Bashing Activists Doesn't Play Well in Berkeley--or New York

Becky O'Malley
Friday September 18, 2015 - 02:25:00 PM

It’s sort of like when you have to admit to the kids that Santa Claus didn’t actually fill up those stockings. Deep in your heart of hearts you know that they already know, but they’ve been pretending for the last couple of years because they were afraid the goodies would stop coming if they admitted that they knew who brought them.

Right here in beautiful Berkeley CA there live a couple of pretty bright guys who often opine on urban planning topics who MUST be aware that their ability to live in nice middle class single family homes in long-since-gentrified North Berkeley or even Upper North Berkeley has been ensured over the years by the efforts of others. What ticked me off on Thursday morning was this subject line in my email update from BeyondChron, a San Francisco blog edited by Upper Berkeley resident Randy Shaw: NYC Takes NIMBYISM to New Levels.  

And inside, this headline on the lead story: NIMBYISM HITS NYC. And then there’s the text: 

“While Nolita’s opposition is driven by a desire to maintain open space rather than fear of the poor, the net impact of their success is the same: to deny low-cost housing to a population that desperately needs it. Such is NIMBYism—a term for those who resist developments in their own neighborhood that they would accept elsewhere—New York City style.” 

It’s a story about a Manhattan neighborhood that’s objecting to a development which might be built on what is now a neighborhood park. I don’t know the pros and cons of the project, but what I object to is the facile way Shaw appropriates the NIMBY label. He surely must know that Not In My Back Yard was coined by those who were affected by the toxic dump that was Love Canal.  

Somewhere, he must have been exposed to the idea that the way he uses the term is every bit as objectionable as k---, w--, f--, n-----, s--- and all the other generic terms of opprobrium that have no place in civilized discourse. Yes, the First Amendment protects his right to be uncivil, but those of us who are tired of juvenile name-calling don’t enjoy reading this stuff.  

Maybe the answer is to reclaim the term, as Queers have done with some success. NIMBY and proud! It has a nice ring to it. 

Cities need housing, true, but they also need parks, and pointing this out does not make New York City building opponents suitable targets for derogatory epithets. I would take his comments a lot more seriously if he were proposing to build a low-income housing development on the site of the Berkeley Rose Garden or in Cordonices Park, near both his home and mass transit, right there on the bus line which goes up Euclid.  

And then, not in BeyondChron but actually In TheChron, we have John King, who lives in North Berkeley within walking distance of the North Berkeley BART station. He writes about Bay Area architecture and related topics from time to time in the San Francisco daily print paper. Here’s the money quote from a recent frontpage piece he did for that Hearst publication about opposition to a big development sought for downtown Berkeley, reprinted on berkeleyside.com, “Berkeley CA’s Independent News Site”:  

“Most of the attacks… come from longtime city residents who seem repelled by the idea that young people with good jobs might want an urban buzz close to home. At the Landmarks Preservation Commission this month, for instance, roughly 50 people spoke against the proposal before it was approved on a 6-3 vote. The website Berkeleyside reported that one speaker told the commission he and other critics are in their 50s and 60s and should be listened to because they are ‘the intellectual and cultural treasure of Berkeley.’ 

“It’s a generation gap of sorts, the 1960s turned on its head. Don’t trust anyone under 40.” 

As far as I’ve been able to determine, King himself has not attended any of the meetings on which he bases this opinion. If he’d been there as I was, he might have understood better than the reporter he quotes that the speaker wasn’t referring to the age of the opponents, but to their resumes, which are impressive, e.g. Maxine Hong Kingston is against it.  

If he’d been there, he might also have noticed a sizable number of U.C. Berkeley students and a good sampling of people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, at least the ones not kept home on week nights by those good jobs and kids to take care of. Not all young people want to party all the time, and those who aren’t working too hard do speak up at public meetings in Berkeley and elsewhere. 

Don’t get me wrong. Both Randy (whom I’ve known for a while) and John King (whom I’ve met) are nice guys. But both of them need to acknowledge that they’re daily beneficiaries of the efforts of those who have worked to keep their home neighborhoods livable.  

