David Allen Baker, 1942-2015
The Legacy of an Urban Environmentalist

Sharon Hudson
Wednesday July 22, 2015 - 01:15:00 PM

Community leader and neighborhood activist David Allen Baker, 72, died on July 8, 2015, after a long and difficult illness.

David will be missed, not only by his personal friends, but also by all Berkeleyans who have benefitted and continue to benefit from his efforts. David was one of a dwindling handful of neighborhood stewards in the north end of Willard Neighborhood, between Dwight Way and Derby Street. Whatever remains of that neighborhood’s charm and livability is in large part due to David’s efforts.

David was a man of brilliant energy who had studied English literature, but whose primary passion was science, especially astronomy, evolutionary biology, and ecology. Charismatic and inspiring, contrary and cantankerous, David was also sociable, compassionate, and generous in both spirit and in deed. Although his life was far from easy, he determined to meet every day with joyous spontaneity. He loved nature, especially the star-gazing in the Pinnacles, and I fondly remember our rambling camping trips through Mendocino and Monterey Counties.

David bought his beloved Victorian house on Parker Street in the 1960s. For decades he looked after the local common spaces and even the properties of nearby absentee landlords. He viewed the urban landscape, no matter how damaged, as an ecosystem worth protecting. Though fully aware that it was city policy to let students ruin his and other neighborhoods around campus, he looked after his student neighbors with grandfatherly affection. However, he brazenly confronted anyone who impinged on others’ rights in the arenas of noise and light pollution, vandalism, and other blights. 

I first met David in 2002, when our neighborhood learned that we were about to become the unwilling recipient of a 5-story classroom/office building. David and I quickly became best friends and co-leaders of the new Benvenue Neighbors Association. David had always been a passionate environmentalist and radical small-d democrat. I was a total newcomer to land use issues. But we had complementary abilities, so we made a good team. David was the one who rounded the neighbors up for meetings—reminding the forgetful, encouraging the timid, prodding the recalcitrant, praising the helpful. He orchestrated our political presentations into compelling theater. He was able to listen to lies without showing visible anger, and to calmly anticipate and argue “the other side” en route to our own strategy. He frequently kicked me under the table when he sensed me gearing up for some counterproductive truth-telling. “Kiss ass now; kick ass later,” he used to tell me, when I wanted to give a piece of my mind to someone with power over our neighborhood’s fate. It’s a good precept for the impatient. 

David’s formidable intelligence and political insight brought vital victories for neighborhood livability. In the 1990s he landmarked a number of historic properties in north Willard, and after a long struggle, the Benvenue Neighbors defeated the big office building. David’s endless battle against glaring lights and loud parties created a quieter and more peaceful neighborhood. Less visible were David’s preemptive monkey-wrenching of the occasional incipient mini-dorm here and there, his efforts against university blight, his support of rational Southside planning, and his impassioned participation in democratic neighborhood organizing.  

David and I became lasting intellectual companions. His input and feedback were instrumental in many articles I wrote for the Daily Planet. He was unmatched at finding the essence of any issue and the vocabulary to present it. It was David who, based on his knowledge of English history, suggested using the concept of “the commons” to frame public access rights to amenities such as quiet, open space, sunlight, parking, and history. The idea for my “Urban Bill of Rights,” which was published in a British planning journal in 2011, arose when I was visiting David at his property in Soledad. The new “infill” dorms built on Dwight Way in 2006 had filled my apartment with unremitting HVAC noise. The university had erected what David called its “stone wall of indifference,” and I was mad as hell to discover that as a mere tenant and not a property owner, I had little legal recourse. “But I have a goddamned right to open my window at night without hearing that goddamned noise from that goddamned university!” I argued to David. I grabbed a piece of paper and started writing a “tenants’ bill of rights.” A half-dozen rights later I said, “But of course, all urban dwellers, not just tenants, need these rights.” I worked on the “Urban Bill of Rights” over the next few years (google it), with David as my deepest sounding board, and finally dedicated my article to him.  

David was a neighborhood leader, but he was not alone. Unfortunately, many of the other long-term residents who battled with him to keep university blights and bad planning at bay have also died—all too early. This includes local historians Susanna Barrows and Jerry Sulliger, and the inimitable activist Patti Dacey. Other neighborhood anchors moved away to escape the deterioration. It was painful to watch people who owned property in Berkeley fighting for their lives, but I was a renter, so when the university destroyed the livability of my apartment, I moved to a quiet house in Oakland. Meanwhile, David, sounding fatigued, told me he had begun to wear ear protectors while working in his garden. 

Fighting City Hall to protect one’s neighborhood from bad planning takes a heavy toll on one’s time, health, wealth, and psyche. Very few people will do it once, and virtually nobody does it twice. But David came to the rescue of his neighborhood time after time, at great personal cost. The scars of being utterly betrayed by one’s own government never go away, and the depths of dishonesty achieved in the Mark Rhoades planning era astonished even David. Nor was he naïve about the long-term prospects for his neighborhood—or the planet. Yet David remained upbeat, always “thinking globally, acting locally.” As his friend, I will miss most his luminous intellect, but for his community, David’s legacy is that he was an honorable man who simply—but far from simply—took care of his small corner of our pale blue dot. And did it very well.