The Public Eye: Robert Reich’s Berkeley: Charming, Diverse, Democratic

By Zelda Bronstein
Tuesday January 30, 2007

As soon as I heard that Robert Reich would be speaking about our city’s economic future at Berkeley City College on Jan. 25, I knew I wanted to be there. It’s not often that you get a chance to hear a former secretary of labor/celebrated author/popular NPR commentator/ Goldman School of Public Policy professor hold forth on local affairs, with “a light lunch” thrown in for good measure, and for free yet. This bill of fare would have been more than enough to get me to immediately RSVP the event’s announced sponsor, the Office of the Mayor.  

But I had one more reason for wanting to attend. I suspected that Tom Bates had invited Professor Reich to speak in large part because he knew that his distinguished guest belongs to the “manufacturing is dead in America” school of thought and would likely lend prestigious support for the mayor’s—in my view, badly misguided—efforts to de-industrialize and gentrify West Berkeley. I wanted to see if I was right.  

As far as the mayor’s intentions were concerned, my hunch was spot-on. Introducing Reich to a full house (237 people, said BCC President Judy Walters), Mayor Bates declared that the city is “at a turning point.” The only change he addressed in any detail, however, involved the city’s industrial sector. “Berkeley,” he said, “used to be the home of many, many factories.” Now, “manufacturing is departing,” headed for “low-cost states” and overseas.  

Reich had been given his cue, and at first it seemed as if he was going to take it, pure and simple. With customary brio and wit, he hailed the opening of the new college building as “a milestone,” congratulated the mayor on his re-election, gestured toward his own time in and out of public office (“Here’s how you know that you’re not in the Cabinet anymore: you get into the back seat of your car, and there’s nobody sitting in front”), touched on his first year as a Berkeley homeowner (“I used all my savings to buy my house”), plugged the presidential bid of former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack and then turned to the Berkeley economy.  

“What are Berkeley’s exports?” he asked. Though the city “still has some light industry, … as with most cities this size, the major exports are no longer manufacturing.” What brings money into town, Reich averred, is UC, culture, arts, design, research and development, and good restaurants. All (except perhaps the restaurants) in keeping with our “knowledge-based” society and global economy. “The manufacturing jobs are disappearing,” he said, “and they are not all going to China; a lot are being automated.” Some people are worried about the offshoring of white-collar jobs. Not Reich. “The more education you have, the more globalization is on your side.” 

In light of these remarks, I was expecting Reich to embrace the mayor’s vision of an Emeryville-ized West Berkeley—a mix of freeway-oriented strip malls, high-tech research facilities and fancy condos. Instead, he called the future “a delicate question.” He told how, in his previous place of residence, Cambridge, Mass., the area between Harvard and MIT has become a high-rise, high-tech research center. “Is that right for Berkeley?” he asked. 

The answer, he said, depended on how we—meaning Berkeley citizens— view “the character of the city.” “Berkeley’s success is not just a function of its economic vitality,” but also reflects its “social capital”—“how much people care about the community and what they’re willing to do for the community.” That sort of commitment grows out of “a sense that we’re all in this together … The most important words in politics,” he told us, “are ‘we’ and ‘our.’” Again and again, he posed the question: what do we want? 

Reich made clear what kind of Berkeley he wants: a city that keeps its unique “charm” from turning into high-end “chic.” As evidence of the former, he heaped praise on “all of the independently owned proprietorships.” He said that he had grown up in the two shops his parents had owned, so he knew firsthand the challenges facing small business (one of his family’s stores had to be closed). “Berkeley keeps out Walmart,” he said, eliciting a big round of applause. He acknowledged the sky-high price of housing and deplored gentrification and its homogenizing effects. “If you want artists, there have to be places that artists can live”—in other words, places they can afford. How, he asked, do we add housing, “and keep Berkeley’s character”? His answer deserves to be quoted in full: “My impression is that building is pretty dense already. Do we want to create more apartment complexes? I don’t think so. I think that some of the apartment complexes we have are ugly. I don’t how how they got away with some of the stuff they got away with.” 

What a pleasant surprise. In his appreciation of the qualities that “have made Berkeley such a desirable place to live”—its distinctive townscape and its social, economic and cultural diversity—and his recommendation for inclusive governance, Robert Reich sounded like a Berkeley citizen after my heart. To be sure, he has yet to grasp the local political dynamics that threaten the things he holds dear. But he seemed open to edification. Indeed, with appealing modesty, he repeatedly stated that he is no expert on Berkeley.  

Taking his disclaimers at face value, I respectfully suggest that the easiest way to find out what’s going on—to learn, for example, how developers “got away with some of the stuff they got away with”—is to read on a regular basis the East Bay’s only independent, locally owned and operated newspaper. And Berkeleyans should help Professor Reich get better acquainted with his new hometown. For starters, folks at WeBAIC (West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies) should take him on a tour. A firsthand look would foster his understanding of manufacturing’s essential role in sustaining the diverse Berkeley community that he prizes. Maybe he could get Tom Bates to understand that, too.