Page One

Whose Berkeley?

Tuesday April 01, 2003

Berkeley with a view of the bay and San Francisco, and one two three bridges, or Berkeley where a dumpster is the most colorful item in sight through the smudged air? 

Whose Berkeley? The aging Nisei couple on the porch of their bungalow with its immaculate yard, very like the house their parents were forced to sell cheap in 1942, do they live in the same town as the high-tech success jogging past them to his $750,000 brown shingle a block away?  

What is Berkeley to the commuter who drives past the Claremont Hotel and blocks of manicured green toward an office in the business school? To the men, talking to each other in Spanish or Mixtec, lined up outside the lumberyards a couple of miles west hoping to get a day’s work? To the African-American police officer who grew up here but had to go 40 miles up the freeway to find a house he could afford for his own family?  

Seasons here are marked less by changes in the weather than by the swelling of the population -- some 33,000 students who come, spend money, take parking places, then disappear almost overnight, leaving restaurant owners nervously hoping they can survive until the new semester begins.  

With faculty and staff, the university involves 55,000 people, more than half the city’s population. Yet it could be on another planet for many in day-to-day Berkeley. Most spend the day working elsewhere, and are early to bed. Many with no visible means of support rise late, drink a lot of coffee, have a glass of red wine at dinner and could vote for a green candidate. 

These last few days they talk of a war half a world away, but present on every newspaper front page and every television screen. They are saddened, feel helpless, seek ways to act, and call upon another Berkeley, usually near invisible.Old-timers will show you its landmarks -- unnoticed by any commission -- buildings and places where they planned and sometimes fought the first battles of a revolution that never arrived. 

And before that, once upon a time, not so very long ago, Berkeley was bathed in light. Fruit trees on every street, cheap eats, low rents and lots of love, all kinds of love, grass everywhere and free music, good music. And before that Hinks, a fine store here at home, where your change came swooping down a wire track from the cashier’s office and across the street clouds of blue-rinsed ladies enjoyed afternoon tea at Edy’s, and in summer kids went sliding straight down the grassy hills for unobstructed blocks on sheets of cardboard. 

Can the Daily Planet speak to, write about all these Berkeleys? Have something to say to people who never heard of Clark Kent? To the man fishing on the city pier at 1 a.m. who talks with longing about his home place in the Punjab? The once-professionals who now fix cars, work in restaurants, solve drainage problems?  

In other words, can we reach and represent the typical resident in a town where there is no typical resident? 

We’re sure gonna try. 


Peter Solomon, a Berkeley resident, is a former editor of The Flatlands, an Oakland-based biweekly, and The Montclarion.