Aging in Place in Berkeley, But Not Quietly

Becky O'Malley
Friday August 21, 2015 - 01:34:00 PM

The anonymous illiterati who have nothing better to do than populate the comments section of the newsblogs which accept them have finally found an argument in favor of what they want that is hard to argue with because it makes so little sense.

They’re gleefully identifying those Berkeleyans who favor scrutiny of police actions, who oppose criminalization of homelessness, or who want building projects to be in scale and green, not just fabulously profitable to developers, as being old!

Greybeards. Grey ponytails. Birkenstock wearers. Some of them stout. OMG.

Yes, Virginia, even Santa Claus is an old fat guy with a grey beard. As the young folks are wont to say, get over it. 

In the first place, it’s a disgraceful slander on the young people of Berkeley to say that all civic activists for worthwhile causes are old. One of our three progressive councilmembers is in his twenties, much younger than the average age of his council colleagues. The petition against blocking the view of the Golden Gate from the Campanile was a student effort. Much of the increased attention to the police that evolved from the Black Lives Matter movement has been supplied by young people. 

It is certainly true that when a lot of people turn out to support a cause at the City Council or the Zoning Adjustment Board or the Landmarks Preservation Commission the majority of them skew old, even the ones who don’t have grey hair. I’m as old as the hills, but thanks to an accident of genetics, I’m just now starting to get a few grey hairs. 

Some of my friends, as old as I am, dye their hair. Who knew? Some of my younger friends also both dye their hair and oppose inappropriate building projects. The slur against elderly women used to be “blue hairs”, referring to the blue rinse that was used on white hair in the old days, but these days blue hairs (and also green, red and purple hairs) are more likely to be young. 

The thing is, the same young people who are too busy to waste their time fulminating online are generally also too busy to come to meetings at night. It’s a sad commentary on Berkeley’s current governance that the only way to influence decisions is believed to be to filling the council chambers with lots of sign-waving bodies (or of course making generous campaign contributions, which is what really pays off reliably, and you don’t have to show up). 

At the meetings I’ve been to lately, those having to do with homelessness, police or land use, there have been vanishingly small numbers of people supporting the powers-that-be, but yes, a couple of the five or ten shills who show up do seem to be youngish (under 40). Many more than an equal number of younger people, though, appear in support of progressive ideas. 

In general, however, young people these days who have both jobs and kids have a hard time getting out at night to make their views known at hearings. Nor should they have to—retired people have the time and the energy to exercise social responsibility, and they can do it in their stead if necessary. 

The palpable fear and hatred of older people exhibited by a few of the commenters, particularly where land use is concerned, is disturbing. Planet contributor James Shinn is on to something when he characterizes the Smart Growth ideology as religious in nature. Young people are justifiably afraid of a future in which climate change will be a major threat, and it’s no wonder that they’re looking for a messiah, or a messianic movement, to save them. That’s human nature, and not just in planning theory. 

But I couldn’t help think about these devotees when I saw the story yesterday about the ISIS fanatics beheading an elderly archeologist who refused to reveal the location of antiquities they wished to destroy. That’s an extreme case, but excoriating old people who want to preserve Berkeley’s historic Shattuck Hotel and the cultural assets on its site is somewhere on the same continuum. 

Here’s an example from one grumbler on berkeleyside.com


“Crumbling streets. Homeless magnet. Unfounded liabilities. Excessive compensation.No pools.Closed pier.Decayed rose garden.
These are the bitter fruits of graybeard incompetence. Their intentions may be good but they are terrible at governance. “  

And they didn't even buy you a pony! 


This pathetic litany shows such a profound ignorance of who does what that it’s hard to know where to start. The sense of entitlement is breathtaking. 

In the first place, the people involved with these problems, on both sides, are both young and old, both the do-nothing Berkeley City Council and their vociferous critics who are working for change in Berkeley. 

In the second place, most of the civic assets listed were originally paid for by homeowners now aging in place in Berkeley or by their forebears. Berkeleyans have consistently voted to tax themselves to the greatest extent possible under law to preserve amenities for the younger generation, for the most part cheerfully. 

And when we were young some of us did a hell of a lot, wherever we lived, to make this world that the whiny young are inheriting a better place. I’m sorely tempted to catalog the changes I was directly involved in causing even before I was 40, but in accordance with standards of modesty which we old folks were taught as kids I’ll refrain. 

But there’s consolation in the sure knowledge that if these—how about calling them young whippersnappers in the classic caricature language—juvenile jerks, if they’re lucky, will eventually be old themselves, and we’ll see what tune they sing then. 

Here’s a good one to learn: 


That’s the superhero of my twisted youth, the matinee idol of a certain subset of the disgruntled suburban teenage girls of the late 1950s. In a delicious irony, a couple of weeks ago I watched my granddaughter’s Santa Cruz high school musical, and who should be sitting right behind me but the divine Tom Lehrer himself, accompanied by an attractive but definitely mature woman. 

And you know what? We were all old and gray, but still alive and kicking and full of beans. Tom, I think, is even older than I am, a sophisticated Harvard man when I was still in high school. 

It turns out, much to my surprise, that even when we’re old we’re still the same feisty people that we were when we were young, still hoping to save the world, though not for ourselves any longer, since we won’t be around to enjoy it forever. We haven’t given up, though some would say that’s foolish. 

Last week I was sad to learn of the passing of Julian Bond, my contemporary and another one of the heros of my youth, and also that Jimmy Carter, who has done so much to keep the world safe during his old age (he’s even a generation older than me) has spreading cancer. We all, young and old, would do well to remember some other immortal words of Tom Lehrer, whose generation has (just barely) saved us all, at least, so far from nuclear annihilation: 


I wonder if Senator Shumer is listening? 

And for all you old folks who persist in struggling to repair the world for future generations, even on behalf of the ingrates, you might just check out this weekend's performance in John Hinkel Park, previewed by Ken Bullock in this issue--a cautionary tale.