Public Comment

Commentary: Don’t Blame Economic Woes on Street Dwellers

By Glen Kohler
Tuesday December 18, 2007

Last Tuesday at midnight the temperature outside fell to near-freezing as I left my heated apartment in search of a restaurant open at that hour. The trip began as an adventure; bundled in scarf and gloves to ride a bicycle in the bracing air. But all sense of adventure died as I wheeled past the dark, silent figures sitting and lying on Telegraph Avenue, mute and stoic in the penetrating cold. These are the people that Thomas Lord (in a Dec. 11 Daily Planet commentary) and Tom Bates, et. al., want us to see as “potentially dangerous.” 

Potentially dangerous—the same phony excuse Bush and Co. uses to kill and torture and spy. The privileged class brooks no delay when facts and circumstances fail to justify their fear and prejudice. The real circumstance confronting Berkeley and other cities is the rapidly deteriorating economy. People of means know this well and are taking early steps to avoid any necessity of sharing their wealth. 

Like Thomas Lord, who has observed Berkeley for 20 years, I have lived here over 30 years. Unlike that uncharitable observer I know the people we both are writing about—he from his perch ‘above’ them; myself from their midst. In the last two and a half years of living on Southside I walk by and talk with people who live outside at all hours of the day and night. The greatest real danger I can see is to themselves, posed by their precarious circumstances. 

Lord takes issue with Becky O’Malley’s search for parallels in anti-social behaviors in “posh” districts and the Avenue. If the editor of the Daily Planet has not been sufficiently clear or convincing, let me share two instances of vehicular assault by well dressed drivers in late model Volvos that happened to me, once on Rose Street at Shattuck and again on Shattuck between Vine and Rose. Each time I was crossing the street with difficulty after a serious injury when an inhabitant of North Berkeley went into a potentially lethal tizzy because my stupid body was impeding their immediate desire to procede. In 30 years no one on Telegraph Avenue has driven a car right at me or done anything else as potentially dangerous as those two beautiful people. 

At the end of his convoluted, vaguely-defined assertions about “turf” Lord admits: “There is no evil mastermind, just lots of people trying to survive in the moment.” Yet, knowing this, Lord—and the minority who have pushed this disgusting law upon us despite the community’s outrage—is determined to make these lives harder than they already are, perhaps impossibly so. How narrowly self-interested! The Public Commons For Everyone Initiative is the life-style sociopathy of the must-have-mores, got up as social conscience. 

When I arrived in Berkeley this was a unique center of culture and commerce. Much of the visible culture, born of the social revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, taught us to make common cause and share our talents and resources. The commerce included products, services, and entertainment not available in surrounding communities. People flocked to Berkeley from Hayward, Oakland, Walnut Creek, Marin, and San Francisco. 

As other communities—indeed, the nation—began to imitate what they found here, there was less reason for people from surrounding areas to come to Berkeley (other than to get a parking ticket!). All the while real estate speculation has imposed a toll of ever-increasing rents on rental homes and businesses. The “dot bomb” collapse in Silicon Valley, followed by natural gas racketeers, aided and abetted by Washington, (and the subsequent recall of Gov. Gray Davis before he could sue FERC to make restitution of California’s lost nine billion in phony gas charges), followed by the fictitious threat of terrorism in 2000, administered the coupe de grace to our local economy. In 1999 people went out every night to restaurants and theaters in Berkeley and Oakland. By 2001 the streets were empty after six and the tide has ebbed even lower since. 

The ill health of businesses in Berkeley is not caused by people who live outside, though the calumnies that damage our economy surely force poor people to become homeless. The horrific Commons law in Berkeley expresses the middle class fear of their hunger and desperation—fear of the raven’s sharp beak. 


Glen Kohler is a Berkeley resident.