If incumbent Berkeley Councilmember Kriss Worthington loses this election, I’ll have to finally conclude that Telegraph Avenue deserves what it gets. Candidates have been running against Telegraph Avenue for thirty years, and it still makes no sense to do so.
The Telegraph Avenue Merchants’ Association president Al Geyer, proprietor of the Annapurna head shop which has been there since the glorious year of 1969, originally invited me to join a panel of media interlocutors in questioning the candidates for the District 7 council seat last Friday night at the very genteel Berkeley City Club.
[Side note to the young and innocent: a head shop sells drug paraphernalia, not usually the drugs themselves. Head shops first become popular in the heyday of the counter-culture, and still exist primarily to serve the needs of the trailing edge of that graying social phenomenon.
I should confess right here that I’m not now and have never been an active member of the counterculture. Raising three kids, helping to earn the family living and doing serious politics during its heyday didn’t leave me much time for doing drugs in the sixties and seventies.
But I’ve been hanging out on and around Telegraph from time to time since 1959, when the café of choice was Piccolo and Pauline Kael (years before she became a famous New Yorker critic) was writing elegant movie squibs for the Studio-Guild (two screens, four different classics a day, smoking only in the balcony) and sweeping the street in front of the theater after hours. In those days, the drugs of choice, if you weren’t a jazz musician, were tobacco, caffeine and cheap red wine.]
At first I agreed to participate as a questioner, having played the same role four years earlier with some comfort. But as the date approached, I realized that I could not in good faith represent myself as an apolitical innocent bystander, since I’d long since endorsed Kriss, who’s been doing a terrific job for many years. I suggested competent reporters from the Daily Cal (Stephanie Baer) and the Bay Area News Group (Doug Oakley). They were invited, accepted, and were joined by Judith Scherr of the East Bay Express (which has already endorsed George Beier and Cecelia Rosales, the two candidates also endorsed by Mayor Tom Bates and his entourage.) I gratefully withdrew.
But I went to the meeting as a spectator, and I almost wish I hadn’t. The Planet reporter who was supposed to cover it had a last minute conflict, so I took notes and paid attention, thinking I might do a news brief myself if anything interesting happened.
As the lights dimmed, I counted only 12 people in the audience in the cavernous ballroom, though a few stragglers arrived later. It soon became clear that they were opposing claques, certainly not undecided voters hoping for enlightenment. The Worthington fans seemed slightly more numerous, or at least more vigorous in their applause as the contenders took the stage, perhaps because they were younger.
The reporters did a good job with their questions. The candidates did a terrible job with their answers, or at least the challengers did. The very lowest point in the whole debacle was when Scherr asked them whether they supported Community Choice Aggregation, the proposal for cities to group together to become energy vendors in competition with PG&E.
Poor “Ces” (she likes to be called by her nickname) Rosales had the first turn, and the only way to describe the look on her face was “deer in headlights”. It was painfully clear that she had no idea what CCA is, but instead of asking, she made the mistake of trying to waffle. She said that she’d ask other people what they thought—this was her stock answer to a number of reporters’ question. Someone should have advised the woman not to run until she’d watched a few council meetings at least.
Following her, Beier didn’t do much better with the question, though he put up a bolder front. And then, of course, Kriss Worthington took the floor and explained it all, clearly and succinctly.
Beier’s standard technique reminds one of classic candidates for junior high student body president: long on rah-rah, short on facts. In many of his answers, he called out the first names of members of the Merchants’ Association who were clumped together in a row toward the front: “Mark, Carol, Doris, Greg…” as if to say, I’m one of you, I feel your pain.
Doris is Doris Moscowitz, an apple-cheeked smiley-face who inherited Moe’s Books from her irascible father Moe. She’s seen fit to endorse Beier because she thinks Worthington hasn’t done enough for her lately. I called the store one morning to confirm the rumor that she’d made this foolish choice, and the person who answered the phone said it was so, because “there are drug dealers around here now”.
Really? What a surprise!
As it happens, we started our software company in the late seventies and early eighties on Telegraph, in the upstairs of the building that is now Rasputin’s, and there were drug dealers there then too. Not only that, there were ugly hostile young folks sitting on the sidewalks with their ugly dogs—then people called them “white punks on dope”—and even some homeless guys, mostly alcoholic Vietnam veterans of various races and ethnicities. And it hasn’t changed much in the thirty years since.
If anything, it might be a bit better. District 8 Council Candidate Stewart Jones was in junior high or perhaps elementary school in those days, and used to sneak down to Teley sometimes. He says he thinks things are a good bit calmer now than what he remembers from those days, and I agree.
