In the wake of the news of the upcoming closing of Cody’s bookstore, people are acting like something that has been happening for over twenty years is suddenly a “crisis.” This is not necessarily good. As useful as “crises” are in finally focusing attention on their causes, it is equally important to focus on controlling their consequences. Crises always energize those with ideological or self-interested agendas, which they advance as panaceas for the problem at hand.
We can expect the proposals to “save” Telegraph Avenue—which must equally include “saving” People’s Park—to be of three types:
1. Incrementalism. This is a minor variation on “excrementalism,” which has been city policy on Southside for the past twenty years. The incrementalist response is to apply a few more police and social workers to the area. But unless there is a radical shift in what these resources are directed to do, this is the same formula that has kept Southside just as it is now. Removing a few drug dealers won’t solve the problem; we must change the entire culture of permissiveness and uncivil behavior the city and university have fostered in Southside. Do I want incremental variations on the existing theme on Telegraph and People’s Park? No thanks.
2. Experimentalism. This is when a group of wannabe urban planners descend on a troubled area to test out their latest urban design theories. They will tell those of us who have lived here for decades how to create “vibrant” commercial centers and healthy communities by rearranging our physical space, perhaps adding a few kiosks, benches, and banners of Nobel laureates. Their standard “solution” involves more and bigger buses, fewer cars, less parking, bigger buildings, more cutesy businesses, and most importantly, more people. Once those are in place, everything else automatically takes care of itself . . . supposedly. (But wait . . . doesn’t Telegraph already fit their model more than 4th Street, Elmwood, or Solano?)
3. Opportunism. This is when the developers and commercial real estate interests, working through their political arm, the mayor, use this “crisis” as an excuse to “streamline” building and use permits for Telegraph Avenue. The danger is that the community love fest will not stop at removing unnecessary red tape and expense for some desirable businesses but will be used as an excuse to effectively eliminate neighborhood control over quality of life, the commons, and the public planning of Southside. Shall I give away my rights because Cody’s is giving up the ghost? I don’t think so.
Berkeley is suffering from an unholy alliance of experimentalism (so-called “smart growth”) and opportunism (giving away of the commons to developers). It’s too bad that this is happening with the downtown area plan, but it doesn’t have to happen with Telegraph. Residents of Southside, Le Conte, and Willard neighborhoods, and the Telegraph merchants and shoppers, must take control of their own urban space—and not accept the choices of excrementalism, incrementalism, experimentalism, and opportunism.
We could hold off on other solutions—“expensive” in more ways than one—until we have tried something new but simple and safe: ethical, equitable, and common-sense public policy. The City might start simply by giving Southside neighborhoods, along with People’s Park and Telegraph Avenue, the same respect, expectations, policing, and stewardship given to 4th Street, Solano, the Elmwood, and the wealthier Berkeley neighborhoods.
That would be radical enough, in part because it would require reversing the City’s equally “permissive” relationship to the university. The university competes for commercial resources, and destroys the neighborhoods that healthy business districts depend upon, so it’s no coincidence that our most troubled commercial areas are those closest to the university. The blood of Cody’s is on the university’s hands as much as anyone’s.
This is the dangerous moment: The upside of “crises” is that they galvanize change. The downside is that they galvanize hysteria. Decisions made under the influence of hysteria are rarely good ones.
Sharon Hudson has been a Willard Neighborhood resident for 25 years.