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New businesses have come to Telegraph in recent years and many appear successful, including CREAM—a speciality fresh cookie store—at Telegraph and Channing where lines of waiting customers often spill over onto the sidewalk.
Steven Finacom
New businesses have come to Telegraph in recent years and many appear successful, including CREAM—a speciality fresh cookie store—at Telegraph and Channing where lines of waiting customers often spill over onto the sidewalk.


Flash: Berkeley Fire Caused by Punctured Gas Line

By Scott Morris (BCN)
Tuesday March 12, 2013 - 10:40:00 PM

An underground gas line near the driveway of a Berkeley home was punctured by a worker doing excavation today, causing a fire that burned the front of the home and a van parked outside, Berkeley fire officials said. 

The fire was reported at 1710 Martin Luther King Jr. Way at 2:28 p.m.  

It was initially reported as a car fire, but when Berkeley police arrived they realized the blaze was threatening the home and firefighters enacted a full one-alarm response, acting Deputy Fire Chief Avery Webb said. 

Flames were spreading to the eaves along the home's roof line, and had engulfed the van's rear compartment, he said. 

Crews used a hose line to contain the flames and stripped off a 15- to 20-foot section of the eaves to prevent the fire from spreading. No fire got inside the house, which is home to eight or nine people, Webb said. 

Firefighters then turned their attention to the burning van, using hose lines to contain the fire. 

Webb said the gas pipeline was left burning because it was safer to allow the gas to burn than risk having it escape into nearby houses and vehicles where it could create an explosion risk. 

PG&E was called to the scene and arrived at 2:56 p.m. but had difficulty accessing the line that had been punctured. Crews dug a hole to reach the line and finally shut off the flow of gas and stopped the fire at 3:58 p.m., Webb said. 

PG&E spokesman Jason King said the homeowner had hired a day laborer to do sewer work on the property but the worker did not call PG&E to find out where the underground gas lines were before digging. 

The contractor ended up hitting the line with a pick, puncturing it and igniting the gas, possibly through sparks created by striking metal, King said. King said it is important that anyone doing any kind of underground work call 811 to check on the location of PG&E gas lines to avoid accidents that could risk lives and property.

Telegraph Notes #1: The “Empty Storefronts” Myth

By Steven Finacom
Thursday March 07, 2013 - 03:05:00 PM
The old Medico-Dental Building at the corner of Channing and Telegraph underwent a complete storefront / ground floor upgrade recently, and the commercial spaces are now occupied by new and returned businesses on both block faces.
Steven Finacom
The old Medico-Dental Building at the corner of Channing and Telegraph underwent a complete storefront / ground floor upgrade recently, and the commercial spaces are now occupied by new and returned businesses on both block faces.
Vacant storefronts on Telegraph are simply not numerous.
              This is one of only nine vacant storefronts seeking a tenant out of more than 100 commercial spaces on Telegraph itself in the five-block commercial district.  The asking price is $4,000 a month, or $3.33 a square foot, a rate that rivals asking prices for currently vacant retail space in Downtown Berkeley, North Shattuck, and on Solano.
Steven Finacom
Vacant storefronts on Telegraph are simply not numerous. This is one of only nine vacant storefronts seeking a tenant out of more than 100 commercial spaces on Telegraph itself in the five-block commercial district. The asking price is $4,000 a month, or $3.33 a square foot, a rate that rivals asking prices for currently vacant retail space in Downtown Berkeley, North Shattuck, and on Solano.
New businesses have come to Telegraph in recent years and many appear successful, including CREAM—a speciality fresh cookie store—at Telegraph and Channing where lines of waiting customers often spill over onto the sidewalk.
Steven Finacom
New businesses have come to Telegraph in recent years and many appear successful, including CREAM—a speciality fresh cookie store—at Telegraph and Channing where lines of waiting customers often spill over onto the sidewalk.
Click to Enlarge
Steven Finacom
Click to Enlarge
Click to Enlarge
Steven Finacom
Click to Enlarge

(This is the first in a periodic series of short articles examining assumptions and realities about the Telegraph Avenue neighborhood.)

“Empty storefronts abound,” on Telegraph Avenue Carolyn Jones wrote in her February 28, front page, San Francisco Chronicle story publicizing the Mayor Bates community meeting on Telegraph on February 27.

“Abound” is not an exact term, but let’s take it to mean what seems to have been intended—empty storefronts are frequent, common, and highly visible, along Telegraph.

Is this so?

In a word, no.

Based on the number of businesses and commercial vacancies, Telegraph is far from being a destitute commercial district.