Then as now some of the merchants whined, whined, whined. They expected the city government to solve the perennial problems of the Avenue, but had few good ideas about how that might be done.
Beier’s current attempt to suck up to them is particularly curious since he proudly claims the support of the do-nothing council majority. He uses rhetoric like “I’m for radical, radical change…the status quo has got to go!” and yet he’s the candidate of the status quo. He even shares a campaign office with Gordon Wozniak, who’s been on the council for something like 8 years. If Bates, Wozniak, Capitelli and Maio can’t fix Teley with their 7-2 majority, why on earth should they be expected to do so if Beier wins and they have an 8-1 advantage? It’s not Kriss who’s preventing action, it’s Beier’s buddies who are already in office.
Baer asked another good question which produced some fireworks. She’d previously written a story quoting Beier as saying that two fellow councilmembers had told him them that they voted against saving Willard Pool because they didn’t like Worthington, and she asked him who they were. He dodged, refusing to reveal their names.
Then it was Kriss’s turn to comment, and he suggested that said anonymous councilmembers had behaved unethically by ignoring what was best for the city because of a personal grudge. From that moment on Beier, either ignorantly or deliberately, tried to spin the discussion into a claim that Kriss had called him unethical, though Kriss emphatically corrected him. Not pretty.
Beier also came up with the worst idea of the evening, one that he later repeated proudly on the LeConte Chat listserv. In his perception crime in Berkeley is on the rise, though it’s actually gone down in the last few years. His solution, as recapped online:
“I think the City should consider a temporary sitting and lying ordinance on some blocks of Telegraph. Then we’ll review the situation after 6 months and take it from there.”
Worthington’s reaction: that would amount to an incitement to riot, just like the ill-conceived volleyball court U.C. dropped into People’s Park a few years ago with bad results. And the residents immediately outside the designated area would surely complain that all the problems were being pushed into their yards.
Kriss pointed that doing provocative things like this makes no sense—what is needed instead, he said, is community policing, with at least one cop visible on the problem blocks at all times.
There’s little point in continuing this sorry narrative indefinitely. It went from bad to worse. Someone was videoing the whole event, and if you get a chance you should take a look at it if you vote in District 7. Maybe it will turn up on YouTube.
And another someone should tell the merchants that Telegraph is no worse that the equivalent neighborhood near the University of Quebec where we stayed when we visited Montreal recently—in fact, it’s a good bit tamer. Both areas have the same seedy mix of retailers who cater to disgruntled youth: tattoo parlors, leather stores, record stores and yes, head shops like Annapurna. And some of the customers there behave badly, just as they do in Berkeley.
A friend of mine, a classic aging hippie, recently mentioned that she’d gone down on the Avenue for the first time in a long while—to buy a water pipe at Annapurna. She said the folks at Annapurna were complaining about the people on the street, especially about drug dealers. Well, you know what? It goes with the territory if what you’re selling is paraphernalia.
About the only good idea Beier came up with was that maybe there should be a quota on some of these establishments: he specified tattoo parlors in particular. If the city really wanted to change the mix on Teley, that might just do the trick.
After the show, we needed to get a bite to eat before getting out of town. We remembered Bongo Burger, where we’d had many a quick supper when we were working hard at our Telegraph Avenue business. Inside all was calm, well lit and cheerful, even on a Friday night, and the Persianburgers were still good.
We recognized the proprietor from meetings we’d attended when we were members of the Telegraph Merchants’ Association 30 years ago. A Persian-American with what seemed like socialist leanings, he had been one of the few voices to speak up for humane ways of dealing with the homeless and vagrant problems on the Avenue, while other merchants were lobbying for locking the bastards up. His business seemed to be still thriving, though many of the hardliners had gone under. There’s a lesson in here somewhere.
But there’s still too much real crime in Berkeley. Of late Telegraph has been invaded by itinerant young white brawlers who spout racist and homophobic drivel and sometimes get into nasty fights. Today (Tuesday) as this was being written two Berkeley-raised young black men were gunned down by two younger victims of the same violent culture, if witnesses’ descriptions are correct.
Kriss Worthington says that he’s authored the great majority of anti-crime legislation since he’s been on the council, and that he’s been able to persuade his normally antagonistic colleagues to vote for 98% of his ordinances. His community policing solution seems to be one which could work both on Telegraph and in the killing zone which has arisen near Sacramento and Ashby. If he’s replaced on the city council by an inexperienced person who is likely to go along to get along with the council majority, we’ll all be just that much farther away from real remedies for our very real problems.