Editorial: Celebrating Berkeley’s Neighborhood Commerce

By Becky O'Malley
Friday June 22, 2007

Just a bit of weeping and gnashing of teeth accompanied the interrupted consummation of the apparent deal between local politicians and the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce last week. Mayor Bates and some council allies made a vigorous show of enacting new laws aimed at getting untidy people out of shopping districts, seemingly in return for the Chamber Political Action Commitee’s cash contributions to their re-election campaigns, but in the end nothing was enacted except concept statements, and everyone knows the devil’s in the details.  

At least one locally-owned business (this one) decided that renewing Chamber membership for another year to the tune of a few hundred bucks was a waste of money, though not because poor and even disreputable beggars are still amongst us as we shop. Shopping time has become a bit of a luxury for us, given the demands of small businesses, but in the last week or so we’ve found a few moments in which to sample the current offerings of two neighborhood-serving commercial areas within easy walking distance of home. We can report enthusiastically that there’s a lot of good stuff going on here in Berkeley. As we’ve said before and will say again, we have trouble understanding why certain representatives of business organizations and business improvement districts devote so much time to knocking their product, when there are so many good things to say about Berkeley businesses. 

On Thursday night, looking for a quick and healthy meal after closing the Friday issue, preferably outdoors to enjoy the end of a long summer twilight, we stopped by Bongo Burgers on Dwight, right next to (quel horreur!) People’s Park. We’ve had a soft spot in our hearts for the place since we were in business on Telegraph 25 years ago. The proprietors at that time (and perhaps still) were expatriate Iranian intellectuals, fed up with all of the governments they’d seen back home. At the merchants’ meeting in those days, it was the guys from Bongo Burger who regularly spoke up for tolerance and humanity when dealing with the street population. Yes, folks, this discussion has been going on for a long time—it never really changes. 

We ordered the Persian Plate, well-seasoned ground lamb with sides of pungent tabouli and Persian rice, delicious and only $6.50. We sat outside at a sidewalk table, catching the last few rays.  

Were we affronted by unruly street behavior? Well, one man did stop by our table and ask what we were eating, but he looked like an ordinary middle-aged middle-class kind of guy, and was very polite. He said our dinner looked good, so he’d order the same thing next time he went to the restaurant.  

Saturday was Bloomsday, June 16, the day celebrated in Ulysses for Leopold Bloom’s travels around Dublin. Keeping up an old Berkeley tradition (the old free-wheeling KPFA gave it 24 hours on the air) Moe’s Bookstore on Telegraph hosted a public participatory reading of Joyce’s huge novel, complete with complimentary Gorgonzola, though not whiskey. There were so many enthusiasts present that we didn’t get a chance to read in the hour we spent there, but listening to the splendid words wash over us was satisfying enough. Moe’s is still one of the world’s great bookstores. 

Then we walked down to the annual garden party hosted by an intellectual friend in a quintessential south campus backyard cottage on Blake Street, noting as we went the number of amazing Edwardian frame houses still standing in the neighborhood. With regret, we passed the Blake street site of the lovely house where we first lived in Berkeley, demolished in the sixties to build a soft-story “cash-register multiple” now looking dreadfully seedy amidst the remaining attractive survivors saved by the Neighborhood Preservation Initiative of the seventies. Whether they will survive the current building frenzy and a city government dominated by developers is problematic—it might take another initiative to save them.  

On Monday another after-work dinner, this time at Le Bateau Ivre on Telegraph, where the owners, who have been there for 35 years, are now inviting musicians to perform for the customers on Monday nights. I asked the propietor if street behavior was a problem on their charming streetside patio. He seemed puzzled by the question, but did mention his major worry: the Bus Rapid Transit scheme currently being pitched by AC Transit for his block. He thinks that if he loses his street parking it will sink his business, and he could be right. Doris Moskowitz at Moe’s is worried about it too. 

There’s an arrogance in the way people who are young and/or fit expect everybody to go everywhere by bus or bicycle as they are able to do themselves. One correspondent said “I’m healthy because I ride my bicycle,” a classic example of the “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” logical fallacy. What he really meant is “I ride my bicycle because I’m healthy,” and he doesn’t appreciate how lucky he is to be able-bodied enough to do so! We took my parents to the Bateau for my father’s 90th birthday, and despite excellent genes and years of healthy living there was no way they could have ridden bikes or taken buses for that outing. Lots of people are now, or will eventually be, physically unable to go very far without automobiles, and businesses will have trouble surviving without their patronage. 

On the other hand, neighborhood-serving businesses also need a measure of protection from exclusively auto-oriented interlopers from distant places for their survival. On Wednesday I did my Elmwood errands on foot, and talked to merchants there as I did so. Tad at Elmwood Hardware expressed his concern about the huge development rumored to be going into the former Wright’s Garage site, especially the rumor that the developer would be allowed to take over the Elmwood’s small now-metered parking lot to provide valet parking for out-of-town patrons for a big bar/restaurant. “Rumored” is the operative word, because the Zoning Board has essentially written the developer a blank check, and the council is in the process of rubber-stamping it, so no one really knows what to expect, but everyone’s worried.  

I was asked why the Planet hadn’t come out four-square against the proposed project. We’ve been reluctant to do so (“we” in this space usually means the publisher and I) because we appreciate the several fine building restorations that John Gordon, the developer, has accomplished. But he now runs the risk of blowing all the goodwill he’s accumulated from his previous projects by over-reaching on this one. When most of the immediate neighbors and the merchants’ association are against what you’re proposing, it’s time to sit down at the table and work things out, to preserve your credibility and options for future projects. The way the city mothers and fathers have punted on this one is disgraceful, but there’s still time for private compromise. Perhaps the Chamber of Commerce would like to help?  

And now I’ve left myself no room to talk about how pleasant it is to walk around the Elmwood on a summer’s day doing errands. I just want to report that both Tad and the nice people at Bill’s Trading Post made a great effort to fix an old but beloved piece of costume jewelry for me without charging a cent, and Bill’s succeeding in fixing the bent clasp on another one. That’s the kind of personal service you couldn’t get at Wal-mart, and we should celebrate it every day by shopping in our neighborhoods, on foot if we’re lucky enough to be able to do so.