Could Berkeley Ever Work as Well as Chicago?

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday September 14, 2010 - 09:39:00 AM

Chicago has often been called “The City That Works”. 

Of course, since it’s a spunky city full of contentious people, any time that soubriquet is quoted, someone will pop up to say “Does Not!” Also true. 

But in all the years I’ve been visiting Chicago, going way back to childhood trips from St.Louis, it’s always been an impressive, vital city, full of beautiful buildings, dynamic museums, lavish parks, and yes, those scrappy citizens. 

My knowledge of historic Chicago comes from a long line of gritty fiction by the likes of Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright and Saul Bellow. My main source for background on the down and dirty side of latter-day Chicago politics has been the stories written by Sara Paretsky about V.I. Warshawski, a tough-gal private eye who’s half-Italian, half-Polish—and the feisty half of both. Paretsky’s tales of V.I.’s adventures spotlight how Chicago really works, with the villains the mobsters, developers and politicians (and some who are all three) whose fingerprints are found on many a civic project. 

And yet, Chicago, warts and all, has mostly worked, in its own way. 

Years ago, a friend who lived in that city told me a quintessential Chicago story. His motor scooter was parked on the street outside his apartment. A driver ran into it, and totaled it. 

A woman who witnessed the accident called the police, who took his license number and that of the car which hit the scooter. Then they called him and asked how much it was worth (then about 200 bucks.) 

An hour or so later a police officer knocked on his door, and when he opened it handed him 200 dollars in small bills “for your accident”. Case closed. Presumably the policeman pocketed a healthy cut of the proceeds, and a rude form of justice was served. 

A recent weekend in Chicago has persuaded me that it’s a bit unfair to call the loose organization that controls politics around here a “machine”. That’s actually too generous, because a machine at least takes care of its wardheelers. 

I went for the birthday party of a friend, a retired labor organizer whose union protégés were featured in a recent Michael Moore movie where they took over their factory when owners threatened to move operations offshore. 

She lives in a Northside neighborhood of leafy streets lined with three story brick apartment buildings with one spacious turn-of-the-last-century flat on each floor and colorful gardens in front and back. I was billeted with one of her old Movement friends from the sixties, who lives in a single-family house not far away which she said had been bought for about $80,000 not too many years ago. 

Despite the verdant atmosphere of Midwestern late summer, it’s a distinctly urban environment, with supermarkets, farmer’s markets, public transit and every other kind of city amenity within easy walking distance. The weekend I was there happened to coincide with the annual block party on the street where I was staying, also green and leafy , which has many young families in the older houses and ambitious flower displays replacing what used to be lawns in front. The ends of her street were blocked off with cars, and many families had lawn chairs, picnic tables and even barbecues set out on the sidewalk. 

The kids were out in force. My hostess, a retired English prof now enjoying a new career as a landscape gardener, called them the “river of children”—they streamed up and down the block with enormous enthusiasm. They rode their bikes in the street, having races and doing wheelies, until almost midnight in the warm evening. 

The alderman for the district happened to live on her block. Aldermen in Chicago are like councilmembers in Berkeley, except that there are 50 of them, so no individual has too much power on his or her own. This one held court outside his house with his family for most of the day and night, drinking cold beer and chatting with his constituents. As the night went on, his favorite refrains were repeated more and more often, his signature quote being “I’ve had to fight block-by-block to downzone this ward!” 

And therein lies the difference. An old-school big city organization—or machine, if you will—takes care of its own. Just as in many places, Developer Democrats call the tune in downtown Chicago, but in the neighborhoods it’s what the residents think they need that counts. That’s what keeps it a yes—liveable—city (much abused and misspelled though that word has been around here). 

Down-zoning in this Chicago ward has meant three-story height limits, and it is credited with preserving the human scale that makes all the difference. It’s what’s kept families from fleeing to the suburbs, since there’s still room and sunlight for trees and gardens even on small city lots and even for apartment dwellers. 

Residents might get a bit of argument on the exact number three from urban visionaries like Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander, but both agreed on the concept. The latter was willing to allow four stories, but that’s about it. 

A famous section of his seminal book A Pattern Language was headed “There is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy.” It went on to say that “High buildings have no genuine advantages, except in speculative gains for banks and land owners. They are not cheaper, they do not help create open space, they destroy social life, they promote crime, they make life difficult for children, they are expensive to maintain, they wreck the open spaces near them, and they damage light and air and view.” 

The people in this Chicago neighborhood evidently agree with Christopher Alexander, and their alderman takes care of the zoning for them, because that’s his job. Calling a political organization a machine sounds pejorative, but what we’ve ended up with in Berkeley doesn’t even work as well as Chicago does, because the citizens are consistently shortchanged when the goodies are handed out. We’d be better off with a real machine. 

The current majority members of the Berkeley City Council seem to have missed the memo. 

Measure R, placed on the ballot for November by the majority of the incumbent Berkeley councilmembers, is a flagrant example of what’s wrong. It’s the worst kind of greenwashing, asking the voters to give the mayor and his cronies a blank check to create whatever kind of plan they want for the center of Berkeley, complete with high buildings which only produce speculative gains for banks and land owners. It’s developers in the saddle, citizens be damned. 

Two incumbent Berkeley councilmembers now up for re-election, Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguin, have respected the opinions and needs of the downtown dwellers they’re supposed to represent and deserve to continue in office. They oppose Measure R. 

But two others, University of California retirees Gordon Wozniak and Linda Maio, have paid little attention to the needs of their constituents. They’ve endorsed Measure R, as well as endorsing the various shills who have been put up by the Mayor’s organization in the attempt to defeat independent progressives Worthington and Arreguin. 

Wozniak’s and Maio’s former employer is the major landowner in downtown Berkeley, and as such stands to benefit from Measure R both directly and indirectly. Wozniak has two viable independent challengers, Stewart Jones and Jacquelyn McCormick, either one of whom would do more than Wozniak’s done for District 8 and the city as a whole. 

There are two strong challengers to Maio as well (the third seems to be keeping a low profile). Jasper Kingeter, whom I met for the first time over the weekend, displays a grasp of the key issues in his district which is remarkable for someone of his age (22) or any age. Merrilie Mitchell has made it her avocation for many years to keep up with important city issues, almost more than anyone in Berkeley. 

Either of them would make an excellent replacement councilperson in District 1, and so we’re endorsing both of them. If you live in District 1, you can decide which to rank as number one, but make the other one number two, and skip the number three slot altogether. 

One more warning: endorsements from the local machine and its tributary organizations are now flooding the mails, both snail and electronic. There’s even a rumor that one of the Democratic clubs, the one dominated largely by survivors of the Old less-democratic (small-d) Left, allowed the ballot counters to take the endorsement ballot box home overnight while the count was still in progress, something they’d never get away with in Chicago. 

My first political job was as a Democratic precinct captain in Ann Arbor. I was trained by someone who had worked in Chicago’s Hyde Park, and she knew how elections could be stolen. On election day she would lie down on the floor on her back and wiggle underneath the mechanical voting machine to see if it had been rigged, outraging the genteel Ann Arbor Republican ladies who couldn’t even imagine such a thing. 

I’m not exactly saying that club officers here (or any other endorsers) rig their counts—I have no way of knowing that. But they should all avoid even the appearance of impropriety if they want voters to take them seriously, and even that might not be enough if they're consistently suckered into acting as the tools of the dominant financial interest when they endorse candidates.