Find Out What's Going on in Berkeley

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday April 20, 2011 - 01:30:00 PM

So, what’s up in Berkeley? An endlessly interesting question to some, deadly dull to others. And as in many big towns which like to think of themselves as small cities, it’s been harder and harder to find out in recent years, even if you care.

In the first place, there’s the two Berkeley problem. For a sizeable number of residents, Berkeley is just a more PC Piedmont: comfortable view homes, an easy car commute to pleasant white collar jobs on the UC campus or in San Francisco, okay city services. Getting anywhere—shopping, movies, whatever—is just about impossible without an automobile, and once you’re in the car, you might as well go to El Cerrito Plaza or Emeryville or Walnut Creek if you need anything. For concerned parents, there’s a choice of driving the kids to not-so-bad public schools or to interesting added-value private schools where the little darlings can learn French, creative sharing, Hebrew, music…whatever you think might improve them the most.

In this Berkeley, no one's trying to build an enormous apartment development to loom over your block, and if the occasional passing car threatens to disturb your peace, you might be able to persuade the city to gift you with a few bumps in the road. That’s about all you need from the city, unless a neighbor’s new gable invades your view, necessitating a complaint. Your house is worth a lot, even with the recession, so your tax bill is substantial, and if you’re that kind of person you might gripe about that.

The other Berkeley is the one that allows upscale and uphill Berkeley to feel PC. These are the people who inhabit the area which has the “more density” bulls-eye painted on it, the place where the 16,000 households that the Association of Bay Area Government and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission want to add to Berkeley over the next 25 years would surely be located. The residents of this other Berkeley, on average, have lower property values, less income and more melanin than their fellow citizens, and they certainly have more to worry about. Instead of winding lanes, they’re apt to live on or next to transit corridors. They can—and often must—walk or bike to stores.
These are the Berkeleyans who really need to know what’s going on, in the classic phrase, “before it lands on them.” When the Mayor and the City Council are confronted, to their evident distaste. with a noisy crowd, many members of the vocal group come from what might be called “high impact” Berkeley. Most residents of “low impact” Berkeley hate going to council meetings in person, and luckily for them life is good and they don’t need to. 

So how do need-to-know Berkeleyans find out what’s going on? The recent initiative by the public-spirited citizens who have organized the berkeleycouncilwatch.com website, announced in this issue, is a real breakthrough. Much of the information they showcase is available online, with an extremely laborious search, from the city of Berkeley, but the new citizen-sponsored site puts it all in an easy to use and attractive format. There’s even an open forum section—with no nice-nanny restrictions—for public comment. 

On the Berkeley Council Watch site, just this week, I noticed that the Mayor and Councilmembers Capitelli and Wengraf, who represent low-impact Berkeley, have placed an item on the council agenda attempting to limit the number and location of pharmacies in the city. That’s swell for the auto-oriented and not-price-sensitive population of high-hills districts, where there will never be a Walgreens, but makes little sense for people who need to walk to shopping and who appreciate the way drug stores are evolving into general stores selling practical sundries for reasonable prices. Like them or not, chain pharmacies have replaced the Woolworths and the family-owned hardware stores and the small retailers which used to sell such merchandise, and that’s all over America, not only in Berkeley. 

It’s an item of faith in some circles that these stores have driven the independents out, but in fact they have by and large come in only when the old guard has failed. The walkable Elmwood shopping area when we moved to Berkeley in 1973 had two pharmacies, a hardware store, a variety store and a store selling serviceable inexpensive drygoods—all gone, mostly replaced by restaurants and chi-chi boutiques. We could use one of those Walgreens, not just for drugs but for toilet paper and milk and socks. 

Another useful source of information for the beleaguered Berkeleyan is the Berkeleyside site, with a blog-type format but ambitions, increasingly well-realized, to provide an easy-to-digest version of assorted general news and features about current city happenings. Often what’s most interesting on this site is the reader-written comments, though they sometimes add unfortunate misinformation to the discussion.Berkeleyside’s take on the proposed drugstore banprovoked a vigorous debate. 

For those who haven’t acclimated to getting their news by computer, slim pickings get ever slimmer. The major metropolitan print publications, the San Francisco Chronicle and the hydra-headed Bay Area News Group, are somewhat random in their choice of topics, too often falling back on the tried and true Bezerkeley meme because they can’t be bothered to cover governmental meetings on a regular basis. There’s also a new “good news” shopper, the Berkeley Times, seemingly featuring mostly photos from the BUSD public relations department, but since I’ve only been able to find one or two issues I really shouldn’t comment on it. 

What’s too often missing from this lineup are the back stories, since seasoned reporters with long memories and a broad perspective are expensive to support. Case in point: the drugstore ban story, when it’s been reported at all so far, has been generally placed in the context of rivalries between the two big pharmacy chains, Walgreens and CVS. 

What’s been overlooked is that Safeway is everywhere becoming yet another flavor of all-purpose general store cum pharmacy, looking to expand its Solano and North Shattuck and College/Claremont locations, all of which court the lucrative Berkeley market. Mostly likely, it’s Safeway which doesn’t want either Walgreens or CVS to expand any further in Berkeley, because they’re the competition to Safeway’s new business plan of offering everything including drugs under one convenient roof. 

Back story: Safeway has been represented before Planning Commissions and City Councils in all these endeavors by the Aroner, Jewel and Ellis lobbying firm, which sprung full-armed from the robust political organization which has long controlled the Berkeley City Council and the city’s seats in the California legislature. Dion Aroner followed now-Mayor Tom Bates as this area’s State Assembly Member, and she was followed by the Assembly term of Bates’ wife, Loni Hancock, who preceded him as Berkeley mayor. Elizabeth Jewel once worked for some or all of them, and still works with Aroner in the influence arena. And Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, another sponsor of the drugstore ban, is generally regarded as Bates’ anointed successor for the mayor’s seat. (Though if you can’t follow all this you’re not alone!) 

Bottom line: it’s almost impossible to figure what’s really going on in Berkeley (or anywhere else). But if you’re foolish enough to try, these days you’re going to have to piece together a confusing patchwork of information sources, and even then, you can’t be sure what’s really up.