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First Person: Telegraph 2007: Making it Work

By Judith Scherr
Friday August 17, 2007

I didn’t go up to Telegraph Tuesday to find mellow—to watch flowers bursting out in carefully tended gardens at People’s Park, to hear merchants talking happily about businesses growing or to watch the moms and dads with kids in tow join students and graying elders moving in and out of shops.  

My original plan had little to do with the smile I received from the old bearded man sitting on a street corner or the song sung for me by the youth with a guitar.  

I went up to Telegraph Avenue looking for the trouble I often hear about as I take copious notes at City Council meetings—the acting-out, aggressive, mentally ill person who chases nice Walnut Creek women away from The Avenue.  

And I didn’t find it. 

In my role as city hall reporter I’ve sat through multiple sessions where the community shared its angst at the closing of Cody’s on Telegraph one year ago. City officials suddenly realized The Avenue was sliding downhill fast. 

It’s been more than a year since the Cody’s crisis catapulted Telegraph into the headlines, and my day on The Avenue made me believe that people are ready to take a broader look at what’s truly troubled Berkeley’s most famous street, applaud efforts that have succeeded and pinpoint what needs to be done. 

As I hung out in the area for almost 10 hours Tuesday, I saw no yelling or screaming—the only really loud annoying sounds came from the amplified Save Our Streets Christian ministries streetcorner songfest and speechifying.  

I looked for it, but saw no one out of control. With one blaring exception, everyone was mellow and polite.  

I didn’t even get a grouchy remark when I explained to the 20-something man sitting on the street with the dark glasses and tattoos up and down his arms that I wouldn’t exchange money for the interview he‘d given me. He just smiled and said, “That’s O.K.” 

The only hostile and rude person I encountered the entire day was a Berkeley police officer. 

At about 10 a.m. I’d just finished a walk around the business district with Dave Fogarty of the city’s economic development division and left him as he got on the bike he’d parked next to the popular new Peet’s at Dwight Way and Telegraph. With the recorder I use for walking interviews still in hand, I went over to two bike officers standing near the doorway, introduced myself and asked if they had a couple of minutes to talk about what they were seeing on The Avenue.  

To my dismay, one of the officers angrily ordered me to turn off the recorder and told me it was illegal to record him without first asking permission. (I was on a public sidewalk with the recorder in plain view and was later told informally by an attorney that the officer was mistaken.)  

One merchant, who did not want to be quoted for this story, said what is needed on The Avenue isn’t police who threaten or intimidate, but a kinder, gentler breed of officer, a sort of officer-psychologist who can relate to disoriented street people, young aggressive punks, college drunks (and reporters, I might add). 

I am told there are such individuals within our police department. 


Avenue lookin’ good; sales going up 

Most of what was happening on The Avenue was pure mellow. Unlike the rush of crowds flying through malls where the purchase is key, people on Telegraph seemed to meander. I ran into Italian tourists window-shopping for shoes, moms and dads with first-year students in tow looking for the right place to eat, teens admiring handcrafted silver jewelry and even Assemblymember Loni Hancock enjoying the sunny day after a “very good” Thai meal. 

Things are looking up, said Roland Peterson, who heads both the Telegraph Business Improvement District (TBID) and the Chamber of Commerce. 

Dirty sidewalks are no longer an issue. They sparkle. Morning and evening crews sweep and scrub and even power-wash sidewalks (though the drought-conscious water district might cast a disapproving eye) and graffiti is removed frequently. It’s a combined effort by the city, TBID and BOSS, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency. 

In the evening, street lights glow brighter—among the city’s contributions—and for the last couple of months, cars can park in the yellow zones from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. as long as drivers can figure what the two signs mean, one saying the yellow is a loading zone from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the other saying there’s no parking from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. 

“The minute there were cars on the street, it made people comfortable walking in the evening,” said Al Geyer, who owns Annapurna, the 40-year-old shop he describes as “multi-denominational.”  

Geyer heads the newly-formed Telegraph Avenue Merchants’ Association and sits on the TBID board. 

“We celebrate religions, we celebrate philosophical opinions, we celebrate political expression, sexual expression,” he says of Annapurna. “We basically celebrate diversity, but try to shake people up, juxtapose many different things. We try to open people’s minds.” 

An addition to The Avenue is the new express bus that can turn red lights green and is bringing people to Telegraph, Geyer said.  

With two city bike officers back on the streets—eliminated during a bad budget year, but returned as part of city efforts to revitalize Telegraph—police visibility is another plus, making the area appear safer, merchants say. (At the same time, advocates for street people told me they question police practices in the area.) 

The city has helped business by making it easier to get some permits. It used to take months to get use permits on Telegraph when one business was to be replaced by another whose use was different. With the change in permit policies, Fred’s Market will replace the old Rexall Drugs with a simple across-the-counter permit, Fogarty said.  

“Restaurants have been the sector that has defied the trend in terms of the downturn,” Peterson told me. That was apparent as I watched people line up all day to eat at the Intermezzo. Smart Alec’s healthy fast food was doing a brisk business most the day and customers also seemed to favor Mario’s La Fiesta, a fixture on The Avenue for almost 50 years.  

