Smash-and-Grab Hits Berkeley

Becky O'Malley
Friday January 01, 2016 - 02:55:00 PM

And a Happy New Year to you too! Last night someone (presumably not an art lover) broke down the gate to our side yard and snatched Mike O’Malley’s two-foot high 30 lb. ceramic sculpture of Eve and Lilith from his “Out of Doors” sculpture display wall. For pictures, see on Tom Dalzell’s QuirkyBerkeley website: A Fence of Doors. And Windows. And Ceramic Sculpture.

As far as we can remember, nothing was amiss when we got home New Year’s morning around 1 a.m., but we might have been too sleepy to notice (we’re getting a bit old for these late hours).

It doesn’t seem to have been simple vandalism—it would have been a lot easier just to smash stuff in situ, so to speak, but they actually made off with this big heavy object. It was a nice sculpture, took a lot of work to build, with an interesting story line which was posted next to it, about Adam’s “first wife” or maybe on-the-side girlfriend Lilith. This apocryphal story seems to be exciting for some adherents of exotic offshoots of the three desert religions, which could have motivated the thief perhaps. Sometimes Lilith is portrayed as a demon, though not in this piece.

In any event, we found the sculpture at the corner of our lot next to the garage, broken into bits which were then laid out in an eerie row along the fence. The heads of both women, as well as Eve’s naked body, were intact. Nearby, we found an empty bottle from Mendocino Red Tail Ale, on the label of which someone had written with a black marker the words “the hope”. Weird, right?

In the deep recesses of my reptile brain I do remember that a partisan of one of those warring desert sects said in one of his poison pen letters to the Planet at least five years ago that he’d pissed on our garage when he was in Berkeley because he thought we were pro-Islam and pro-Communist and worse. He also disclosed that he lived at the time in Ukiah. That’s in Mendocino County, right?

Cue Twilight Zone music. Just sayin’.  

Will we call the police? Probably not, because what could they do? They have bigger fish to fry. 

Meanwhile, the latent Comp Lit major in me is longing to take this event as a metaphor for the destruction of the civilized world by the forces of evil, starting with the hostilities in the Middle East which threaten to suck the Rest-of-World into the fiery furnace, all the way down to the invasion of cities around the world like London and San Francisco and even little Berkeley by runaway capitalism, which threatens to demolish local landmarks in order to erect priapic monuments to greed.  

How’s that for an overextended image? Pretty impressive, no? 

Yes, I’m thinking, one more time, about The Residences at Berkeley Plaza on Harold Way. At least, and maybe more. 

In yesterday’s New York Times op-eds, there’s a piece by the paper’s former executive editor Max Frankel, a resident of the formerly haimish Upper West Side, which in now being invaded by “two dozen or so supertall luxury towers sprouting up along the southern edge of Central Park.” He says that the superrich with “suspect foreign assets…enrich themselves by exploiting weak zoning rules to pour hideous implants into Manhattan cavities”. Sound familiar? Read the whole thing; it’s great: Make Them Pay for Park Views. 

With his tongue slightly in cheek, Frankel suggests that the new owners should be paying for the enjoyment of looking down on the public park and other “expensive, expansive public amenities” by means of a tax on each view window in the structures. This is a great idea, and guess what? It would work in Berkeley. 

Case in point: as approved by our weak-as-water Berkeley City Council, the Residences at Berkeley Plaza are slated to block a part of the view of the Golden Gate from the Campanile on the University of California campus. New residents of the edifice would acquire an exclusive window on some of that view, now a part of the public commons which we all share. Why not tax their expropriation?  

Frankel hopes that the New York Legislature might be persuaded to enact a window tax to protect residents of his state. Here in California it would be much easier—we could use the local initiative process to protect Berkeley alone, as a start. 

Oh, wait. That was what was promised first by Measure R 1.0 and then in Berkeley’s Downtown Area Plan, in return for allowing all those extra stories with super views. Builders were even supposed to provide on-site affordable units, but instead the council seems to have given the Harold property owner a deep, deep discount on what was supposed to be significant community benefits, agreeing to a cut-rate payment which will do little for people who need places to live. And so it goes. 

In all seriousness, the process of smash-and-grab development which is just starting around here is everywhere now. I keep up with other places by reading the London and New York Reviews, the New York Times and occasionally the Paris press online, and every issue seems to recount a new horror story of the physical destruction which rapacious flight capital is wreaking around the world. 

Berkeleyans have a parochial tendency to view local manifestations of big problems as “only in Berkeley” events. I think there was some sort of “NIMBY” unit in the fondly remembered (though not by me) How Berkeley Can You Be parade (sponsored by a guy who lived in Piedmont of course.) And then people are surprised when stuff happens that they don’t like, and even worse, by disasters like the Library Gardens tragedy, which happened in a building whose development was mired in political chicanery of all sorts which was reported in the Planet as it happened at the time.  

At the couple of New Years’ Eve parties we attended, populated by solid citizens many of whom believe themselves to be liberal or even progressive and occasionally radical, nice-seeming people I chatted with deplored what they knew to be going on, but they had no idea of what caused it or how to stop it. The way in which money now rules the political process in this country is unbelievable to those who came of age in the sixties when much seemed possible. (See Paul Krugman, Privilege, Pathology and Power, today for gory details). 

Again the small local example: the process which resulted in the approval of the Harold Way building was rife with procedural errors (see Tom Lochner’s excellent report in the Contra Costa Times). But it might cost tens of thousands of dollars for the public to challenge it, with no angel waiting in the wings, and the financial backer’s shills have boasted that their legal war chest is $5 million, on a project where profits are estimated to be something like $100 million. 

In a particularly unappealing modern version of Nero’s fiddling while Rome burned, our city mothers and fathers right and left are preoccupied with pooping in the parks while homeless people are sleeping outside in freezing weather and our civic fabric is being consumed to line the pockets of speculators.  

One of the lasting souvenirs of my Cal education was committing to memory quite a bit of W.B. Yeats’ 1919 poem The Second Coming. Interpretations of exactly what the poet meant are numerous; I seem to remember that one of them saved my grade in an English class long ago. Now, however, it’s just the stray lines that stick in my mind, notably this one as I observe the lackadaisical way people here cluck-cluck about problems without doing anything about them: 

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

A bit over-dramatic, perhaps, when the topic is broken bric-a-brac or bad buildings, but not inaccurate. The statue might have been smashed by an insane ideologue, or it might have been stolen by an art-lover who dropped it by accident, we’ll never know for sure. Similarly, the politicians everywhere who are endorsing colossal giveaways of the public commons could be naïve do-gooders or recipients of payoffs or anything in between, but ordinary people don’t have the time, money, energy or conviction to figure out what’s happening and stop it.  

Just too bad, all of it.