Public Comment

Commentary: Public Space Should Be Enhanced, Not Closed Off

By Teddy Knight
Friday March 16, 2007

Weasel words and spin doctoring in Berkeley! A public commons is a place where people can sit, sleep, feed the geese, talk, and generally rub shoulders, dance, make music, and interact with all sorts of people. Putting laws in place which target the very people most in need of a relaxing space is the very opposite of “public” or “commons.” The old guys sitting on the park benches or on the barrels on the porch of a general store could be annoying, as could the chorus in a Greek play, but they were the essence of the public, the whole picture, the alternative views, the different values in life.  

I can foresee the whole thing going down in costly legal flames over the issue of differential enforcement. If I, a sweet old lady, not begging, sit for three or four hours and talk to everyone who wants to talk with me, and the guy two benches over is chased because he has been there for three hours and is talking to everyone in earshot, where is the justice? We will, in effect, have a closed area where only those who are taking part in a commercial transaction or are picturesque will be welcomed.  

Since the retailers in Berkeley have fought every well intentioned and well thought-out proposal to put in public spaces, in favor of parking and congestion, why do they deserve extra consideration because they have made our existing public spaces intolerable? People with the good of Berkeley in mind have been trying to get Telegraph, between the University and Dwight, closed for all but emergency and commercial deliveries for years, so that people can walk, talk, and shop with lots of attractive, common, public space around them. Who shoots this idea down every year? The merchants. One of those parking spaces might be taken by a customer who wouldn’t walk half a block from a parking garage, but who would circle the block for an hour waiting for that space. Again, the idea that delivery trucks only show up at designated times, and don’t double park, blocking traffic, is opposed by the merchants, even though that is even more destructive of casual automobile shopping trips than having to use a parking garage.  

We see the same reflex, cars good, people bad, reaction from the merchants on North Shattuck, who want their clumsy, badly designed and dangerous intersections preserved because a more sensible layout which encourages people to walk around might remove a few parking spaces.  

When I see the Telegraph (and Shattuck and University Avenue) merchants putting out benches for people to sit on, putting out trash cans, putting out tubs of trees and flowers and maintaining them, similar to what is on Fourth Street, then I will believe they care about public spaces. Until then, I see them as exploiters of what should be public spaces for their private gain.  

Mayor Bates’ regressive, anti-public, anti-common good proposal to stigmatize or criminalize ordinary people who use the streets needs to be shot down. Going from reasonable proposals to make North Shattuck and, at the opposite end of Shattuck, the Adeline intersection, more inviting public spaces to a proposal to harass people using existing public spaces, shows a schizoid type of fragmented reality in our public planners and other officials which does even more than the street people to make Berkeley deserve its international reputation as the “open ward.”  


Teddy Knight is a Berkeley resident.