Preserving the Marketplace of Ideas

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday August 13, 2009 - 10:38:00 AM

The first thing we did on the day after we returned from the European marathon last week was to rush to the downtown Farmers’ Market to replenish our supply of anti-oxidants. Rio Oso peaches from Ram Dass! Union label strawberries from Swanton! Annabelle from Marin with exotic Italian veggies, much more exotic than any we saw at the Campo dei Fiori farmers’ market in Rome! Berkeley maintains its title as the fer-sure foodie capital of the world, with farmers rushing in from the far corners of California three times a week to offer us their best.  

But our other title, the Free Speech navel of the universe, seems to be getting a little tarnished these days. A fellow at one end of the row of market food stalls politely offered me a petition to sign, but before I could even read it a shrill woman thrust her face in front of mine, imploring me not to sign, to hear “the other side.”  

Say what? I can read as well as the next person. I’ve been making up my own mind whether to sign ballot petitions for years now, and I don’t need any self-appointed guardian to save me from myself. My policy has always been to let a thousand flowers bloom: to sign petitions to help anyone who so desires to put their cause in front of the voters, even when I plan to vote against them myself in the long run. 

It didn’t improve my mood in the slightest when I figured out that the petition in question was designed to submit the misbegotten politico/developer plan for downtown Berkeley to the voters for approval or disapproval. Why in the name of heaven should anyone be trying to stop the notoriously strong-minded voters of Berkeley from expressing themselves on this crucial issue? 

The anti-petition antagonists at the market looked a lot like the disrupters of the national health-care town halls I’d been reading about in the European press. The idea, it seems, is that if your point of view can’t stand up to civilized discussion, just shout down the other side.  

This, sadly, seems to be becoming a new Berkeley tradition, led by a mayor (already notorious for stealing newspapers) who regularly squelches councilmembers who disagree with him at meetings. It’s the same kind of behavior indulged in by a nasty minority who are trying to shut down a local paper which shall go unnamed because they don’t agree with its op-ed writers.  

Who are these people, anyhow? Why do they think they have the right to interfere with Berkeley’s cherished tradition of peacefully settling disputes at the ballot box or in print instead of in shouting matches?  

Well, a bit of inquiry produced names for a couple of them. Mr. and Mrs. Mark Rhoades, for two, seem to have been involved. He’s a one-time city planner who slithered through the traditional revolving door to become a big-ticket builder; she’s an “activist” whose main activity seems to be promoting bigger buildings for her hubby’s firm to build. 

People like this have never liked citizen interference with the best-laid plans of the planner/developer/politician axis. The current New York Review of Books has a delicious piece by founding editor Jason Epstein on his old friend and neighbor Jane Jacobs, reminiscing about her role in nailing Robert Moses’ grand scheme for “revitalizing” Greenwich Village.  

Just one quote from her writing at the time:  

“These projects will not revitalize downtown; they will deaden it. ... They will be clean, impressive and monumental. They will have all the attributes of a well-kept, dignified cemetery.” 

And now the planner/developers are offering some of the same to Berkeley. Their behavior at the Farmers’ Market and elsewhere is reminiscent of vintage Robert Moses, who is reported to have shouted at a New York City board meeting that “there is nobody against this—NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY, but a bunch of …MOTHERS!” [caps sic] Says Epstein, “his pleas were ignored.” 

The petition to give Berkeley citizens a chance to vote on the proposed downtown plan is an important part of our traditional civic process. We wouldn’t have much to discuss if the previous generation of “revitalizers” had succeeding in having their way with the residential neighborhoods around the UC campus. These were saved by a similar citizen-sparked ballot measure, the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance initiative. Ironically, that effort was led by, among others, Linda Maio (then Veneziano), before she joined the power elite on the City Council, and by Loni Hancock (now married to Mayor Tom Bates) and her first husband, Joe Hancock, a genuine early environmental leader. 

Anyone who values this kind of civic process should hurry to sign the petition to put the plan on the ballot—even people who might eventually decide to vote to keep it. There’s just one more week to go on record in favor of free speech and citizen action. 

Despite the continuing harassment, signature gatherers will be at all three Farmers’ Markets this week: 


Thursday (today), 3–7 p.m., Shattuck Avenue at Rose Street. 

Saturday, 10 a.m.–3 p.m., Center Street at M. L. King, Jr. Way. 

Tuesday, 2–7 p.m., Derby Street at M. L. King, Jr. Way. 


Petitions will also be available during business hours at Urban Ore, 900 Murray St. (near the corner of Ashby and 7th), from today (Thursday) through Wednesday, from 8:30 a.m.–7 p.m., and on Sunday from 10 a.m.–7 p.m.  

Volunteers from Berkeley Architectural Heritage (841-BAHA) have petitions for you to sign too. 

Finally, if you need a house call or a place to sign a petition in downtown Berkeley, call Bonnie Hughes, 548-8332, and she’ll set it up for you.  

By the way, some eagle-eyed readers will have concluded by now that I’m endorsing the referendum. Indeed I am.  

The Downtown Area Plan citizens’ committee worked for years on a good plan which the council trashed in favor of one backed by big-buck campaign contributors. The council/developer plan is a clever fraud, so clever that it’s even deceived some starry-eyed environmental suckers who want to believe that that Santa Claus is still the mayor of Berkeley. The give-aways to developers are essentially guaranteed, while the give-backs to the public interest (open space, setbacks, affordable housing etc.) are so much pie-in-the-sky, engineered to be easily dumped any time a builder cries poor.  

But you don’t have to believe me to sign the referendum petition. Just support free speech in Berkeley, and make up your mind later. If the question goes on the ballot, the facts will come out in the campaign (though of course developer megabucks will be spent to confuse you.)  

The absolute last day to turn in petitions is Thursday, Aug. 20, a week from today, but PLEASE don’t wait that long. Signatures have to be checked against the voter list, a laborious process.  

Do it now, get it over with, take your stand for continuing free speech in Berkeley. 

Inscribed on the fountain in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori is this: FA DEL BEN E LASSA DIRE (“Do well and let them talk”). That would be a good motto for Berkeley’s Farmers’ Markets too, which should continue to be a marketplace of ideas as well as of produce.  

And stop whining about why you never go downtown. This may be your last chance to do something meaningful about it, before downtown Berkeley turns into La Defense and you have to do all your shopping at El Cerrito Plaza.