avoid ticketing certain cars.
Representatives on the latest planning committee can’t resist insisting that the imposition of a completely artificial running stream through the downtown or a stunning hotel/retail development slated to draw conventions of millionaires will ensure economic health to Berkeley’s struggling downtown.
But citizens of Berkeley who have a long memory will laugh, as will those who spend long periods of time on the street, at the repetitive echo they hear from the last planning effort only a few years ago. If they spoke in passing, it would be to agree that they just need some honest open space to linger, exchange thoughts, meet friends, use a bathroom, and enjoy the day. Berkeley is so frightened that “homeless” people will use these amenities, that it refuses to afford them to the people it would otherwise rush to welcome downtown.
In this way Berkeley remains stuck in its thinking, its planning, and its ability to move forward. Yes, poor people as well as rich people will sit on a bench, use open space, and need a restroom. But no one is as terrified of this prospect as the current planning appointees and the City Council. No one in Berkeley is unaware of the population of people who are homeless, or homeless during parts of the month, or who supplement their income by selling crafts or panhandling on the street.
But they may not realize that their presumed terror of homeless people is inhibiting the City Council from doing the simplest things to improve downtown.
Berkeley’s downtown may never have had many shelter spaces, but it used to have literally hundreds of single room occupancy hotel spaces, which offered immediate lodging for those with possibly only funds enough to afford a room for a few weeks at a time a chance to get themselves and their belongings off the street. These are the same spaces and “opportunity sites” being converted to condominiums for the wealthy. The City Council and its appointees are genuinely remiss if they don’t recommend replenishing the crucial housing stock represented by single room occupancy housing, which would enable homeless people and people without the $2000 to $3000 it currently takes to establish rental status to find somewhere to stay.
The little things that could improve downtown Berkeley don’t cost nearly as much money as a huge hotel for rich conventioneers. The simple answer is clean public restrooms, restoration of what used to be plentiful single room occupancy hotels, more shelters for those who need them, and some pressure on the landlords who are driving away all the useful downtown businesses to keep business rents affordable. Berkeley without Hink’s, without Penny’s, without Edy’s, without the UC Theater, without Frazier’s, without Tupper and Reed, and without Radston’s, is a different place indeed.
Carol Denney is a Berkeley musician and activist.