The View From Above

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday November 06, 2007

“Downtown Berkeley is at present a pretty desolate and unattractive place, one that many citizens avoid if at all possible.” 


We’ve been drowned in a new flood of words about the process commonly known as DAPAC which is scheduled to wind up this month, to the great relief of many of our readers, I’m sure. I’d firmly resolved to leave the remainder of the discussion to our many eager correspondents, who are more than capable of handling their role in the discourse with intelligence and even panache. But as the days dwindle down to a blessed few, the above quote, taken from a letter from a UC Berkeley faculty member, a humanities department chair in fact, just sticks in my craw. He’s a self-confessed hills dweller, though he graciously conceded that in the fullness of time he might be lured to a downtown condo if the area were fixed up to his specs. How condescending of him, as one of Jane Austen’s characters might have said without irony... 

His letter reminded me of an old book I inherited from a family member—perhaps it’s not even in print any longer. It is a collection of columns from the 1950s by San Francisco’s favorite PR guy, Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, now held in the deepest reverence because he railed long and hard against the Embarcadero Freeway, a classic planner’s disaster fortunately undone by the 1989 earthquake.  

To my surprise, even the sainted Herb made a few mistakes in the ’50s, or maybe more than a few. I was shocked by his chapter defending the demolition of thousands of Victorian-era homes in the Fillmore district and the Western Addition, using the contemporary leftist-modernist dogmatic excuse that those people (read “Negroes”) were propelled into lives of crime because they lived in degraded housing stock in an unpleasant area. Now, of course, there’s a nostalgic effort to bring back the remains of what seems in retrospect to have been a great neighborhood for those who lived there, regardless of what it might have looked like to those like Herb who lived in the more affluent parts of Baghdad-by-the-Bay. (Yes, children, he used to call it that affectionately). 

More and more, Berkeley politics seems to have deteriorated into this kind of us-vs.-them configuration. People like the professor in question who live in the higher reaches of Thousand Oaks or behind gates in the Claremont district are all too ready to tell the people who live on Addison Street or Berkeley Way or MLK what would be good for their neighborhoods. We don’t print addresses with our letters, but they’re often easy to find on the Internet, and a quick Google map exercise shows that those letter writers who live in the green leafy parts of town are the biggest promoters of more concrete downtown.  

And The Professor’s expressed willingness to move into the right kind of new condo in central Berkeley doesn’t help at all. Are we to suppose that if downtown is gentrified enough to meet his exacting standards, garden apartments for low-income families will be constructed on the verdant site of his current abode? I think not. His lovely hills home will be snapped up by another well-paid exurbanite, perhaps a refugee from San Francisco’s current binge of excessive urbanization, and the families driven away from their pleasant houses on Berkeley Way by the monstrous Trader Joe’s condo project will have to move to El Cerrito. And so it goes.  

While we’re in the let-them-eat cake department, an aside with a few unkind words about the fancy food folks might be in order. A San Francisco woman complained in a letter in Sunday’s New York Times about what sounded like yet another hagiographic treatment of Berkeley icon Alice Waters. I looked it up. It was in fact a tongue-in-cheek piece written by a harried mother of teenage boys about her desperate attempts to simultaneously be an up-to-code foodie mom and to continue her journalistic career at the Times.  

The letter writer’s feminist objections on Sunday to the current obsession with perfect food is not unfounded—she called for a new edition of “The Feminine Mystique” as a remedy. The funniest line in the original piece was the mother’s confession that she’d bought under-eye concealer to hide the ravages of a late night making from-scratch chicken broth. It’s not just women who are engaged in the feverish search for ultimate eating, however. The men have it pretty bad too, and when it morphs into parental guilt-tripping fathers suffer pangs just as much as mothers.  

And how does this relate to highrises in downtown Berkeley? It’s one more instance of privileged people telling the less privileged what’s good for them. Privilege isn’t only about money or status, it’s also about time. When busy parents who have their own lives to lead are told that they’re not doing right by their kids if they don’t make vinaigrette dressing at home with a mortar and pestle, something’s wrong somewhere. 

The writer, coached by Alice Waters in person (that’s the kind of connection a Times byline brings) reported triumphantly that her little dears responded enthusiastically to a Frog Hollow Flavor King pluot from the farmers’ market. Hallelujah—they’re not crazy.  

But I performed my own nutritional experiment on Halloween, at much less cost and with equally good results. I mixed a few ordinary no-brand fresh apples (probably organic, but maybe not) into the bowl of wrapped commercial candy which is now demanded by parents who believe urban legends. Guess what? The kids took them enthusiastically, one even biting into hers on the spot. “Wow,” she said. Wow, indeed.  

Is there a moral in here somewhere? Well, there always is. The Times writer’s healthy normal boys rejected roasted marrow bones at Chez Panisse and went instead for pluots, and they’d probably like my apples too.  

The lengthy and expensive DAPAC process was supposed to result in university gurus and hired planners with northside homes telling people who live in the urban part of Berkeley what’s good for them. But the people who actually live in the flats, Patti Dacey and Lisa Stephens and Jesse Arreguin and Jim Novosel and others, didn’t buy the script. They know what’s good for them and for others like them, and it’s not 16-story point towers. What effect their opinions will have on the future of downtown Berkeley remains to be seen.  


—Becky O’Malley