Public Comment

Commentary: Trying to Re-Frame the Question of Artists in Berkeley

By Thomas Lord
Friday August 24, 2007

Is there such a thing as optimistic fatalism? I’m talking about artists in Berkeley, of course. Here are some observations that occur to me: Of course, nobody who is upstanding should be brutalized by a civil process into quitting their residence or business place—we all ought to demand civility and generosity towards artists in those proceedings and transactions which increasingly force them to relocate out of town. It is a sad period of time in the history of Berkeley. 

Yet, let’s face it: property values are neither random nor irrelevant. Development potential is not something invented in City Hall—it is a natural phenomenon which the city can only moderate, not halt. Let us dispassionately contemplate, just for a moment, the taboo thought: that “tomorrow” all artists in Berkeley find themselves sufficiently square deals and quit the town, migrating to Oakland, Richmond, Emeryville, even Walnut Creek and Union City. What will come of this deep disruption of a long-standing and much appreciated element of our social fabric, here in Berkeley? 

My hunch comes in two parts: the immediate consequences and the long term consequences. Immediately, I suppose, we will all (and the artists themselves, most of all) experience tremendous loss. The social networks that are the Berkeley artists’ social scene will be “stretched out” over a larger geography. Ties will be broken and generally patterns that have been vibrant will fade. Yet, longer term... what happens after that? 

I think that, longer term, Berkeley will benefit and become even more of a cultural hub than it already is—at least if we play the zoning game and development game well. There are two reasons: 1) enriching your neighbor enriches you; 2) Berkeley can have a thriving arts scene even with a scarcity of workspaces for artists. “Enriching your neighbor” means that as artists are pushed out of Berkeley into neighboring communities, they help begin to “infect” those neighbors with some of the best aspects of Berkeley culture. A slight dispersal of artists greatly expands the number of people here in the 510 region who have ready access to artists. Culturally speaking, if we set aside our city pride for a moment, in pushing out more and more artists we are also, in some sense, sending out our cultural diplomats. What if these seeds take root? Then Berkeley will find itself surrounded, on all sides, by culturally enriched neighbors. We will be lucky to have such problems! 

The second point, that “Berkeley can have a thriving arts scene even with a scarcity of workspaces,” is trickier. I suggest that, given the extreme development pressure, we pick something to focus on, culturally. We are forced away from being the sleepy bayside town, in contrast to the surrounding metropolis, where artists can find cheap rent and a bohemian lifestyle is guaranteed for all. Sad but true. So, as a new focus: Berkeley should focus on being a place of cultural consumption. That is to say, we should focus on fashioning our town as the “artists market,” much as their farmer’s markets or dock-side fish markets. Some specific suggestions might help clarify this idea: 

Yes, Berkeley zoning should ensure that, in perpetuity, there are artist studio spaces available here below “market rates” for adjacent property. Such artificially priced spaces are our cultural “commons,” where we hope that pretty and useful things will grow. But, civilly, if we are talking about manipulating prices, the question arises: how do we fairly, justly allocate these community resources? 

Enter the “consumption oriented” view: Bless any artist who can make a permanent home base in Berkeley but, in our zoning, let’s not try to make home bases for artists. Rather, how about studio spaces that can be rented, below market rates, but only for a maximum of a few years at a time and only on the condition of maintaining a public part of the space, where people can observe (and ideally participate in) art being produced? 

Cynically you could call this “zookeeping of artists” or optimistically it could be an element of Berkeley-as-culutural-marketplace. Consumers and producers alike travel to a market place—the producers usually produce elsewhere. Berkeley’s geography and “research center” economics suggest it is bound to become more marketplace than production site. Our civic policy should reflect that. 


Thomas Lord is a Berkeley resident.