Editorial: Bashing the Poor is Back in Style

By Becky O’Malley
Friday September 28, 2007

On Wednesday I had a rare opportunity to sit in a chair at an undisclosed location in the country for a couple of hours. I took along the New Yorker which had just arrived in my mailbox and my reading glasses, as well as some binoculars in case any birds showed up.  

The birds appeared right on cue, or should I say on queue, taking turns to sip out of a trickling fountain, because it was a hot day. As a very occasional bird watcher, I don’t call most of them by name. Hummingbirds, jays and chickadees, yes, but I haven’t had formal introductions to most of the others, sometimes grouped by the British as “little brown birds.” With the aid of my spyglasses, I discovered that some of the ones that looked brown to my naked aging eyes are a riot of colors and patterns. A particularly assertive crowd at the water source was divided into two groups, probably along gender lines: some bright chrome yellow and some subtle olive green, with a strong black and white pattern on their wings. The Stellar’s jays were hard to miss: bigger, louder, flashier and much pushier than any of the others. I saw one or two specimens of an elegant two-tone gray bird that I don’t remember seeing before. Probably since it’s fall there were travellers in the group hanging around the water cooler, on their way to their own personal undisclosed locations for the winter.  

All in all, the birds were a treat, but the New Yorker was a major disappointment. It turned out to be the “Style” issue, with piece after piece loaded down with expensive brand names. If the brand owners didn’t pay handsomely for product placement, as they now do for movies and television, the Conde Nast corporation, which owns the New Yorker, wuz robbed.  

The best/worst of the lot was a hagiography of the editor of one of the many self-referential Manhattan pop culture mags, described by the New Yorker writer as being somewhat zine-like, but not exactly. Every detail of her (quite pedestrian) daily life was explored in breathless prose, down to the bowl of cherries always on her coffee table. The name of every person now enjoying 15 minutes of fame who hangs out with her was dropped. It was a fascinating piece in a horrifying way, typical of a genre which has been around for many years, and has sometimes spawned whole publications, including the one its subject now manages.  

Reading this story while occasionally glancing up to spot a bird, I was reminded of one of my favorite maxims. (This is a hazard of old age—there’s a strong temptation to reduce anything you might have learned over the years to a few pat phrases repeatedly endlessly to annoy your friends and family.) Maxim: “Styles come and go, but the avant-garde remains the same.”  

And this particular avantgardiste seems to have it all down pat: primary colors, peculiar glasses, funky friends, the whole ball of wax, completely up to code for Manhattan-style then and now, for at least the past 50 years. She is described as having migrated from the Jersey burbs to Wash U in St. Louis to L.A. to downtown NYC, a classic trajectory dating back to the 1920s at least.  

The most interesting information in the piece is that the editor in question (and by extension her division of the avant-garde) seems to have adopted a number of the standard features of late-’50s California Upper Bohemia as markers of what is lauded as her trendy signature style. The writer gushes on and on about her Heath pottery and Marimekko fabrics, obviously unaware that they were the automatic choice of a whole generation of Mrs. Robinsons in Marin and the Berkeley hills. On the plus side of the ledger, the piece publicizes the editor’s support for the East Bay’s beloved Creative Growth organization, the workshop for developmentally disabled artists which has produced marvelous art for at least 30 years, but is hardly a new discovery.  

Which brings us back to the birds. One moral I derived from reading these style pieces while watching the birds (morals: another hazard for grandmothers) is that birds are forever stylish without even trying, while humans work hard at being stylish and often fail. No dress described in the New Yorker was anything like as handsome as the greenish birds with the striped wings or the Stellar’s jays.  

And there’s a political lesson to be learned too. Solutions to perceived problems, come in cycles just as hemlines do. This analysis thrust itself on me as I got back to work on Thursday morning and read the press release about the hearing on Saturday which has been called to discuss the mayor’s latest plans for disappearing the poor folks from downtown Berkeley. It’s been about eight years since the last time he and the then-mayor tried it, but the plans are pretty much the same as they were then.  

The mayor himself seems to have made up his mind long ago. He made it clear in a KPFA interview that he generally tries to avoid Berkeley’s beggars, and he’ll miss the hearing. He’s adding to his carbon footprint with yet another European junket, but the rest of us are invited to the North Berkeley Senior Center to talk about what to do, as if it were an open question. You can be sure that large butcher paper tablets and markers to write on them will be in evidence, along with wastebaskets to put the results in afterwards.  

A few merchants will respond to an invitation from the Downtown Berkeley Association to attend and shake their fists. Civil libertarians will object to proposed restrictions on speech. Those who try to help the homeless and disturbed people who annoy their housed and complacent fellow citizens will talk about how hard their job is, especially since the budget for the remedies they offer has been slashed.  

All speakers will agree that decent public bathrooms would be nice. Parking charges will be raised to pay for them, but the money will be used for something else. The crazy person with the giant stuffed Snoopy who’s been trying to sleep behind my garage since being rousted from Telegraph will move on eventually.  

Nothing will change. In another eight or 10 years, perhaps sooner, we’ll do it all again. That’s fashion, Berkeley-style.