Here is a news flash for those who don’t think land use issues are important: They are important! For example, in the Southside neighborhood, the university has recently added hundreds of new living spaces for students in residence halls and apartments. This has dramatically increased the percentage of students living in this area. The problem is that students are usually transient and have little interest or incentive to maintain—let alone improve—the quality of life for all residents.
To illustrate my point, I offer this little story: Last Saturday night, around midnight, I was returning home after a late-night shopping trip to the grocery store. I was exhausted. After I parked my car, I began lugging several heavy bags full of groceries up the sidewalk towards the entrance to my apartment building. As I slowly made my way up the street, a group of about seven or eight students rounded the corner and headed down the sidewalk towards me. They were obviously heavily intoxicated, weaving and stumbling on their way, and laughing and shouting to friends across the street. As they passed my building, one young man reached out quite deliberately and pushed the garbage container over, spilling its contents onto the sidewalk and into the street. This clever prank really impressed his companions, who immediately broke out in laughter. The group continued heading my way, walking four abreast down the sidewalk. They lurched right up to me, and I was literally forced to step off the concrete sidewalk into the dirt or they would have barreled right into me and knocked me over.
Well, this was too much. I asked them in an even tone of voice, “Would one of you please go back and put the garbage can back up on the sidewalk? I live here, and I really don’t need this mess.” The only response I got was from one young man, who chimed up, “It was an accident.” This was followed by an eruption of laughter from the others. Big fun! Not appreciating this response, I asked again as they walked away down the street, “Hey, could one of you please put the garbage can back and pick up the trash?” This time, one young man stopped, turned around to face me through glazed eyes, and said, “Hey man, we’re college students. You can’t really expect us to do that, you know.” Indeed.
The problem, to put it simply, is one of predictable group behavior. If you put enough young students together and mix in alcohol liberally, they will act in disruptive ways. That’s exactly the environment that land use decisions in the Southside have created. And if you think the incident I described is in any way unusual, you are mistaken. Just ask any long-term resident of the Southside and you will hear many similar stories, and most are worse than this one.
In fact, many of the students who reside here now are very direct in expressing their opinions about their new home. They feel a sense of entitlement, and seem to believe that nobody has the right to tell them what to do. They have told me and many of my neighbors that this is a “student district” and if we don’t like it, we should move. When we ask them for simple courtesy or ask them to obey established local ordinances, they are far more likely to tell us “fuck you” than to cooperate. It is quite astonishing, actually. During the past 28 years I have lived here, I have never seen as much outright selfish and disrespectful behavior from Cal students. It is epidemic. Where did they learn that this behavior is acceptable?
UC Berkeley officials just revealed their plans to build even more high-density student housing, this time in massive five-story structures on the site of the Anna Head parking lot just north of People’s Park. Apparently, these units will be filled with students one day, because student enrollment continues its meteoric rise unabated. This years’ new undergraduate class set a new enrollment record, in continued defiance of past agreements between the university and the city to reduce and cap student enrollment. This population increase will certainly compound the problems I have mentioned.
In response to these difficulties, there have been some recent efforts to improve student behavior in the Southside, notably by the Chancellor’s Task Force on Student Neighbor Relations, on which I serve as a neighborhood representative. While there have been some improvements, unfortunately, this group seems too interested in coddling students to be truly effective in causing them to demonstrate greater social responsibility.
Coincidentally, I have just learned that the city council is considering spending $200,000 to try to change behavior problems in our business district, in order to improve shoppers’ experiences on Shattuck and Telegraph Avenue. This money would go towards putting “hosts” on our city streets to monitor and intercede in certain activities that can be objectionable, including public intoxication, disturbing the peace, blocking the sidewalks, and others. It should be noted that these very same activities, when performed by college students in the Southside, are allowed to take place most nights without any response at all by the city or university. In particular, on football game days and nights, this hypocrisy is showcased, as the entire Southside becomes a virtual drunken student street party.
One last point: Some civic leaders in Berkeley have suggested that we ought to significantly increase student participation in our local government. While there have been a handful of UC students who have had the interest, intellect, and diligence to participate in civic affairs and make positive contributions, these individuals have been few and far between. Mostly, students are here to get a diploma and engage in an interesting social life—and anything that makes it easier for them to meet their own limited goals, they support. They therefore generally do not have the breadth of experience nor the willingness to consider other perspectives that are essential for effective leadership. Sad to say, most of the students in the Southside seem quite pleased that the area is turning into a virtual huge dormitory for the university, and is becoming increasingly intolerable for other residents who live here.
We all need to agree about some basic standards for living with our neighbors—and these standards should not apply to certain groups and leave others unaffected. If we fail to do this, we will allow conflicts to continue and exacerbate that continually drain our time and resources, and ultimately may change the character of our city itself.
Doug Buckwald is a Cal graduate and a long-term resident of Berkeley.