What's News in Berkeley? More Than You Might Think

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday July 13, 2010 - 09:40:00 AM

The big news last week was the relatively restrained reaction to an L.A. jury’s verdict that Johannes Mehserle was guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting of Oscar Grant. Be sure not to miss the many fine pieces which appear as "Extras" in last week’s Planet, which covered it in depth, on the theory that the Berkeley Bubble is not an island unto itself. We hope to cover, as well as we’re able, significant stories like this one which affect the whole urban East Bay, both Berkeley and beyond.  

Oscar Grant was a Hayward resident, and the policeman who shot him worked for the Bay Area Rapid Transit district, commonly known as BART, a regional agency which includes Berkeley—it just happened that the initial outraged reaction to the shooting manifested itself in Oakland, many of whose citizens, like Oscar Grant, are African-Americans. Many Berkeleyans and other people of conscience from all over the Bay Area took part in last week’s demonstrations. Among those few who were arrested for intemperate behavior, 75% were from outside Oakland, some perhaps even from Berkeley. 

Only the Chronicle, of all the various news sources I scanned online and in print, tried to hype the violence which played a role in the demonstrations. The tactic seems to have paid off, with sensational coverage in the Friday paper near or at the top of the paper’s “Most Read” list on Sunday. In other publications, and later in the Chronicle, equal time was eventually given to the overwhelming majority who demonstrated without rioting. 

The recent phenomenon of hyper-local blogging, and blogging in general, added interesting depth and human interest to this story. The urban East Bay now has local bloggers too numerous to count, and many chimed in with details which contributed to providing a well-rounded picture of the full sweep of events. 

Some hyper-locals outside of Oakland chose instead to say that “it’s not in our backyard”—to ignore the story altogether, and that’s a defensible choice. You can only do so much, particularly if you’re working for free on your own time, and it’s tempting to say that news stops at the city limits. 

It’s hard to know where to stop, but arbitrary distinctions may be the easiest way for small time operators to maintain sanity. Unfortunately, sometimes news from other political jurisdictions spills over to adjacent areas. 

This is particularly true in the increasingly tightly packed Bay Area. If Oakland gets a stay-away injunction against known gang members in North Oakland, they’re likely to move a few blocks across the border into South and West Berkeley. Safeway’s plans to exploit their real estate holdings to the max with major building expansions will impact Berkeley neighbors of their Solano Avenue store (in Albany) and their Claremont and College store (in Oakland). 

Even stories which seem to be just Berkeley stories have to be considered in regional perspective. My first California journalism job thirty years ago was as “regional government reporter” for the Bay Guardian, back in the days when the whole thing—the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and many more—when the whole alphabet soup which makes the rules and the deals about development in the Bay Area was able to fit into the basement of the Claremont Hotel. 

These days, those agencies and the state government are most often the movers behind what seem on the surface to be local phenomena. Part of the push for building high rises in Berkeley comes from ABAG’s housing quota system. 

The hot controversy over Berkeley’s downtown plan or lack thereof is fueled by true believers who would have you think that building pricey condos in Berkeley will protect farmland elsewhere. But an excellent piece by Susan Sward in Monday’s Bay Citizen spotlights threats to California’s Williamson Act, which has protected agricultural land by giving tax breaks to farmers in the Bay Area and elsewhere. No matter how many highrises developers cram into Berkeley if the council majority has its way, loss of the Williamson Act will mean inevitable loss of open space at the margins—and a Berkeley-only focus won’t illuminate that point. 

The fate of Berkeley’s Measure C is another story that goes beyond Berkeley. Many Berkeley residents swim by preference at the several fine pools in Albany and El Cerrito—I took my late father to the lovely Albany pool for water-based therapy after he had a stroke. It’s not surprising that some voters saw no need to maintain Berkeley pools. 

On the other hand, since Berkeley has the only warm pool of its type in the urban East Bay, we’re providing a regional resource which is used by swimmers from several jurisdictions, and the cost should probably be shared by all. An intelligent approach to planning for public recreational facilities would be regional, not local, and coverage of Berkeley should reflect that possibility. 

Even something as seemingly local as the Berkeley Unified School District’s concern about excessive drug use at Berkeley High crosses the city limits, as a recent BUSD report on the topic notes: 


“Substance use and abuse is related to high-risk behaviors such as binge drinking, drinking and driving, violence, engaging in unprotected sex, and other negative behaviors that can ultimately lead to death. The use of alcohol and marijuana also impacts school performance, which compromises the opportunities for students to have healthy and successful adult lives. Unfortunately, this growing problem is one that BUSD and the City share with other cities in Alameda County, the state, and the nation.” [emphasis added].
Things haven’t changed much in this regard since my own kids, now with their own teenagers and pre-teens, were at Berkeley High in the late 70s. Students still cross the street into Provo Park to indulge in forbidden substances—only the name of the park has changed, to MLK Civic Center Park, and the substances are now grouped by bureacrats under the name of ATODs. It’s still the case that no one in authority at Berkeley High seems to be able to keep track of who’s in class and who’s not—why this should still be the case is still not clear. 

But districts to the north and south of Berkeley in the urban East Bay corridor report very similar problems, as do schools both public and private that I’m familiar with in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and probably everywhere else in the state. Perspective, again, is important in order to avoid undue hysteria. 

None of this is to say that light features with a local emphasis aren’t pleasant to read. Many readers, myself included, guiltily enjoy a bit of what’s sometimes unkindly referred to as Real Estate Porn, especially if it’s about grand properties open for view which are close enough for a Sunday stroll. Many Berkeleyans are caught up in the national foodquake which has its epicenter in Berkeley, and we like reading about local purveyors. 

(A high school student whom I once hired to organize my excessive book collection set up a shelf of mixed cookbooks and health books labeled “Food: Pro and Con.” He grew up to become a critic.) 

What’s great about this internet age for the consuming reader is that if you have the time you can have it all. You can see what oddities the national papers, especially the New York Times, perceive when they look at the Bay Area from the wrong end of the telescope. You can sign up for your super-extra-hyper-local neighborhood news source to learn that unsupervised toddlers break branches on delicate shrubs in the mini-park across the street. And everything in between is available to you on demand—it’s just a matter of learning how to use the bookmarks in your browser.