When King was on KQED Forum last week flacking his new book, he mentioned that he lives in a nice little house in North Berkeley. Possibly breaching the limits of civil discourse myself, I called in to say that he and his wife are “freeloaders”—which of course caused host Michael Krasny to hit the squelch button. But the plain truth is that Mr. and Mrs. King live very near to the home of Martha Nicoloff, the author of Berkeley’s seminal Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, which in the 1960s halted the spread of what Martha labelled Cash Register Multiples, those cheap soft-story apartments with first floor garages which are now earthquake disasters waiting to happen. The nice little house which the Kings enjoy could very well have been demolished if Martha (now in her ninth decade) and her friends, who might be called NIMBYS today, hadn’t organized to save Berkeley’s housing stock from that generation of speculators.  

Berkeley still needs decent low income housing, and Berkeleyans are working to provide it, but speculative luxury developments downtown like the ones King discussed will not help. One opponent at the last ZAB meeting referred to projects like that as “gentrification of mass transit”: They’re sucking up all the possible sites for affordable units near BART with buildings designed to appeal to the lifestyles of the rich and famous, or at least to commuters to San Francisco’s lucrative technical industry. Most of the workers who serve these affluent residents—housekeepers, janitors, street sweepers, plumbers et al.—will still be commuting in autos from distant less expensive suburbs. 

King says we should “forget Berkeley’s political liberalism: For many local residents, conservative architecture is their creed. The review process, meanwhile, is a confusing journey that many applicants respond to by doing just enough to win their approvals.”  

He seems not to have been aware of the credo I learned as a Cal undergraduate, “form follows function”. In the case of the tall buildings proposed for downtown Berkeley and many similar urban locations, their main function is to stoke the greed of investors who are not satisfied with the low interest rates now available for other kinds of investments. Aesthetic considerations are a distant second to ROI, which is why their buildings are so undistinguished or even ugly. The purpose of the public design review process is to act as some kind of brake on unbridled cupidity, but since the supposed regulators are appointed by elected officials whose campaign treasuries are funded by developers, this mostly doesn’t work. 

Then there’s King’s recent, generally fine, article chiding the Bay Area for not acting promptly to combat the predicted effects of climate change on the shrinking Bay shore. Here’s an excerpt: 

“The answer, simply, is that this region has charted an unknown course before. The 1960s quest to “save the bay” was likely nothing that a metropolitan region before had attempted, and its success has been a defining factor of our region’s vitality ever since…Such trailblazing could happen again. The Bay Area could craft wetlands or landscaped levees that would protect existing communities and roadways while enhancing public access to a varied shoreline. “There’s no reason the Bay Area should not be a model, for the nation if not for the world,” [Warner Chabot, executive director of the San Francisco Estuary Institute] said. “One can only hope that we have elected officials who want to be visionary civic leaders, not just good day-to-day leaders.” 

Elected officials? Yeah, sure, but what about Sylvia McLaughlin, Kay Kerr and Esther Gulick? They were the civic leaders who saved the bay, the real visionaries who saw the whole Bay Area as their back yard. Amateurs all, and proud of it. No elected officials they, and not kids either when they did it, card-carrying NIMBYs all three. (Donating a dollar made you a Save the Bay member, and you got a card to prove it.) The electeds were very late to the starting gate, as they usually are unless goaded by NIMBYs.  

This week on Friday, September 25, Berkeley will have a chance to hear John King in person at Mrs. Dalloway’s book store on College Avenue in the Elmwood. This would not be possible were it not for a web of protections that have been woven around this neighborhood–serving business district. Without the quota system promoted by, yes, NIMBYs, this valuable commercial strip would be dominated by Starbuck’s and Subway and all the other chains which would love to have access to the lucrative student population which is sprawling inexorably south from the UC campus. Bookstores like Mrs. Dalloway’s just can’t compete for space with national corporations without the kind of protection Tom Hunt and other civic commercial preservation activists have secured for them. 

Just down the street and around the corner from Mrs. Dalloway’s is the former home of King’s late predecessor at the Chronicle, Alan Temko, who was considerably more acerbic than King but not always right either. He once characterized U.C.’s Zellerbach Plaza as a public open space second only to Venice’s St. Mark’s Square, but now it’s been rebuilt in the wake of a chorus of recent “how could they” critics who thought the original was dreadful. Everyone doesn’t always agree on aesthetic questions. 

King’s book talk should be interesting, and if he takes questions it might offer an opportunity to open some kind of dialogue with someone who is in a position to influence what happens in the region in the next decades, to educate him to respect the crucial role played by ordinary citizens in preserving the civic fabric that we all enjoy. Maybe Randy Shaw would like to come too—he too might learn something.