Commercial rents, highly visible investment in building remodels and upgrades, and new business openings also give an indication that the economy hasn’t abandoned the neighborhood, despite the conventional wisdom you hear and read all too often these days.

Let’s look at these factors one by one. 

Commercial Vacancies 

In the week before the Bates meeting I counted storefronts as I walked up and down Telegraph on my commute. A table of the results of my survey is on the left. 

Between Parker Street and Bancroft, the traditional five block-long Telegraph commercial district, there are 102 separate commercial storefronts. I counted only those businesses that have a front door and display window space opening on Telegraph itself. 

(There are, of course, many businesses on the cross streets, particularly Durant and Bancroft, and I may count them later for a more thorough analysis of the whole commercial district; but I doubt the results would be much different from Telegraph itself.) 

As of the beginning of March 2013, 86 of the storefronts on Telegraph were occupied by functioning businesses. (In one storefront the business hasn’t yet opened, but the space is full of fixtures being unpacked, and there are permits posted in the window, so I counted it as rented). That’s an occupancy rate of 84%. 

That leaves 16 storefronts that aren’t occupied, which may seem like a fairly high number. But five of those 16 are being renovated and/or have permits to extensively renovate. Those are storefronts where we wouldn’t reasonably expect to see an operating business right now because the space is being torn apart for repairs and improvements. And in at least three of those five instances, the building owner has said publicly what business they expect will go in there once the renovation is complete. 

The remainder of the commercial spaces—nine—are indeed “vacant” and for lease. That’s nine out of 102 commercial spaces, or an actual vacant rate of 8.8% of the storefronts that are actively hosting, or looking for, commercial tenants along the Avenue. 

(The rate may even be less than 8%, because at the Bates meeting a man spoke from the audience, talking about the business he is planning to open on Telegraph. After the meeting I asked, and he told me, which one of the nine vacant storefronts he had just signed a lease to occupy.) *[See Update at the end} 

Another way to approach this issue is to examine whether commercial vacancies have changed in recent years. From my own daily observations I can tell you that several storefronts that were vacant a year ago are now occupied, including the whole, recently renovated, commercial building at the southwest corner of Telegraph and Channing where “The Melt” and Gordo’s are now located. 

And, statistically, we can refer to a Telegraph Business Improvement District report from 2007 that mapped no less than 11 vacant storefronts along Telegraph itself—two or three more than the current vacancy level—as well as documenting an overall vacancy rate of more than 17% for the whole commercial district. 

Commercial rents 

Yet another way to consider whether the business district is distressed is to examine the rents being asked by commercial property owners. If they’re extremely low by market standards, then that would be an indication that prospective businesses are shunning the neighborhood and / or commercial landlords are desperate to find anyone to occupy their spaces. 

The rents being asked don’t support that notion. Not only are they substantial, but they come close to, or sometimes even exceed, commercial rents being asked for some vacant storefronts in supposedly more thriving parts of town like North Shattuck, Solano Avenue, and Downtown. 

As of the beginning of the month, 2499 Telegraph where the old Tienda Ho clothing boutique was located for many years, was listed as available for rent for $4,000 / month, with 1,200 square feet. That’s $3.33 per square foot a month, or about $40 / square foot a year. 

(This is also listed as an “IG” or “Industrial Gross” lease in which the tenant may also have to pay “utilities, common area maintenance, and often the increase in property taxes and insurance over the base year” in addition to the base rent. So the actual cost of renting this space will be higher than $3.33 / month). 

This location is described on the Gordon Commercial real estate site as “high visibility location just 4 blocks to UC Berkeley campus with a 50,000 daily population. Part of an urban mall-like setting bursting with new and used clothing stores appealing to the college, teen and young adult market. Share a block flanked by legendary retailers Shakespeare and Co. and Amoeba Music. Across from Peet’s Coffee and Tea. Join American Apparel, Urban Outfitters, Adidas, Hot Topics, Volcom, Bows and Arrows, Moe’s and more on this adjacent-to-campus shopping strip. Tremendous foot traffic.” 

Of course real estate brokers will want to put the best marketing gloss on what they’re offering but even allowing for hyperbole, does that sound like a retail district that’s failing? 

And across the street from this storefront John Gordon owns two vacant commercial storefronts in the Fred Cody Building (2470 Telegraph) both listed for rent. This time the listing description invites the prospective tenant to “Join Peet’s Coffee, The Melt, Gordo’s Taqueria, Caffe Mediterraneum, Pappy’s Grill and Sports Bar and more…”. The larger of the two spaces is available for $3.25 / month per square foot. 