Geyer sees signs of business returning to the area. Within a day of Cody’s closure, his incense and card sales dropped by one-third; people who shopped at Cody’s also stopped by at Annapurna, he said. “But in the last two months our incense sales are better than they’ve ever been and our card sales are going up. People who traditionally came to The Avenue have to be returning for that to happen,” he said. 

And with the demise of Cody’s, “People are rediscovering Moe’s and Shakespeare’s,” he added.  

Despite horror stories of struggling shops on Telegraph, Craig Becker took over the Mediterranean Caffe—best known as “the Med”— a year ago. According to Fogarty, the previous owner lacked control over what was going on in front of his business. “There were fights, there were people drunk, there were tables and chairs scattered all over the place. It was in general an attractive nuisance,” Fogarty said. 

Becker is trying to restore the old ambiance he found when he would frequent the Med in the ’80s. “I’d always come by here and there’d be someone I knew,” he said. He has plans for an art gallery upstairs and sometimes hosts music downstairs—but nothing loud enough to interrupt conversation, he says.  

As for keeping order on the sidewalk, Becker says anyone can sit at the tables and chairs, but if they’re engaging in inappropriate behavior, he reminds them the tables are reserved for customers. “We have a right to do that,” he said. “We always treat people with courtesy and respect.” 

Becker’s work is paying off: “We’ve had three record weeks in a row,” he said. 

Another success story is Jeff Goldberg’s Framer’s Workshop, on Channing Way off Telegraph tucked under the city’s parking structure. The business is 30 years old and has found a niche. “We are one of the few do-it-yourself framing places in California,” Goldberg said, though they also do custom framing.  

“The baby boomers used to do a lot of do-it-yourself framing and they’re reaching retirement and coming back to do do-it-yourself framing,” he said. 

Like many businesses on The Avenue, Goldberg takes advantage of the web: Geyer’s gone to the next level with an Internet Radio station at Much of the eclectic music played there comes from Amoeba Music. 

Amoeba is successful where other music stores fail because it sells hard-to-find CDs and vinyl. The store now anchors the business district, Peterson said. 


Problematic street behavior 

Goldberg at the Framers Workshop said problematic street behavior was much worse a couple of years ago; that seems to be the general consensus. From time to time people act out in front of his store and he’ll call the police, but that’s not often, he said. 

In other years the street scene included more aggressive and hostile people, he said. “Now I think it’s just people who are mentally ill and have no place to go and plump themselves down.”  

He’s among those who have worked to create the detox center slated to open in San Leandro in December. It will be a short-term place to get sober or withdraw from drugs. 

Fogarty said he’s concerned with behavior reported to him, such as panhandlers following middle class people.  

But in general, “If [the street people] were drowned in a sea of students and middle class, they wouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “When they stand out, there gets to be a reputation of marginal people, a skid row.”  

Worthington was among those who called for an increased police presence. He got more police, but he had wanted beat police willing to walk and talk to merchants and street people, getting to know the regulars, he said. 

The councilmember reflected as we walked along The Avenue: “Most people walking up and down the street think that it’s quite positive and we haven’t had to create 20 new laws to do it. Some people of course would be deeply offended that this gentleman is sitting here,” he said, pointing to a white-haired man seated at Telegraph and Bancroft asking for spare change. “They may think he‘s a threat to civil society.” 

I asked Osha Neumann, an attorney whose clients are often homeless and poor, why I hadn’t seen any aggressive street behavior. 

“I don’t think that the problem is up here,” Neumann said, as we sat at a table outside Peet’s in the late afternoon. “Generally the people up here sit or stand on the sidewalk and have a sign. It’s really rare that I see someone hostile.” 

Neumann opposed the mayor’s proposal for harsh laws against sitting on the sidewalk and similar statutes, a proposal the council will address in the fall. There may be fewer people panhandling these days, because they have been intimidated, Neumann said.  

“The police have really done quite a job of getting people off The Avenue by various means: ticketing, citations, threats, warnings,” he said.  

“What really concerns me now is all the stories I’m hearing from different sides about the kind of harassment that’s going on. People are told by certain officers up here that they can’t sit on The Avenue, they can’t sit in front of a restaurant because it sells liquor, that they can’t sit in a place that a vendor might use—it’s all made up. That is really troubling to me. The message it seems to me that the police have got from City Council is that their marching orders are to clean up The Avenue and get rid of the kids. And that’s what they’ve been doing. These are the people who are most vulnerable—all they’ve got is the public space.” 

Earlier, Neumann and I had spent time with a friend of his in People’s Park. He introduced me to an older man sitting peacefully under a tree wrapped in a sleeping bag. Neumann plopped himself down and I followed.  

It wasn’t your everyday conversation that we engaged in, but a thoughtful one about the levels on which people relate to one another. I wouldn’t have known how to start a conversation with the man without the introduction.  

And that made me think about my own hesitations around people who look and live differently from me.  

What would happen on Telegraph if people pushed themselves beyond their comfort level and engaged people who make them uncomfortable— it could be with homeless people, business people, or disabled people. 

“With more imagination, people could come together to figure out how to make The Avenue work without the violation of people’s rights,” Neumann said. “It’s a beautiful day and The Avenue could absorb more people asking for change politely. The easiest thing to do is to blame the homeless. They don’t vote; they don’t have a constituency; they are not ‘stakeholders.’”