Don't Bother Waiting for the One Percent to Shape Up--Here in Berkeley It's a DIY Holiday

By Becky O'Malley
Friday December 23, 2011 - 02:24:00 PM

Being out and about in Berkeley in the week before Christmas provides a good window on the world in 2011. A lot of fuss has been made, rightly so, about the major divide between the 1% super-rich and the 99% others, but the old distinction of the haves versus the have-nots is still valid.

Berkeley has recently been certified as the center of this split. We have the biggest gap between the rich and the poor of any city in the Bay Area.

Of course, the simple explanation is that we’re the rich city most tolerant of also including some less-well-off residents, which can be construed as being praiseworthy. We’ve even had a historic commitment (now in the process of being breached) to adding a few less expensive units to our luxury condo developments and plush mini-dorm rentals which are being constructed downtown for U.C. students.

But by and large, the retail stores you see if you try to Shop Local are comfortable accommodations for the carriage trade, for people who don’t have to sweat the disposition of their purchasing dollars. Even our student population, once considered low-income, is increasingly drawn from more privileged segments because costs have gotten so high. 

The new face of Andronico’s is typical. The somewhat grungy stores on Telegraph and University with their increasingly bare shelves are gone, presumably because the demographics of the neighborhood didn’t measure up. But the Shattuck Avenue survivor location looks plusher than ever. Clearly the new owners have decided, like Willie Sutton, to go where the money is, and that would be North Berkeley,. 

Yet even the well-off in the past have been overhead whining that the chain under the previous owners was “just too expensive”. There’s little mention of the fact that past Andronico’s employees were decently paid union members, while those of the competitors Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and the Berkeley Bowl most emphatically are not. (The Andronico’s union might be at risk under the new regime.)  

Berkeleyans don’t seem to understand that getting a bargain might well be an indication that someone somewhere in the supply chain is underpaid—and this attitude is just as prevalent among self-identified “progressives” as it is anywhere. Cody’s Books, staffed in its glory days by family members and union employees, is gone, replaced for many of us by Amazon, which doesn’t even contribute sales tax revenues to our increasingly broke government. 

I overheard an avid middle-class supporter of the Occupy movement saying that she had little sympathy for the people whose homes were foreclosed on, because they should have known better than to borrow when they couldn’t pay back. She wasn’t even slightly dissuaded by arguments citing predatory lending practices by financial institutions. She’s a good example of how the politics of Occupy can too easily segue into the politics of resentment: “It’s not that I don’t have enough, it’s that a few others have much much more.”  

From a strategic perspective, the 99-1 dichotomy is a brilliant way of swelling the ranks, but from the point of view of justice it’s important to stress that the most painful divide is still between Having Enough and Not Having Enough. The disintegration of Occupy Berkeley was caused, in part, by an unwelcome infusion of those made crazy by Not Enough, including not enough shelter and no treatment facilities for medical and dependency problems . 

Around the time of the winter solstice, we humans are accustomed to cheering ourselves up against the possibility that the sun won’t rise again with using lots of lights in a variety of ways in quasi-religious observances. Music and alcohol are other popular media for deterring the demons of winter. 

It’s also been customary for the relatively fortunate members of various faiths to give what they can to the less fortunate approximately at solstice time as another way of driving off demons. That’s one surviving religious custom that’s should even be followed by their post-religious descendants.  

Berkeley probably has a certain representation of the insanely rich .01%, but it has a much higher proportion of those who have Enough, or even More Than Enough. Those of us who are in the latter category should not be lulled into a complacent expectancy that Taxing the SuperRich will take care of the poor anytime in the near future, because it’s just not likely to happen. Unless and until it does, though it might seem less than fair, the 80-99% will just have to continue to carry the burden that their richer brethren have shunned.  

So happy holidays, whichever ones appeal to you, to anyone of the 99% who’s listening. Whether you’re waiting for the Messiah, the Apocalypse, the Rapture or the Revolution, if you have enough, celebrate by giving something to those who don’t.