A block and a half south, there’s another space available for rent in a very old building at 2556 Telegraph asking $2,000 a month for 1,088 square feet, with very little visible frontage on Telegraph itself. 

A vacant storefront at 2383 Telegraph is listed as asking $4,800 a month, for 1,489 square feet. That’s $3.22 per square foot, per month. This location, the listing says, is “part of an outdoor mall-like shopping area bursting with stores appealing to the teen to young adult market.” 

At 2531 Telegraph, a “move-in condition” storefront in a recently renovated building offers “good window frontage on busy Telegraph Avenue”. The rental rate isn’t listed. It is flanked by two recently arrived businesses. 

How do those Telegraph asking rents compare to retail space rents elsewhere in Berkeley? Well, Gordon Commercial simultaneously has listed relatively newly built commercial space in the Gourmet Ghetto / North Shattuck for $3.50 square foot, renovated space (the old Radston’s office supply storefront) on Shattuck for $3.19 / square foot, and newly built, never occupied, ground floor Downtown retail space in the new Arpeggio Building at 2055 Shattuck for $3.50 square foot. 

There’s also “prime upper Solano Avenue retail” at 1779 Solano asking just $2.00 a square foot per month, or only about 60% of the rents being asked for space on supposedly economic basket-case Telegraph. 

Commercial Investment 

A third indicator of whether the commercial district is being abandoned is whether there has been substantial investment in building renovations or construction, aside from improvements made by commercial tenants. 

Again, the facts of the last few years indicate that building owners and investors are putting money into commercial Telegraph. 

Walking down Telegraph I counted at least ten separate buildings where major investments have been made in recent years, or are currently underway. Keep in mind these are not limited interior storefront improvements by a retail tenant; they’re substantial, sometimes whole building, upgrades. 

The Palazzo Building is getting a seismic retrofit, apparently, as well as new storefronts (it contains two of the five vacant spaces on the street, spaces currently filled with busy construction). Next door, a one story, two-storefront building was completely refurbished after the Sequoia Building fire, and one of the anchor tenants has returned and reopened. 

On the same block, the venerable buff brick five story old Medico-Dental building at Channing and Telegraph got a complete storefront replacement / remodel a few years ago, and every commercial space is now rented. 

The 2531 Telegraph storefront for lease is in the middle of a completely renovated three storefront, one story, building. The building next door that used to house the Blue Nile restaurant looks derelict, but has permits for a major renovation by the owner, who has also proposed a sort of entertainment club there. 

New businesses 

Finally, if Telegraph were collapsing economically, another indicator would be that new businesses would be avoiding the area, even if older businesses were managing to hang on. 

Telegraph does, in fact, have existing businesses that date back to the 1950s and 60s, as well as every decade since then. You can have your morning coffee in the Caffe Med (1950s), move on to shop at Annapurna, Bill’s Men’s shop, or Moe’s (1960s), have lunch at Kip’s (1970s) or snack at Café Milano or The Musical Offering (1980s) and continue your decade-by-decade shopping experience right up through the present, a Chinese-bakery that opened in February. 

And in recent years—and during the Recession—a considerable number of new businesses have come to Telegraph. The Chinese bakery is part of just one recent, and entirely unsurprising, trend. Along with a Japanese bakery and the Daiso variety store, it’s marketing to the large numbers, and percentages, of Asian-American students at Cal. 

And some much publicized business collapses on Telegraph, like the demise of Larry Blake’s a few years ago, have been superseded in the same spaces by apparently successful new businesses of the same type. The basement plus ground floor Larry Blake’s storefront, for example, now hosts Pappy’s Grill and Sports Bar. 

Many of these new businesses seem to be doing OK, at least based on their visible customers. Well-to-do non-students in Berkeley may feel smug about the perpetual lines at newer businesses like Ici on College Avenue in the Elmwood, but surprise, surprise, there are similar niche food places such as CREAM (Telegraph and Channing) where lines of customers often block the sidewalk. Yes, there are lines on Telegraph to get into some busy businesses. 


Telegraph is facing economic challenges, and I don’t doubt that some, perhaps many, of the businesses are suffering. But four core indicators of commercial district distress—high retail vacancies, low rents, lack of investment in the buildings themselves, and a lack of new businesses opening—just aren’t present, as far as I can document. 

It’s a different story from the sort of casual, windshield survey stereotypical writing that seems to pass for journalism about Telegraph in some quarters these days. 

Postscript—Chain Stores 

One of the interesting memes about Telegraph Avenue is either that locals are terrified of chain stores taking over the Avenue or, conversely, the only way to save Telegraph is to open it wide to chains. Both these claims imply that chains are alien to Telegraph. 

