Editorial: Another Foggy Night on the Public Commons

By Becky O’Malley
Friday May 11, 2007

It’s been almost 40 years since I gave up smoking, but watching Tuesday’s City Council meeting made me feel for the first time in years that I’d really like a cigarette. Why? Well, watching the City Council stumble and stutter their way through an agenda which came with a 1,400-page packet which they clearly hadn’t bothered to read was a nerve-racking experience. It culminated in a pathetic charade which purported to address the mayor’s heartfelt interest in “improving the quality of life of public commons in the city.”  

What’s pathetic about that? Well, first, the grammar. Perhaps the drafter meant to say “in” or “on” the public commons. Whatever the “public commons” might be, it’s inanimate, doesn’t have any life of its own, nor any quality of same.  

Maybe what was meant was the quality of life for “people” in or on the public commons. But what does “public” commons mean anyway? Is it to be contrasted with “private” commons, and if so what would a “private” commons be? Let’s just assume for discussion purposes that “public” is simply redundancy for the purpose of emphasis, and that that the triple redundancy in the title “Public Commons for Everyone” initiative is meant to convey the very great sincerity of the proponents.  

In case you were afraid that there might be some insincerity at work here, you might have caught the mayor’s introduction to the discussion on Tuesday night. He maundered on for several minutes, eyes downcast, seeming to be reading from a text written by someone else, assuring anyone who cared that he really really does feel their pain. 

You might have missed the whole discussion, though, since it took place at 11:30 or later, after the allotted time for the council meeting had been extended. Presumably it was placed at the end of the agenda to make sure that as few people as possible saw it, and that even fewer were able to show up to express their opinions on the topic.  

What was actually on the agenda for this item? Just five recommendations, all either obvious or pointless:  

1. “Restrict smoking in public areas in commercial zones.” Yes, yes, I’m fully aware that tobacco is the devil’s weed, and that one of the privileges of living in the Berkeley Bubble is never having to inhale anything you believe to be health-threatening or simply offensive, whether it’s tobacco smoke, cheap scent or body odor. (Perhaps medical marijuana is an exception, perhaps not. The no-smoking signs on the 51 bus my kids took to Berkeley High had hand-lettered “this means pot too,” but whiffs of The Other Weed still drift in through the windows in some areas.) There are already laws against public smoking, widely ignored by the police. The proposal would extend the no-smoking zones to even wider areas, making them even less likely to be enforced.  

But perhaps Recommendation 4 would take care of that: “Provide for strict enforcement of all existing laws affecting the quality of life in public spaces and parks.” Oh sure, and in the meantime the drug dealers down around Oregon and Sacramento are cheering. This one will keep the police off the streets and out of trouble, busy handing out tickets for public smoking.  

Better get the officers some foreign language instruction too. Every year about this time Telegraph Avenue is deluged with French youth, guidebooks in hand, looking for excitement and puffing up a storm. If the cops are going to try to stop them, at least they should learn to say “Defense de Fumer.” Some Chinese wouldn’t hurt either, since sadly most people in China are still heavy smokers, even when they visit the United States. 

Which brings up, in a roundabout way, elimination. In many countries urination in alleys is no great sin if there’s no public facility handy, particularly for men. I’m personally a bit too timid for that—the reason I finally stopped buying clothes in downtown Berkeley is that Ross-Dress-for-Less closed the bathrooms in the building they took over from J.C. Penney, and it became virtually impossible to find a place to pee in peace downtown. We’re told the city should “Develop prohibitions and increased fines for public urination”... but just wait until the police snag a hapless foreign tourist in an alley.  

This will all be solved, however, by Recommendation 2: “Install better directional signage to public restrooms.” Turns out that when you find them there are only four public restrooms in the downtown/Telegraph area, and trust me, three of them you wouldn’t want to go into. They’re only open during business hours anyhow, though the mayor in his benevolence now suggests keeping them open longer, and of course the signs will be bigger....  

But obviously the target of all this is not tourists or desperate shoppers, it’s the homeless and/or crazy folks in the “public commons” who offend. That “Everyone” in the title of the proposal really means “everyone except anyone who offends someone else who’s more important.”  

Councilmember Wozniak told a harrowing anecdote about the time his wife and son saw a vagrant deliberately peeing on the radiator grill of an expensive car on Telegraph—the horror! I’m sure that never happened back in Nebraska.  

And there are urban legends that some of these types even defecate where they shouldn’t to show their contempt for something or other. How often does this happen, in reality? Wouldn’t a better explanation be that they just couldn’t find a bathroom in time? Not pleasant, but not criminal, and until the city can provide enough public facilities in enough places it will be hard to prove intent-to-annoy. (On the other hand, in the defecation category don’t get me started on dogs and their lazy owners.) 

And the recommendation that is the red meat in this proposal is Number 5: “Reduce warning provisions associated with regulations prohibiting lying on the sidewalk.” Anyone who’s ever shopped with a 2-year-old knows that lying on the sidewalk is a regular feature of the tired-of-shopping-tantrum. Anyone who occasionally gets dizzy knows that sitting or lying down helps. Even the mayor recognized problems like this with his suggestion that the city needs more approved places to sit down, but don’t hold your breath waiting for new benches on Telly.  

Again, however, it’s not naughty toddlers or dizzy walkers who are being targeted. It’s the homeless/disturbed/anti-social people who are the real problem for Everyone Else. And what do we propose to do about them? Give them tickets, of course, but now without the traditional and customary “OK, buddy, it’s time to move on.” And if they get enough tickets, they go to jail, since of course they don’t have money for fines. That’ll show’em. 

The latest North East Berkeley Association newsletter sums it all up without apparent irony: “... serious impediments to safe and enjoyable use of our public spaces and commercial districts are inappropriate street behavior, drug-dealing, vagrancy, and panhandling.... Mayor Bates has, commendably, put forth a call for a serious examination and resolution of this issue, with an emphasis on making our public spaces more attractive to the vast majority of Berkeley residents. It remains to be seen whether common sense and the needs of the vast majority will prevail against well-organized homeless advocates.” That vast underprivileged silent majority of North East Berkeley homeowners speaks up for themselves for once! Thank God someone’s finally looking out for their rights!  

Oh, and by the way, earlier in the evening the council discussed plans for cutting the funding for social service programs in next year’s budget. The “well-organized homeless advocates” were wringing their hands, but to no avail. And councilmembers stomped all over Kriss Worthington’s excellent ideas for using genuine community policing to solve Telegraph Avenue problems. It’s so much easier just to write some new laws, isn’t it? But on Tuesday the council didn’t even get around to that by the time the meeting ended.