Editorial: Singing the Downtown Blues: Reprise

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday March 11, 2008

Collecting one’s thoughts from time to time is a good idea. Thus I welcome the opportunity of being asked to speak today to a class at the University of California law school formerly known as Boalt Hall, billed as a Workshop on Development and the Environment. This semester’s focus is on downtown Berkeley. The speaker list includes several from the Downtown Area Planning and Advisory Committee (DAPAC), the mayor, developer Patrick Kennedy (twice), and jazz club proprietor Anna De Leon, one of his dissatisfied tenants. (She’s also an attorney who recently won a suit on behalf of citizen clients against the city of Berkeley for letting Kennedy play fast and loose with the conditions on his use permit.) A mixed bag, in other words, and what could I add to the mix?  

My interest in downtown has waxed and waned, but mostly waned, in the 50 or so years since I moved here for the first time. As an undergraduate, I lived in various old buildings: in one room of a brown shingle on Channing near Telegraph, in a shared flat on Blake near Shattuck, and in a shared apartment at Blake and Ellsworth. They were all on the south side of campus, where the self-conscious intellectuals clustered.  

My day-to-day needs were amply served on Telegraph, where there was a Lucky supermarket in the building which now houses Amoeba records, a laundramat, a drugstore and an all-purpose “dime” variety store near campus. We had one coffeehouse, Piccolo, later succeeded by the Med, and a few cheap ethnic restaurants, including Mario’s La Fiesta, which is still around. There were bookstores on Bancroft, mainly texts. No liquor could be sold within a mile of campus, so I seldom drank except at parties. In the unlikely event that I needed to buy consumer goods, there was a small department store on Shattuck staffed by older ladies with blue-rinsed grey hair and bifocals—I remember going there only two or three times. 

I didn’t have a car, since undergraduates were not permitted by the university to have cars (imagine that). Once in a blue moon I took the F bus from downtown to San Francisco, and for entertainment I sometimes went to the KPFA studio on Shattuck for its live folk music broadcast on Saturday nights.  

I got married and, not long after graduating, moved to Ann Arbor where my husband went to graduate school. We lived there 12 years, always in the center of town, much of the time without a car since we could easily walk to downtown or to the University of Michigan campus for work. All three of our children were born there, and two started elementary grades at the neighborhood school, an easy walk from our house even for an unaccompanied kindergartner.  

When we moved back to Berkeley in 1973 we traded, almost even, a seedy former rooming house on a busy street in Ann Arbor for a much larger and nicer house, though also on a main thoroughfare, on Ashby. The trailing edge of Berkeley’s exciting ’60s had depressed property values to our advantage. We were still able to walk to many of the places we needed to go, though the children were bussed to more distant schools as part of Berkeley’s racial integration plan.  

My husband rode his bike to campus, and the computer revolution was starting to make it possible for me to work at home as a journalist. When I needed to go to The City, the E bus ran frequently near our house. 

Again, we seldom went to downtown Berkeley, because even then it offered nothing that wasn’t available closer to home on College Avenue, where there were two drug stores, a hardware store, a variety store and more. For books we could walk up to Telegraph, where Moe’s and Cody’s were in full flower. 

When we started our software company in the ’80s, we found cheap rent and a ready supply of programmers on Telegraph, upstairs in the building which now houses Rasputin Records. We could walk to work, and the children, now in high school and junior high, could take AC Transit to school and come to our office afterwards to do their homework. We still didn’t go downtown much, except to J.C. Penney’s for clothes. Hink’s, the old-line department store, had closed. 

And The Malling of America (the title of a seminal 1985 book) was well underway. The small Lucky’s with no parking lot on Telegraph had closed, edged out by the new Park and Shop a few blocks south. Most of our family food purchases were now at what seemed like a much grander Lucky’s on College in Oakland, in the area where the Rockridge BART station had created a growth magnet, and we went in the car because there was a nice large parking lot. For clothes and hardware, the Sears store around 25th and Telegraph in Oakland offered ample parking for big shopping trips.  

There still wasn’t much reason to go downtown in Berkeley. Eventually Penney’s moved on, replaced by Ross Dress for Less, offering cheap clothes but not much else. Ross’s downscale management even closed the restrooms when they took over Penney’s building, the last straw in making family shopping downtown unpleasant if not impossible. 

After the 1989 earthquake we moved our software company from the unreinforced masonry Telegraph building to a former factory in West Berkeley with a nice parking lot and pretty much forgot about downtown. But eventually the political powers-that-were managed to command our attention in the mid ’90s with a series of dumb moves that focused our attention on downtown Berkeley by awakening our consciences as lifelong civil libertarians.  

We still have in our garage a big sign that says “Assemblyman Bates supports Measures N and O,” filched from an Ashby telephone pole. These measures on the Berkeley ballot, quickly dubbed “the Poor Laws,” criminalized peaceful solicitation of money and sitting or lying on sidewalks.  

Attorney Harry Bremond of Wilson, Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a Palo Alto law firm that served as ACLU cooperating counsel in the lawsuit that eventually got the Poor Laws overturned, described what was going on: “As our economic problems refuse to abate, and the numbers of poor continue to rise, more and more cities are passing laws which criminalize poverty by punishing people simply for doing the things they have to do in order to survive.” Downtown Berkeley was continuing its downhill spiral, and the poor were convenient scapegoats.  

They still are. Bates, now Berkeley’s mayor, tried the same ploy again recently with his Orwellian “Public Commons for Everyone Initiative.” And it still won’t make Downtown Berkeley work.  

And what, it’s fair to ask, does all of this personal history have to do with a Workshop on Development and the Environment and its affects downtown? Just this often-cited observation by philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  

It’s been a half-century since Downtown Berkeley (like many other downtowns) has had any relevance as a commercial center for most of the population. It’s tempting to think better transit would fix everything, but we had better transit 20 years ago than we do now, and downtown didn’t work then. Auto dominance has only increased. 

It’s easy to blame the homeless, but it’s wrong. Getting rid of beggars won’t fix anything—they weren’t there when we moved back to Berkeley in 1973, but downtown was already irrelevant.  

Times have changed in many different ways, and this means solutions must be multi-faceted, not simplistic. That’s what the law students will have to chew on in their workshop. Maybe a little personal history will help.