Editorial: Whose Commons Is It, Anyway?

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday December 04, 2007

Out and about in Berkeley over the weekend, we had a chance to observe numerous examples of the truism that it’s not what you do, it’s who you are that counts. We walked up Ashby to Peet’s on Domingo, one of the oldest locations for Berkeley’s pride and joy, the original leading edge of the gourmet coffee revolution. In the many years we’ve been walking to Peet’s, the shops in the small commercial enclave on that corner have had a lot of turnover. Since we’ve been in the business of selling newspaper advertising, we’ve learned that there are many more people in Berkeley who’d like to run small businesses than there are people who know how to do it.  

The successful businesses (Peet’s is a prime example) take good care of their customers, even pamper them. The unsuccessful ones, those that last a year or two and then vanish, often seem to regard customers as unwelcome interlopers on private territory. For some reason the Domingo-Ashby corner has always attracted a larger-than-average number of these, elegantly appointed displays but with implicit “don’t touch anything” rules. Those come and go often.  

But there’s a store there now which seems to be a keeper, a bicycle shop which attracts crowds of recreational bicyclists on Saturdays and Sundays. They stop in to refuel at Peet’s, and then congregate by fives and tens on the sidewalk at the bike store to check out the new merchandise. The store has accommodated them by installing a bike rack on the street side of the sidewalk and lining up green plastic chairs alongside the shop-window. It’s a cheery testosterone-drenched gathering, all in all. 

But, of course, it does block two-thirds of the sidewalk. Does anyone complain about this? Not that I’ve noticed.  

The riders are clean, don’t seem to smell bad, have attractive bodies and eye-catching (and expensive) costumes. They seldom run down pedestrians, though old folks and small children sometimes have to jump out of the way quickly if a rider forgets to dismount on the sidewalk.  

That block has a wide sidewalk, and it’s well used. The kiddie boutique almost always has a sale rack outside, and the cafe has put out benches for its wait-listed overflow. There’s still a narrow walking area down the middle, but on weekends it can get tight. 

Outside of Peet’s there’s a courtyard with more benches for the coffee-drinkers and the bakery patrons. There and on the adjacent sidewalk you can observe numerous examples of aggressive and intimidating street behavior on Sunday mornings. 

There are children who are frightened by dogs, and there are dogs who are frightened by children. Parents of both children and dogs take the feelings of their charges seriously, and are alert to anything that might be interpreted as a threat. Some of the children have been trained in the proper way to speak to a strange dog: ask the owner if it’s all right, extend a hand for the dog to smell before petting it. Others have not, and it can get ugly. Many of the dogs are on leashes and/or friendly, but some are neither. Everyone knows the rules, however, and police are never called. 

There are even bathrooms for the right kind of public. They have combination locks, with combinations revealed by employees of the businesses to people who look right. They’re fairly clean, even on busy weekends.  

Over the years we’ve seen the occasional beggar out in front of Peet’s. Patrons of the businesses tend to look annoyed and turn away. There’s an extensive line-up of newspaper boxes along the curb, but we’ve never seen a live Street Spirit vendor there.  

On the way home we stopped off at nearby John Muir School, which functions as a public park on weekends. There we saw a small dog, perhaps a Yorkie, romping off-leash on the grassy lawn. It defecated, admittedly with a tiny output. The owner, engaged in conversation, ignored it. No pooper-scooper for him, but no one called the cops.  

A little boy, seemingly furious because his father said it was time to go home, hollered loudly and for a long time. The father yelled back at top volume. It was a disturbing display, but everyone else ignored it. 

Our grandchild played on the whirligig near the fence on Claremont. At the curb, less than 50 feet away, a man sitting in his car smoked up a storm and blew the smoke out his window in the direction of the playground. A complaint was not filed. 

Does the triply-redundant Public Commons for Everyone law apply near the corner of Ashby and Domingo, and does it affect the kind of people who usually hang out there? What about belligerent children, menacing dogs?  

If a winded bicyclist stretches out across the sidewalk for a moment or a merchant blocks part of the sidewalk with a sale rack, are the police called? Of course not.  

All in all, this seemed on Sunday to be an ideal shared-space oasis, a veritable Camelot, where seldom is heard a discouraging word despite small annoyances. How does it differ from, for example, Telegraph Avenue?  

The city of Berkeley has just expended more than a (conservatively estimated) hundred thousand dollars studying complaints about the Telegraph and Shattuck areas, and it’s poised to expend hundreds of thousands more. Many complainers say that they stay away from the areas in question, but they still claim to know what’s happening there.  

Much of what’s going on downtown and on Telegraph, however, is not unlike what happens elsewhere, for example near the intersection of Ashby with Domingo and Claremont. On Telly the hangers-out are not thirtyish bicylists with pricey gear and snappy outfits. Many are scruffy young with (to my ageing eyes) hideous tattoos and piercings, and their merchants of choice are there to supply them with more of the same. Retailers come and go, many with the same problems of poor business sense as those on Domingo. Peet’s has just opened another outlet for the same legal drug popular on Domingo, but other drugs can also be obtained on the Avenue.  

The Telegraph sidewalk is frequently partially blocked, just like the one on Domingo, not only by chairs and sale racks, but also sometimes by people who don’t have chairs and sit on the sidewalk. There are noisy and belligerent people (not as many of them chronologically children) and offensive dogs there too. There are no obvious public benches, however, and there are no public bathrooms, so defecation in the wrong place is not unknown, and not only by dogs.  

All in all, the activities in both locales are remarkably similar. Why have the mayor and his council majority chosen to get exercised by what happens downtown and on Telegraph, while ignoring Domingo and Claremont at Ashby? Could it be that the offending parties downtown are somehow different from the people who hang out in the Claremont district on weekends? Perhaps. Think about it.