In fact, on my walks I count at least a dozen chain businesses among the 86 operating commercial storefronts on Telegraph. They range from heavy-weight Walgreen’s (with, interestingly, an independent convenience store operating right next door), to American Apparel, to Peet’s which we may not think of as a “chain”, but which has more than 150 locations in California alone, as well as stores in five other states. 

At left is my block-by-block count of operating and “vacant” storefronts on Telegraph, done during the last week in February. 


After I submitted this story, I walked down Telegraph again on my commute and passed a group of workers apparently starting to install a new business at a vacant storefront. The temporary signage they were putting up indicated a new bakery called "Sweet Leaf" is going into the old BayKing bakery in the Fred Cody Building, just north of Moe's. A bakery seems traditional at this spot. It's where the old Eclair Bakery was located before it was demolished for construction of the Fred Cody Building. Along with the businessman who said at the Bates meeting that he's planning a new enterprise in a vacant storefront on Telegraph, the new bakery would lower the number of vacant storefronts visibly "for rent" on the upper five blocks of Telegraph from nine—the number I used in my story, above—to seven. That's a vacancy rate of 6.8% for the 102 retail storefronts that open on Telegraph itself. See the full article above for the analysis.

Press Release: Bay Area Activists to confront Postmaster General at Moscone West: “Stop destroying our public Postal Service!”

From David Welsh
Wednesday March 13, 2013 - 04:17:00 PM

Bay Area Activists will rally on Monday March 18 from 9:15 AM to 11:00 AM at Moscone Center West, north-west corner of Howard and Fourth Streets, San Francisco, where U. S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe is scheduled to give the Keynote Address at the National Postal Forum at 10:00 a.m. 

The Bay Area public is outraged that Donahoe is promoting the step-by-step dismantling and privatization of our public Post Office. The Postal Service has been delivering the mail since before the United States was founded, is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and was once a cabinet office that was held by Ben Franklin. 

Donahoe is also putting up for sale historic buildings that our parents and grandparents paid for in full--locally, the Berkeley Post Office, and over 3,000 post offices nationally. Many of these house New Deal art and act as commercial centers for older downtown areas. CBRE, a realty company headed by Richard Blum, husband of Senator Diane Feinstein, will profit from the sales. Once the buildings are in private hands, the public art is no longer accessible, and the fate of the building can range from abandonment, destruction or redevelopment. 

Organizing the protest is Save the People’s Post Office, a broad coalition of labor and community groups including S.F. Labor Council, Senior & Disability Action, Church Women United, Gray Panthers, Green Party, Living Wage Coalition, and the Save the Berkeley Post Office committee. Local postal unions, American Postal Workers and Mail Handlers, are co-sponsors. 

They are demanding that Donahoe: 

1. Keep 6-day delivery of the mail, door-to-door! 2. Stop the sale of our historic Post Office buildings, including Berkeley’s main post office! 3. Stop the privatization and contracting-out of our public Post Office services! 4. Stop imposing delays in mail service! 5. Stop irresponsible closing of post offices and mail processing plants! 6. Maintain universal mail service at uniform rates to all parts of the country! 7. In this time of high unemployment, preserve liveable wage postal jobs that our communities depend on! 

Similar labor-community coalitions have been organized in New York, southern California, Oregon, Greensboro NC, Chicago, Washington DC, and some 24 other localities across the country. 

The movement is growing rapidly, with protests, marches and even Post Office occupations occurring in many cities – all determined to stop the planned destruction of the public Post Office. 

For more information, go to www.savethepostoffice.com 


David Welsh 


Press Release: Berkeley Unified Revises Budget, Projects Cautiously Positive Financial Picture

From Mark Coplan (BUSD PIO)
Monday March 11, 2013 - 09:17:00 PM

On Wednesday, the Berkeley School Board will receive a revised budget for 2012-13 that continues the District’s fiscally responsible strategy that has protected Berkeley public school students in recent years. “We have heard about the pain in other school districts from furlough days, significant layoffs, increasing class sizes and school closures -- but not in Berkeley,” says Co-Superintendent Javetta Cleveland. “We managed the State’s budget uncertainty, kept cuts away from the classroom, and prevented layoffs.” 

In the revised budget’s three-year projection, Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) will be relatively balanced with moderate deficit spending. The District is able to withstand the deficit spending because its prudent budgeting in recent years produced a reserve that is $8 million dollars above the State-required reserve. According to Cleveland, “We now have an opportunity to identify needs, address employee compensation, and move all of our schools more confidently towards our academic goals.” 

