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Finding Berkeley’s Center

By Ted Friedman
Tuesday December 23, 2008 - 10:06:00 AM

In 1950s Springfield, Illinois, we often settled arguments with the absurd challenge: “If you’re right, I’ll kiss your hiney [although we pronounced it differently and spelled it with only three letters] at Fifth and Monroe.” Why there? It was the center of town, at least to us.  

Does Berkeley own such a spot, a central location holding our municipal soul, where arguments can be squared and keister kissed? Shattuck and Center, with its BART bubble, a transport hub; University Avenue with “how Berkeley can you be?,” a beeline to the bay, and good for cruising. College at Ashby is nothing more than a freeway jam-up. Think City Hall is center? Although rich in butt-kissing, it seems off the beaten path.  

The city has successfully nurtured a district of theaters, music, poetry, and art—a centrality of cultural life, starting at Shattuck and Addison. All this a mere block from the university’s future blockbuster: an art museum, a repertory cinema, and a classy hotel for university visitors—something for everyone. 

At this point, some mystic might suggest that we are our own centers, that we carry the center with us wherever we go; that each of us is the center. Someone else, more literal, might pick Center and Shattuck. It is named Center, but that would be too easy: besides, the intersection bores.  

Will Berkeley’s center, its Fifth and Monroe, please stand up? Before you make your choice, take a little stroll on Telly (if you haven’t sworn off the Avenue). Start at Bancroft, head south on the left side of the street until you reach the corner of Haste and Telegraph.  

Here you will find a confluence of Berkeley history and pathos that may qualify this intersection for centerhood. Note the “drug free zone” signs, placed almost whimsically smack dab in the center of a drug superhighway, and ironically marking the remains of the burned-out and razed Berkeley Inn, which was anything but drug-free. Like a treasure-hunt clue, the drug-free zone sign aligns with another abandoned site, Cody’s books, past center of intellectual commerce. Sometimes Cody’s door stands open for workers, revealing nothing.  

You also happen to be sandwiched between two murals, the People’s Park mural on the wall of Amoeba Records, and behind you the “mural Berkeley,” keeping watch over the weedy mound once home to Berkeley-Inners who actually resembled the people in the mural.  

While there, you would hear (because you couldn’t help hearing) live Christian missionary music performed sullenly, volume levels lowered in response to a community clamor. They’ve settled in for the long haul, knowing a good spot when they find one. But if their theology is wrong, they can just kiss our arse at Fifth and Monroe—where ever that is. 


Ted Friedman has lived here 40 years. Can you tell?