Editorial: Taking Berkeley Values Into the Woods

By Becky O'Malley
Friday January 26, 2007

Much glee in the Planet newsroom this week over the flock of photos in the bigger papers of what I affectionately call “the old birds in the trees.” (You shouldn’t call them that if you’re under 60, but at my advanced age it shows no disrespect.) A colleague observed that the story was “the real Berkeley.” We were not at all miffed that other papers had finally gotten around to copying the story about the struggle to save the oak grove, which we’d been following for a long time, though we did think our front page photo was the best of the lot. That’s always been a core mission of this paper: to persuade other media to give up their standard knee-jerk “Beserkeley” coverage and acquire some real understanding of what this city is all about. It’s about people who often and vociferously disagree with one another, but who get together when it counts to stand up (or sit down) for basic beliefs that most of us share. Conservation of natural resources is one of those core Berkeley values. 

The ringleader in the oak-sitting group, Sylvia McLaughlin, is a 90-year-old who climbs trees and poses for the camera like a well-preserved 65. Her lifetime achievement is organizing the doughty group of East Bay women who stopped the ’60s attempt to fill in San Francisco Bay for real estate development, but she’s been part of lots of other action as well. She was joined by Betty Olds, still a Berkeley councilmember at 86 and also an outdoors-woman, whose most recent courageous act was supporting Measure J, another battle in the ongoing war to preserve Berkeley’s urban amenities from greedy builders. Number three was someone not known as an athlete, former mayor Shirley Dean, who confessed to being afraid of heights as she ascended into the oak. Shirley seems well on her way to becoming Berkeley’s Jimmy Carter, trying to accomplish even more for the public good after being defeated for re-election than she did while in office. 

That can be a bitter pill to swallow for those among us who live and breathe partisanship. One cynical progressive politico in the oak grove was heard to say that what he most resented about Mayor Tom Bates is that Bates had made him admire Shirley Dean. It is quite remarkable how the winds have shifted in that respect, but that’s Berkeley—never predictable, never dull. 

All in all, it was a Very Berkeley week for me. Going straight from the excitement at the oak grove, on Monday afternoon I enjoyed a concert courtesy of the Etude Club, a 103-year-old group established to promote the study and performance of music, which still raises funds to support local music students. Most of the members appeared to be over 70, but there was a healthy sprinkling of younger participants, including one of the soloists, a 30-something graduate of Berkeley High School. In the audience I recognized Mister Chacona (who probably has a first name), who taught violin to one of my daughters at Malcolm X school. She didn’t pursue her study into adulthood, but now as the mother of daughters herself is avidly encouraging their violin playing, thanks to the love of music she learned in Berkeley schools.  

One hundred and three years is a long time to be doing good, even for an institution, but among those witnessing at the Oak Grove on Monday was another venerable Berkeley activist, Margaret Emmington, 102-years-young, decked out in a very stylish hat. Her most famous Berkeley moment was organizing the campaign to save old St. John’s Presbyterian Church from demolition, so it could survive to be reborn as the Julia Morgan Theater. The battle to save the grove has engaged three generations of her family, including her daughter, Lesley Emmington Jones, and her grandson, Stuart Jones. That’s Very Berkeley too. 

The Etude Club concert took place at the home of an even older Berkeley institution, the Hillside Club, which was started around the turn of the 20th century to promote “building with nature.” It was responsible for persuading builders in the Berkeley hills to respect the natural environment—the oaks, the creeks and the rocky contours of the land itself. On Tuesday of this Berkeley week I went to another event held at the Hillside Club, a birthday party for Councilmember Dona Spring. Entertainment was supplied by Peter Dale Scott, a UC faculty member, reading his satiric and serious poetry about saving the oaks, addressed to Chancellor Birgenau, and by Sarah Cahill, another Berkeley High graduate, who’s gone on to a distinguished career as a pianist and essayist.  

People used to say that Ginger Rogers was a better dancer that Fred Astaire because she did everything he did backwards and in high heels. Dona Spring does everything any councilmember has ever done for Berkeley and more, and even more remarkable, she does it lying down in a wheelchair. Dona is hands down the most courageous fighter for what’s best for Berkeley on the City Council these days. She exemplifies the values of the old Berkeley—living with nature, support for culture—and at the same time supports worthy ideas which came to town more recently, including valuing diversity and ensuring adequate housing even for tenants and other low-income Berkeleyans.  

Berkeley has always been about surprises—attempts to stereotype our citizens are doomed to fail. A couple of issues back the Planet printed one of my favorite kinds of letters, the ones that start out “I don’t expect this to be printed…..” We take particular pleasure in proving people like that wrong.  

The writer, whose business is called “Wealth Management,” also submitted his epistle to the “Berkeley Business Advocate,” the newsletter published by the Chamber of Commerce, which our business receives as a chamber member. He’s described as the Chamber’s “Chairman of Governmental Affairs,” whatever that means.  

There he repeated his assumption that his letter wouldn’t be published in the Planet (it already had been), along with a couple of other errors. He said that “many letters that share a similar perspective” were not printed in the Planet “due to space constraints.” That’s simply not true. I called him and asked him to send copies of any letters that weren’t printed or to give me names of writers who said they’d submitted such letters, and he couldn’t do so.  

We pride ourselves on printing just about every opinion piece, no matter how stupid, though we do have an informal quota for a few chronic repeaters. We’re happy to print criticisms of our paper, though we reserve the right to correct false ones. For example, the writer claimed that the only time the Planet has done a door-to-door distribution was with our November pre-election issue. That’s another canard— we’ve done a number of similar promotions in the past, including distribution in the hills for a whole month last spring.  

Evidently also his ideas about appropriate “wealth management” are different from those of the owners of this paper. In his piece he indicated that he doesn’t seem to think that investing in a community newspaper is what he’d do if he could afford it. That’s his prerogative.  

We happen to believe in what might be called Berkeley Values, sometimes derided just as “San Francisco Values” were in the recent election. We’re proud of our “Old Birds in the Trees” who could be just sitting in rocking chairs enjoying a peaceful old age, even if (or perhaps especially because) we don’t always agree with all of them all the time. That’s what makes Berkeley Berkeley.