Reader Report: Requiem for a Berkeley Strip Mall

By Rob Browning, Special to the Planet
Thursday May 22, 2008 - 09:54:00 AM
Robert Bechtle’s “’60 Chevies” depicting the parking lot of U-Save on University and old Grove, the sight of proposed development that promises to bring back a grocery store to the corner in the form of Trader Joe’s.
Robert Bechtle’s “’60 Chevies” depicting the parking lot of U-Save on University and old Grove, the sight of proposed development that promises to bring back a grocery store to the corner in the form of Trader Joe’s.

Twelve or 14 years before I moved to central Berkeley, Allen Ginsberg was in the neighborhood one rainy night “shopping for images” at the U-Save Market when he came upon Walt Whitman “poking among the meats” and Federico Garcia Lorca “down by the watermelons.”  

In my day Ginsberg had long since departed Berkeley and was riding a trajectory of celebrity ignited by his publication in 1955 of Howl and Other Poems. One of those others was “A Supermarket in California,” whose setting was the U-Save Market. The strip mall that stretches the length of the block on the west side of Martin Luther King, Jr., Way between University Avenue and Berkeley Way didn’t start out as a strip mall. It was the U-Save. And it wasn’t on MLK. It was on Grove Street. 

Like a high school beauty in incremental decline, the mall later tried other roles, other strategies, sometimes several at a time. Car parts. Day-old bread. Pet food. Electronics. There was an elegance about the U-Save, in the sense that the space was an unadorned reflection of its function. Otherwise it was aggressively ordinary, sordid even. It was a rectangle nearly a block wide, which you entered through double glass doors at the center of its long eastern wall.  

Grocery shelves stretched north and south along that wall. Above the shelves the wall was all glass, windows reaching from shelf-tops to ceiling. In the daytime the windows and a similar row running along the top of the south wall filled the room with natural light. Turning right upon entering, you were in the produce section. “What peaches and what penumbras!” Turning left you were in everything else. “Who killed the pork chops?” The produce department was managed deftly and deliciously by Teruo Nobori, whose nephew now runs the Monterey Market. The U-Save’s front yard was of course a parking lot. That lot is the property’s one feature that remains securely intact. 

When Robert Bechtle painted his affectionate portrait of two “’60 Chevies” parked there in 1971, it looked essentially as it does today. Except that the snappy white mortar and attenuated red bricks of that long wall, laid à la mode around 1950 in clean vertical stacks rather than in the conventional overlapping step pattern, have in recent time been brutishly hidden beneath a dull cloak of gray paint.  

Bechtle’s sharp picture memorializes that bold, bright curtain of brick, sleek and vulgar as a satin “I Like Ike” sash stretched across some proud Berkeley matron’s ample bosom back in the days when Republican Berkeley had its share of such regalia (yes, Berkeley reportedly “Liked Ike”). The signs in Bechtle’s 1971 windows nostalgically offer “Prell Shampoo 88¢” and “Ice Cube Tray 23¢.” It was in front of the U-Save parking lot one politically charged day in the late sixties that a righteous citizen mistook me for Jerry Rubin, who had recently lost his race for Berkeley mayor on the “Yippie!” ticket. “What are you running for now?” he fumed when I offered him one of my antiwar fliers. My hair—and my opinions—may have been fluffy, but neither approached the explosive grandeur of Rubin’s, who was to become one of the Chicago Seven protesters arrested at the 1968 Democratic Convention and thus one of the epic “counter-culture” heroes of the era. 

Modernist design, like that of the U-Save, has been subjected to a lavish outpouring of derision in recent decades. In its rationalism, its puritanism, it came in the minds of many to represent a willful theft of such lovable qualities as warmth, complexity, and coziness. The building that is now planned to replace the U-Save offers an unapologetic resurrection of certain old-timey, not to say classical, features. Some walls are shingled (architectural Mom-and-apple-pie in Berkeley) and some assemble cornices, architraves, and spandrels in a tasteful ensemble that would look at home in Beaux-Arts Paris. No one is likely to object to the fact that the shingles are fiber-cement and the cornices reinforced polymer.  

The planned building has the capital virtue of placing residences (148 of them) near the heart of town. It is also proposing to include a Trader Joe’s supermarket. Trader Joe’s: there’s a moniker in the spirit of those shingles and cornices, dressing a multinational corporation owned by a German billionaire in the folksy getup of our pal the corner grocer. U-Save to TJ’s: ah, the enchanting permutations of flim-flam! 

Today, peering forlornly out across its emptied parking lot through a chain-link fence, gray, like the aged inmate of some mid-town concentration camp, the U-Save Market building is not a treasure that warrants the ministrations of preservationists. It is good there will be housing there. It is good there will be vigorous retail there.  

The proposed new building is too large for its site and is virtually certain to be the vortex of traffic nightmares. But the design—the building’s demeanor—is thoughtful and in many respects attractive. The process leading to that design has been long, screwball, and agonizing for everyone who has been part of it. This protracted, wasteful, unsatisfactory experience and the sadly flawed project likely to result from it should persuade us as a community how badly we need to reform that process.  

“Ah, dear father,” asks Ginsberg, addressing Whitman at the end of “A Supermarket in California,” “graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?”  

Forgetfulness, the chief characteristic of Lethe, has its uses. But memory, bright, retentive companion to us at our sharpest—like that bold, bright mortar grid in Bechtle’s U-Save picture—flawed and partial memory, even when activated by something as inconsequential as a doomed commercial strip, has I think the superior charm.  


Rob Browning has lived in central Berkeley since 1967.