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Berkeley, Quirks and All

Tuesday April 01, 2003

Berkeley, in spite of its allure, has an eccentric reputation. Berkeleyans delight in their quirkiness and would never aspire to be conventional. 

Berkeley is a unique place, full of contrast and contradiction. It’s blessed with awesome assets and great natural appeal. It’s the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement and home to strict political correctness. It’s a city with tacky buildings next to architectural jewels. It’s a secular city with dozens of religious congregations of all types. One of the world’s great universities facilitates a rich and varied intellectual life. Berkeleyans care as much about the big issues – peace, the environment – and the little-known ones – organic coffee, rights of naked people – as they do about potholes and parking meters. The national media chides Berkeley whenever they have nothing else to do, but their quips about the city do not deter passionate advocacy. 

Berkeley has more than its share of aging revolutionaries, bold innovators and creative thinkers. Its productivity is a tribute to the people of Berkeley, since Berkeley’s countless capabilities are not publicly supported. Longstanding conflicts make for poor civic planning and use of public resources. 

Intense partisan quarrels have been a persistent feature of Berkeley politics for decades, and the city has paid a heavy price. Political gridlock works its way down to boards, commissions and city staff, who get mixed signals – or no signals at all – about priorities and expectations. 

Berkeley politics is dominated by two political organizations: the Berkeley Democratic Club (BDC) and Berkeley Citizens Action (BCA). Neither organization provides strong civic leadership or holds its endorsed, elected officials accountable. Yet without their help it is extremely difficult to get elected to the City Council and only a bit easier for the school board. 

The BDC is liberal, the BCA progressive. There is no formal communication between the two. While it was possible for Soviet and American officials to have dinner together during the Cold War, I’m not aware that the BDC president and the BCA chair have ever had lunch. 

In the 40 years that I’ve lived in Berkeley, the political left and right have become distinguishable from each other less by issues than by labels and personalities. When I first came to Berkeley, the right talked about business and the left talked about real property – mostly how to distribute it. Today, the left raps about profits and the right has discovered the electoral potency of affirmative action. 

Berkeley inspires passion. Its unconventional informality, its nonviolent diversity and its crusty loveliness are not much diminished by its convoluted politics. But Berkeley needs strong leadership to flourish. Shirley Dean, the former mayor, managed to accomplish a lot in spite of an often hostile City Council. The new mayor, Tom Bates, has a friendlier council, and he is highly motivated to leave a sterling legacy. We should wish him well. 

Harry D. Weininger is a long-time resident of Berkeley.