Editorial: Keeping the Beserkeley in Berkeley

By Becky O’Malley
Friday August 03, 2007

If we don’t watch out, pretty soon there’ll no Beserkely left in Berkeley—nothing quirky, funky, artsy or even anything useful. Stories coming out of West Berkeley in the last few weeks strongly suggest that there’s a determined campaign underway to turn Berkeley’s last non-suburban bastion into a poor imitation of a cross between Emeryville and Walnut Creek, with the worst aspects of both. Case in point: the proposed re-zoning, supposedly just to create freeway-centric automobile dealerships a la Walnut Creek, but which threatens properties now home to unique and valued West Berkeley businesses like Ashby Lumber, MacBeath Hardwood, Urban Ore and the place that sells the outrageous sculpture and furniture made from salvaged redwoods.  

And what about the nascent international district, whose diverse and colorful food and clothing merchants depend on reasonable rents? One restaurant owner says his rent has just been doubled, and others are threatened.  

Also, there’s the clash of cultures experienced by older residents who moved to West Berkeley to take advantage of the freewheeling atmosphere and the low prices, but who are now being squeezed by gentrifying newcomers working the city’s code enforcement policies. A couple of weeks ago the Planet got a letter from a West Berkeley resident who complained that “my family and I have suffered several weeks of a nightmarish assault from the City of Berkeley.” The writer said that he and his wife, both in their eighties, had been in their home for thirty years, but a few weeks ago they had received a letter from the city threatening them with a fine of $139 an hour, all because a rat had been spotted on their property. I called him up to find out more, and he said that his property was completely cemented over, so he didn’t see where a rat could be living. He hadn’t, for whatever reason, been able to reach any resolution with the city’s vector control people who signed the letter. He was so afraid of retribution that he wouldn’t agree to let the paper print his name or even his address for a news story, so I went to his block to take a look myself, and it’s obvious what’s going on.  

His house is part of a four-home group of turn-of-the-last-century frame houses on tiny lots with no yards. His front area, such as it is, is surrounded by a high fence, which is completely covered with bumper stickers, political slogans and eclectic artworks of various descriptions in what used to be typical old-school Berkeley style, once prevalent too in the south campus area but now vanished almost everywhere in town  

There are rats everywhere in Berkeley, of course, especially in the high-priced ivy-covered hills neighborhoods, but his particular lot didn’t offer even a blade of grass which might have been harboring rodents--it was tight as a drum. Clearly, rats weren’t really the problem.  

A quick check of the Planet’s remarkable new web feature, the interactive Map of Current Zoning Applications, showed a whole forest of the tell-tale red dots indicating project applications in his neighborhood. Clicking on some of them showed they were for currently chi-chi condos-over-retail developments a la Emeryville, and in fact when I visited his block I’d noticed a multi-story building going up right across the street.  

If I were a betting woman, I’d bet that some investor or broker with a connection to a new building under construction figured that having funky old houses with odd decor as neighbors wouldn’t enhance the marketability of their property. City inspectors with time on their hands are complaint-driven, and someone must have thought that eccentric old folks would be easy to scare into selling out cheaply. These particular people don’t happen to give up easily, but it was certainly worth a try. Some of the big-bucks property owners are now trying to get the power to enact a mandatory extra tax on everyone in their West Berkeley area to pay for even more security guards and other police services than the city already provides. 

And then there’s San Pablo Avenue, the wide boulevard beloved of smart-growthers because it happens to be a straight shot for busses between downtown Oakland and Richmond. On an aerial map it’s easy to miss the value in an upholstery shop or an auto repair garage or an architectural salvage yard, but all of these are the greenest of green businesses, because they’re concerned with ensuring the re-use of what already exists. Replacing them with spiffy new condos for young yuppies to live in before they buy houses in Pleasanton to raise families is not the green alternative it’s touted to be. San Pablo’s lower rents have allowed interesting semi-bohemian establishments like Caffe Trieste to get a toehold in West Berkeley, but if prices go up it will be Starbucks end to end before long. And of course working artists are fleeing in droves, as reported here.  

Is it possible to zone to keep a little urban grittiness and flash in some part of our increasingly suburban pseudo-city? I can’t think of any place that I’ve seen that done successfully, partly because planners on the whole are a dull lot, seldom creative, often prescriptive. Oakland’s suffering from a similar assault, as is the Mission in San Francisco. There’s an interesting new book, The Suburbanization of New York, which deplores the replacement by faceless clean chains of what made that city unique. Uniform new buildings inhabited by uniform new people do not a lively city make, but what can? Berkeley could have a chance to figure that out, if we hurry.