Editorial: Berkeley Businesses Need to Accentuate the Positive

By Becky O’Malley
Friday March 16, 2007

A young friend told me that she’d made the mistake of watching the city council on cable on Tuesday night. Her verdict? “Pathetic!” she said. “Most of the time they didn’t even seem to know what was going on.” Sadly, I agree. 

I hadn’t planned to go to the meeting myself, or even to watch it online as I occasionally do when I’m feeling masochistic. But on the way back from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information awards dinner in San Francisco, I made the mistake of turning on the car radio to see what was happening. Big mistake. 

A representative of a business association (which the Planet belongs to) was carrying on at length about how some people are afraid to go to Berkeley’s two genuinely urban commercial zones, Telegraph and Shattuck Downtown, because of the presence of other people on the streets who act weird.  

Well, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration of what was being said, but Hey You Guys! This is no way to improve the business climate in town. I was so struck by the foolishness of it all that instead of going home I went to the meeting to throw in my two cents worth before public comment closed on the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative, whose name seems to come from 1984 (Orwell’s novel, not the year).  

There I heard one business association leader after another repeat the same refrain, which was eagerly taken up by Hills councilmembers. Some people who live in the Berkeley hills are afraid to go to downtown Berkeley and Telegraph Avenue. Some are even afraid to leave their homes. I’m sorry for them, but perhaps they should take to heart what Franklin Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address: “[T]he only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” 

There are still, as there have been in the 34 years since we came back to Berkeley, people on the streets who are obviously in mental distress who could benefit from some help. There are still young people on the street who have come here expressly for the purpose of displaying their alienation from conventional society by their dress and demeanor. There are even still some drug users and sellers, though fewer in number compared to past years, or to parts of Oakland, Richmond or even San Francisco.  

But should privileged hill dwellers be afraid to come downtown because of them? Of course not. The commercial streets are crowded with people going about their business at least until midnight most days. Walking along Telegraph and Shattuck is safer than walking through the deserted streets of expensive residential areas at night. 

And there are plenty of laws already on the books to prohibit genuinely antisocial behavior. The last thing the city of Berkeley needs to spend its money on is yet another round of redundant and probably unconstitutional attempts to solve social problems with police action.  

We do have real problems here, by the way.  

The lively neighborhood where the Planet office is located has been plagued by armed robberies of patrons on their way to BART from our beloved Starry Plough and La Pena late at night. Residents a bit farther away, near Sacramento and Oregon, are justifiably frightened because of gunfire in their neighborhood. If there are extra police funds available, we’d appreciate a little more help in South Berkeley—using our police force to roust drunks downtown instead would be a real waste of money  

And the mayor’s final rambling diatribe was the worst of all. He seemed to have just noticed that some Berkeleyans have been going to El Cerrito Plaza to shop instead of shopping on Shattuck, and he seemed to be blaming it on street behavior. Maybe our mayor’s not a shopper, and he certainly hasn’t been in business for most of his life, but there two words he might think about when he ponders what might be wrong with shopping downtown: Parking and Stores.  

Yes, yes, I know transit advocates insist that there are plenty of buses which go there, and that there are even some garages if you can find them. But this is America, and California to boot, and nine out of every ten shoppers still expect to find a free parking space right in front of the store of their choice, as they can in El Cerrito Plaza. Sad but true.  

And that’s the main reason the retail stores have largely departed from downtown Berkeley, both Telegraph and Shattuck, and will continue to depart. Every national chain brought in by Berkeley’s clueless doctinaire planners has demonstrated the problem: Barnes and Noble, Eddie Bauer, the Gap. As we add more and more luxury student condos and their associated autos to the mix, it’s only going to get worse for in-town retail. Pizza, beer and t-shirts will do well, but other kinds of stores will continue to depart for greener pastures. 

Like Fourth Street. I might have missed it, but I didn’t hear anyone from Fourth Street in the lineup of complainers at the hearing-- this despite the fact that when I was last at my excellent optometrist on Fourth Street I encountered three (polite) requests for funds on the street in the (short) distance between my car and the shop. Denny Abrams, the tsar of Fourth Street, has mastered the technique recommended by the Andrews Sisters in their World War II hit: “Ac-centuate the Positive, E-liminate the Negative, Latch On to the Affirmative, and Don’t Mess with Mr. In-B-Tween.” Fourth Street, love it or hate it, has Parking and it has Stores, just like El Cerrito. Retailers that can’t cut the mustard are politely but firmly asked to move on, to be quickly replaced by better competitors. Spare-changers on the street don’t seem to bother the crowds of happy shoppers I threaded my way through.  

There’s plenty of positive to accentuate in downtown Berkeley these days despite retail’s slump. Downtown, the restaurant run by the current Downtown Berkeley Association president, has good food and good music, a winning combination. Good music can also be found at Anna’s Jazz Island, and of course there’s all the lively theater at Aurora, not to mention the movies. And there are more good food establishments, some less expensive than Downtown, like Angeline’s, the newish New Orleans restaurant which has taken over part of the space vacated first by Huston’s Shoes and then by Gateway Computer. Dollars contributed to the DBA would be better spent pointing up what’s working than complaining about what’s not. 

And that goes for Telegraph too. In the midst of the whining from their peers, some businesses on Telegraph are just doing what they do, and doing it well. The very civilized Le Bateau Ivre has just celebrated its 35th anniversary by adding a live music night every Monday, and the ones we’ve been to have been packed with eager music lovers. Rasputin’s Records continues to thrive despite internet competition. Adagia, the new restaurant in the historic Ratcliff-designed Westminster House building on the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph, is buzzing, as are many less pricey ethnic restaurants on Telegraph itself. Peet’s new store in another historic building is well-lighted and full late into the night. 

Council members on Tuesday praised the efforts of programs which help people in distress despite being chronically under-funded. Perhaps what’s needed now is some kind of twelve-step program for Berkeleyans imprisoned in their isolated homes by their own irrational fear of Downtown. Maybe those of us who enjoy the Downtown experience, both Shattuck and Telegraph varieties, could sign up to take the fearful folks, one-on-one or in groups, on tours of our favorite hotspots of an evening. There’s no reason for them to be paralyzed by unreasoning, unjustified terror.