Look on the bright side in Berkeley

Becky O'Malley
Friday November 11, 2016 - 01:49:00 PM

“After all I’ve seen, I still have joy”.

Those are the original words of the gospel song I expropriated for the headline of last week’s editorial, paraphrased there as “we now have joy.” On the national level, it turned out, not so much, not now.

I’m going to leave the post mortem (”after death”) analysis of what happened in the presidential race for the moment to our columnists and public commenters, though I have plenty I’d like to say. In fact, it’s been hard to find time to write this on Friday morning because of the stream of texts, emails and phone calls from distraught family and friends which seem never to stop. But I believe, with the sainted Eric Idle, that we should always “Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

Here in Berkeley, there actually is a bright side, no kidding. The local election results are very cheering.

Jesse Arreguin and Sophie Hahn have been vindicated for all the flak they took for being prematurely right in their unsuccessful initiative attempt (Measure R 2014) to fix what went wrong with Berkeley’s downtown plan. They figured out that the plan as adopted by the City Council (which did not accurately mirror what confused voters thought they were getting with the first 2010 Measure R) was all about promoting unbridled growth for private profit, nothing Smart about it. Voters last week finally recognized that Jesse and Sophie had been right all along, and rewarded them for it. 

They’ve consistently advocated a sophisticated, nuanced approach to solving the Bay Area’s genuine housing shortage. They recognize that building endless luxury apartments in Berkeley just to enable well-off San Francisco employees to commute on BART does nothing for poorly-paid workers here who are being displaced by the tech boom. They support the idea of using our remaining opportunity sites for homes which Berkeley workers with average incomes or below can afford. 

Assuming the right candidate is elected from Arreguin’s current council seat, there should be a majority of councilmembers who take sensible positions on what’s to become of Berkeley. Ben Bartlett, newly elected from District 3, is a bright guy with a good background who also seems to get it—he owes nothing to the Real Estate Industry PAC which tried to defeat Arreguin and Hahn. He’s had a good relationship with Friends of Adeline, organized to fight displacement in the neighborhood around the Ashby BART while supporting sustainable, appropriate development. 

At this writing District 2 is not settled, but either of the two women in contention would be great, and even if Darryl Moore wins again he might be persuaded to vote with the new majority from time to time. The three surely successful candidates were all endorsed, early on, by the newly formed Berkeley Progressive Alliance. 

A great share of the credit for the outcome of this election should go to the hardy band of protesters against the impending 2211 Harold Way project, which will destroy the Shattuck Cinemas, the Habitot Children’s Center and threaten the historic Hotel Shattuck, all for the sake of building 300 more unneeded Luxury Units. Permits for this meshuganah project were granted by the outgoing mayor, his allies in the council majority and their appointees to the Zoning Adjustment Board, and this election reflects the public outrage that their decision has elicited. 

Citizen protests lasted for many months, with enormous attendance at ZAB and council meetings and floods of letters and mountains of documents, all to no avail. Yes, in the end the developers agreed to make a deeply discounted payment into the Housing Trust Fund, but not nearly enough to make up for all that will be lost in the demolition of the existing buildings. 

Super-organizer Kelly Hammagren and a stalwart core of supporters tried every legal angle, culminating in pro-per petitions to the court to have the bad political decisions overturned, but nothing worked. That’s why the diverse group of people who met each other in what started out as Save the Shattuck Cinemas morphed into the Progressive Berkeley Alliance with the addition of seasoned veterans of the Berkeley planning wars who understood the political process. 

It soon became apparent that nothing short of a regime change election campaign would stop the wholesale giveaway of downtown Berkeley and more to speculators, so they organized one, and it worked. A major unintended ally in the process was the Real Estate Industry PAC, which outraged Berkeley voters by sinking about $100K into opponents of the BPA candidates. 

Paul Krugman today recalled the quote from Candide that has been running through my head since the results started coming in, saying “It’s definitely tempting to conclude that the world is going to hell, but that there’s nothing you can do about it, so why not just make your own garden grow?” 

“Make our garden grow” is the English version, from the Bernstein musical. In the French novel, as I believe I’ve said before, it’s a bit stronger: “Il faut cultiver notre jardin”—it is necessary to cultivate our garden. 

The thing is, we’ve really got to do both, it can’t be either/or. It’s not “repair the world” vs. “cultivate our garden.” Cultivating our garden must mean taking care of what Berkeley needs while remaining citizens of the world. 

Local land use with its environmental implications is one thing we can and should take responsibility for in our home town. Providing for the homeless residents among us, ensuring public health, maintaining a responsible corps of first responders, supporting public schools …all of these things should be helped by the federal government, but might not be in the near future. We might just have to go it alone. 

This will not be an easy period for local government, however, with the federal government in the hands of a rabid narcissist and his spineless Republican cohort. But it looks like Berkeley will be in good hands for a while at least. 

Luckily our new mayor is the son and grandson of farmworkers, who have set an example of how things can get done if you try. Si se puede…we can do it, though it might be hard. Look on the bright side