Public Comment

West Berkeley Thrives as a Manufacturing Ecology

By Bernard Marszalek
Thursday October 25, 2012 - 05:19:00 PM

A house does not make a home. In the same way, only homes make a neighborhood. In both cases, human agency transforms the material into the social. 

But there is more here. It isn’t simply living together that creates a home, but a certain way of living together. The richer the interactions in the house the more it is a home. Living with others can be hell and the only refuge our bedroom. 

This happens in neighborhoods also – houses become bunkers and apartment buildings practically sell themselves as domains of (secure) privacy. A neighborhood populated with only anonymous dwellers is a dull neighborhood. Likewise, an area that’s only a marketplace of businesses on a commercial street is not a neighborhood, but a mall. 

Ideally a neighborhood serves as a locus for its inhabitants to encounter each other purposefully, in community meetings, school activities, sports, and vicariously, in parks, stores, cafes, theatres and, most importantly, on the sidewalks. Geographic setting sometimes defines the neighborhood to the advantage of creating these encounters. But human-made barriers, wide streets, train tracks, even parks often create neighborhood boundaries. Scale is important here also. 

What destroys neighborhoods? Poverty. But also Capital, as in mega-investments, homogenizes space for profit and destroys neighborhoods. By “homogenization of space”, I mean, for instance, space dominated by suburban tract homes and industrial “parks.” The most glaring example of this homogenization of space can be seen from space, that is, flying over the American Midwest, where agro-business and mining have seized vast stretches to manufacture monotonous landscapes. That same dynamic works on a smaller scale everywhere. 

The ambience of a neighborhood, slowly nurtured by its residents, if it suits the moneyed interests of a city, will be pouched for profit. The corporate rot will begin with the commercial district. Beware the neighborhood where Capital sees an opportunity for “development.” 

Every ruse will be used to buy up land, to influence planning officials and pressure politicians with laudatory schemes to enlarge the tax base, increase employment, and develop “green businesses” or simply to “modernize” – which means simply “make room for the rich.” 

Those who object, mainly the residents of the unique neighborhood, but also those who simply enjoy visiting occasionally to enjoy its character, will be tarred with one slander or another. This is exactly what we are witnessing in West Berkeley. A few mega-developers and their supporters in City Hall slander those who inhabit the old working-class township of Oceanview, as it was called before incorporation into Berkeley. 

The major slander, that West Berkeley is a derelict neighborhood in need of vitalization, though its low vacancy rate is the envy of other manufacturing areas in the East Bay, is superseded by their lie that high-tech entrepreneurs, from the bowels of UCB’s labs, are eager to rescue the area from its current blight. This last fantasy has been propagated by the notion that UCB engineers and scientists need space to capitalize their projects. Last year, however, according to the annual report of the University of California’s Technology Transfer Program, only five businesses were developed. And not all necessarily needed the “incubator” space that the developers maintain is in great demand. 

It is obvious that the game played here is “bait and switch.” First you tell the populace that hi-tech is desperate for space, or that green jobs could be created, or whatever sounds seductive, and then after the structures are built they get rented to whomever has the money for a waterside location overlooking the Bay and close to the freeway. 

In the meantime, the “developed” land escalates the value of adjacent real estate and the current tenants – small businesses and artisans, for instance – are displaced and the character of West Berkeley disappears. West Berkeley resembles a manufacturing ecology, with one business purchasing from another, one servicing still others and the whole complex related to the needs of the residents nearby. This network of relationships attracts new businesses all the time. Currently, for example, an innovative project to develop a cluster of small kitchens for start-ups in the food business nears completion. 

The growth of new small industrial spaces occurs at a pace and a scale that blends into the surrounding community, but it is not, of course, at the pace and scale for huge returns. It seems to me that if we endorse a steady state economy in theory, then we should protect it in reality 

Bernard Marszalek is a former member of Inkworks Press, a West Berkeley manufacturer.