Editor's Note: For a complete report on the fire itself, with many photograph's see the Planet's weekend issue:
The late Friday night fire that gutted the historic Sequoia Apartments, while apparently injuring none of its residents, may well be the death-blow to struggling businesses on lower Telegraph.
After years of reported declines in business revenues and significant closures(Cody's,Galaxxi, Eid's Electronics, Blakes, and now burned-out Raleigh's and Intermezzo),Telegraph businesses between Haste and Dwight are being clobbered.
What was once a thriving South side center could become a "desolation row."
Or, like San Francisco's re-emergence after the 1906 earthquake, the troubled block could be re-born.
Any re-birth will depend on how quickly the city of Berkeley is able to spur re-development in the area. The city has been trying, for years, to kick-start development of the vacant lot at Haste and Telegraph, and recently foreclosed on the property.
Now the city must address the needs of the Sequoia site (soon to be another vacant lot), across the street—as well.
After a hastily-called press conference, Mayor Tom Bates told me Saturday that the city hoped to redevelop the Sequoia site faster than the Berkeley Inn site, which is still vacant, more than thirty years after it burned down.
But, according to the mayor, after permits, and re-development plans are submitted by the Sequoia's owner, the city will make a strong effort to see that re-building begins, perhaps in less than two years, the Mayor said.
That could be two years too late for some nearby businesses, who are now part of urban blight.
North-South foot traffic on Telegraph is presently blocked, according to Al Geyer, owner of Annapurna, a 1960's head shop, and living museum of a by-gone era. Annapurna was closed by firemen Saturday, but re-opened undamaged Sunday.
Although the Cody building at Haste and Telegraph is undergoing a lengthy retrofit, it remains a ghostly reminder of better times. And there is no evidence it has a prospective renter.
Amoeba, diagonally across from the Sequoia, was closed Saturday as police and fireman closed off the area to foot traffic while the Sequoia smoldered nearby. Hard rain Sunday extinguished the last burning embers, but was another nail in the coffin of Teley weekend business.
Assistant Fire Chief, Gil Dong, said Saturday the fire department was moving quickly to allow Amoeba to re-open Monday, and to restore foot and car travel, as soon as possible, between Dwight and Bancroft. It will be possible soon to walk on both sides of the street—although not beside the unstable skeleton of the Sequoia, which is a hollow maw, its roof open to the sky, and its windows blankly staring.
Other businesses between Haste and Dwight remained open, although two businesses adjacent to the Sequoia were closed Saturday, according to Dong
Street Vendors lost their spots, and some were reportedly upset, but it didn't matter because, rain bad-vibed Telegraph over the weekend, although it quenched the fire's last smoldering embers.
One business may have immediately benefited from the fire.
According to Cafe Mediterraneum owner, Craig Becker, there was a slight upturn in business soon after the Sequoia fire started. Coffee house chat centered on the fire, but Becker could not confirm whether the chatters were displaced Sequoians.
Becker provided coffee for firefighters throughout the night, and gave them the key to the Med for its restrooms throughout the might.
Asked Saturday morning whether the fire was a "death-blow" to the area, outgoing City Manager Phil Kamlarz and Telegraph Business Improvement District spokesman Roland Peterson were grim-faced, but said it was too soon to assess economic impact to Avenue businesses.
A worker at Moe's said it was business as usual at Moe's, but that book drop-offs were ended by the closure of Telegraph, above Dwight. "We've got more than enough books for now," he said.
The Re-Print Mint, two doors down noted no business decline, but the store was empty. It's not good for businesses to sound troubled. According to a number of Teley businessmen I've interviewed in the past—"bad business news is poison to business"—setting off a customer-avoidance reflex.
Becker, president of the Telegraph Business Improvement District," would say only this: "Obviously, it [the fire] has been bad for us [Teley businesses].
But Teley businesses have historically been hardy survivors throughout years of riots, crime, and declining revenues.
Two Red Cross vehicles set up Sunday outside Moe's to offer assistance to Sequoia residents of its 40 units. According to Richard Fateman, a spokesman for the Red-Cross rescue unit on the scene, the Red Cross is still unsure it has reached all the Sequoia residents.
Red Cross outreach has been hampered, Fateman said, by the fact that many residents were what, Asst. Fire Chief Dong referred to as "casual tenants."
Comments posted on an apartment-rating website before the fire offers a disgruntled view of life at the Sequoia:
"I got my apartment for 950. But hey, I got trash cans downstairs that just made my room smell like shit in summer. If you have a choice don't live here!"
And: "It smells like a mix of bacon and Korean BBQ ALL DAY! The place might have mice, for those of you who are ladies. My neighbors were nice tho, most of them moved out however. So, if you have a better alternative, don't come! I rented from winter '05 through spring '08.''
Some displaced residents may have lost their last chance to live in Berkeley.
Adjusting rents for inflation, the description of the Sequoia sounds like the Berkeley Inn, which burned down in 1985.
According to a Berkeley poet laureate, Julia Vinograd, who resided at the rat-friendly Berkeley Inn for 16 years, more than 200 residents, who were too poor to live elsewhere (if, indeed, they would have even considered leaving the bohemian ambiance) were driven from the neighborhood.
Ted Friedman reports for the Planet from the embattled South side.