Public Comment

New: Berkeley Street Renaming Hearing this Week: A Proposal with Troubling Implications

By Steven Finacom
Tuesday October 02, 2012 - 09:45:00 PM
Dharma College, a private institution recently moved to Downtown Berkeley, is asking the City of Berkeley to change the name of the street in front of its facilities to “Dharma Way”.    “Harold Way”, has been the name of the street for almost a century.
Steven Finacom
Dharma College, a private institution recently moved to Downtown Berkeley, is asking the City of Berkeley to change the name of the street in front of its facilities to “Dharma Way”. “Harold Way”, has been the name of the street for almost a century.

This Thursday night, the Public Works Commission of the City of Berkeley is holding a public hearing, and discussion, on the proposal to rename Harold Way in Downtown Berkeley to “Dharma Way”, at the behest of the adjacent Dharma College, which owns one side of the block.

This proposal should be turned down. It violates an informal, but long, tradition against giving names directly associated with a religious or spiritual tradition to public facilities in Berkeley; it would remove a historic name, nearly a century old, from the heart of Downtown Berkeley; and it creates a really troubling precedent that an institution can move into a new space and almost immediately expect the City to rename adjacent public facilities in its honor. 

The Public Hearing will be at 5:30 pm on Thursday, October 4, at the North Berkeley Senior Center (corner of Hearst and MLK, Jr. Way). The hearing will be followed by a regular meeting of the Public Works Commission at 7:00 pm, at which the name change proposal will also be discussed. 

The agenda packet for the Public Hearing can be found here: 

The agenda for the regular meeting, immediately following, can be found here: 

Harold Way—however obscure to some—is a 99-year-old name that is part of Berkeley’s heritage. Renaming a street—any street—should not be done lightly, and it should especially not be done at the request of a newly arrived institution / business on that street that proposes a name similar to their institutional name. 

The name change, if adopted, would place “Dharma Way” prominently on street signs almost in front of the Berkeley Central Library, and just up the block from the Main Post Office. 

City policy on naming currently in effect says the City’s objective should be “to ensure that naming public facilities…will enhance the values and heritage of the City of Berkeley and will be compatible with community interest.” 

It adds: “…the preferred practice is to give City-owned property a name of historical or geographical significance and to retain these names” and “existing names are presumed to have historic significance; and historic names give a community a sense of place and identity, continuing through time, and increases the sense of neighborhood and belonging.” 

Harold Way is such a name. So that should be it, in my view: case closed. The City should politely decline to rename the street for the institution, as if it’s a private driveway.  

The Dharma College people that I’ve listened to, and talked to very briefly, at previous public meetings on this issue are very polite and nice. They are, presumably, exemplars of Tibetan Buddhism, or at least its Westernized offshoots. But I wish they would have realized the inherent hubris of this proposal from the beginning. 

Berkeley has been home to hundreds of institutions over the years, from churches, to private schools and colleges, to religious seminaries, and community organizations. To my knowledge, never in Berkeley history has any one of those institutions proposed to change the street name in front of it to a form that essentially privatizes the identity of the street and gives it a religious overtone. 

Every institution, until now, seems to have instinctively known that the streets and their names are public. Or, if any such proposals have been made, and are now lost in history, the City of Berkeley at least had the good sense to turn them down. 

This proposal, on the other hand, nearly got adopted on the City Council consent calendar until a few individuals (including this writer) raised objections. It was treated in the press as a fait accompli, no more controversial that approving a routine contract for street repaving. 

I believe that some City staffers were tone deaf on this issue. Renaming a street is fundamentally a public policy issue, not simply a matter of the adjacent property owners submitting a request and paying some fees. But the staff report which went to the Council in June blandly recommended accepting the renaming proposal, treating it almost as if it were an application to build an uncontroversial backyard deck or in-law unit. The main issues to the staff were whether fees had been paid ? They had. Had the properties with addresses on the street approved? (Of course they had, since they were one and the same with the applicant). Had the City sent a letter to the Police and Fire Departments and, of all places the Alameda County Planning Commission? Yes it had. No one in Berkeley was notified, beyond police and fire staff. 

After the proposal somewhat inexplicably sat somewhere on a City desk for nearly a year without action, it was suddenly rushed to the Council because—according to the staff report—“the applicants informed the City that they are having a ribbon-cutting ceremony for June 28, 2012, and would like to have the street name change implemented in time for their event.”  

And the proposal was initially placed on the Council “Consent Calendar”, the location of items that are presumed to be routine and uncontroversial and can be adopted as a group, without discussion. 

Fortunately the Council saw fit to emphasize policy, not partying, and voted unanimously to refer the application to the Public Works Commission, where it now awaits a hearing. 

There is a second, troubling, aspect to this proposal. It introduces a religious element into what should be a secular realm in Berkeley—the identity of streets.  

While Berkeley once proudly called itself “a city of churches” and remains today a community filled with religious institutions and “people of faith” of all sorts, Berkeley has never, to my knowledge, given a name with religious overtones to a public street or facility. 

And every religious, or spiritually based, organization in Berkeley—until now, at least—seems to have been content to continue with historic street names that provide Berkeley with an eclectic, secular and ecumenical character.  

Newman Hall—the Roman Catholic parish serving the UC campus—sits on Dwight Way, a street named for a prominent Congregationalist minister; Temple Beth El fronts on Oxford Street, named for the university that, until 1866, required membership in the Church of England as a condition of receiving a BA degree; the Pacific School of Religion is at the intersection of Ridge Road and Scenic Avenue, names that emphasize Berkeley’s natural, not spiritual, attributes. 

The “Dharma Way” proposal would break decisively with this tradition. The City would be implicitly choosing spiritual sides in what should be a community of all religions, and none. 

As Lynn Milliman, one letter writer to the City Council, wrote: “Dharma is a Sanskrit word and a concept of eastern religions. Simply explained, it is the way of the higher Truths, a lifestyle that leads to a minimum accumulation of karma is therefore the fastest path to personal liberation.” 

Milliman added: “I seriously doubt that if this was a Baptist, Catholic, or Jewish community holding the property on Harold Way that Berkeley would be agreeing to such a change. For example such possible changes as Salvation Way, Commandment Way…” 

Another letter writer, Corey Limbach, added, “I urge you to consider the precedent that this would set regarding the implicit endorsement of religion this would convey. Regardless of the nuance of the definition of the word in English, there is no doubt that it is fundamentally a religious term, and approving it as part of a Public space would open up the interpretation that the City supports Buddhism.” 

(Both the Milliman and Limbach letters can be found in full in the Commission packet.) 

I urge all readers to come to the Public Hearing on Thursday and ask the Public Works Commission to politely decline this misguided and inappropriate naming request.