The District’s current positive financial picture is the result of several factors. First, moderate and strategic budget reductions were made in the central office, food service, adult education, summer school, and instructional materials. Second, strategies for improving student attendance increased revenue from the State. Third, funds provided by Berkeley taxpayers through the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program (BSEP) continue to sustain key programs in the District. Fourth, the use of $9.8 million in one-time Federal Stimulus funds was maximized to prevent layoffs. In addition, the State threatened additional cuts that were later partially restored, which contributed to the reserves. 

If Proposition 30 had failed this past November, the excess reserves would have been depleted within two school years. While Proposition 30 prevented threatened cuts, it did not restore all of the funding that had been cut during the recession. Over a five-year period, the State reduced the BUSD budget by $8 million, and since 2008 has offered no cost of living adjustment. Overall, the future picture is positive – but the effects of years of inadequate funding and significant uncertainty remain. 

After four years of no revenue increases from the State, the Governor has proposed a budget that includes a mere 1.65 percent increase for K-12 public education. The 1.65 percent increase is not even enough to keep pace with the increased operating costs and salary adjustments to which the District has already agreed. The Governor has also proposed a substantially different funding formula for California’s public schools that includes revenue specifically directed at addressing the needs of English Language Learners and socio-economically disadvantaged students. The State Legislature has not approved this proposed funding formula, and the impact to future Berkeley Unified budgets remains unknown. In addition, due to the federal sequester, the District stands to lose an additional $300,000 annually. There are also questions about the long-term fate of other sources of revenue, including the $4 million the District receives annually for desegregation. 

Berkeley Unified, like employers and employees across the nation, has been facing dramatic increases in health care costs. Co-Superintendent Neil Smith shared his concern for the rising cost of health care, noting, “We are very concerned about the significant rise in health insurance premiums and recognize that as health costs have continued to increase, the majority of employees are bearing those additional costs.” Currently, the District pays $9.5 million annually to cover employee health care costs. A cap on BUSD’s contribution to employee health care costs was negotiated as part of salary increases in 2006-07. A percentage was added to cover health care costs above the cap. However, for most employees, health care costs have continued to rise while there has been no additional revenue with which to provide salary increases since 2009.  

Recognizing the financial struggle faced by teachers and staff, this year the District provided teachers and staff a one percent bonus totaling more than $820,000. Co-Superintendent Cleveland pointed out that while cuts to revenue have subsided, California continues to underfund public education, “Our employees work hard everyday; we all hope the State will recognize the value of a quality education for all of California’s children and youth so we can adequately compensate our employees and keep up with the rising costs of insurance premiums.” 

Contract negotiations are now taking place again with all represented employee groups. Negotiations are a confidential matter and cannot be discussed in public without violating that confidence. 

Berkeley Unified School District’s Second Interim Budget for 2012-13 will be presented to the Berkeley School Board at the meeting on Wednesday, March 13th. More information on the state of the District’s financial outlook will become available following the release of the Governor’s May Revise Budget for 2013-14 and subsequent votes by the State Legislature on the implementation of any new funding formula for California’s public schools. 


Berkeley School Board President Will Be Court's Executive

By Jeff Shuttleworth (BCN)
Friday March 08, 2013 - 11:22:00 PM

Alameda County Superior Court officials announced today that they've appointed county budget analyst and Berkeley school board president Leah Wilson to be the court's new executive officer. 

Wilson, 40, will assume her duties by April 15 and will succeed Pat Sweeten, who retired last December but has continued in the post during the search for a new executive officer. 

In her new post, Wilson will have oversight responsibility for the non-judicial services and staff functions of a court organization that consists of 85 judges and commissioners and more than 700 employees who provide court services in Alameda County. 

Wilson said in a statement, "I am thrilled by this appointment and I look forward to joining the Alameda County Superior Court. 

Wilson currently is a principal analyst with the Alameda County Administrator's Office, where she has the budget responsibility for several public safety departments. 

She also represents the county administrator on the leadership team that oversees the implementation of criminal justice realignment in the county. 

In addition, Wilson is responsible for managing the county's debt portfolio. 

Before working for Alameda County, Wilson worked for the state Administrative Office of the Court, overseeing juvenile court improvement initiatives. 

Wilson has a master's degree and a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley and is a member of the state bar. 

Superior Court Presiding Judge C. Don Clay said, "Ms. Wilson is an absolutely outstanding individual who has had an outstanding career in public service. She is exceptionally well qualified and possesses all the necessary skills to take on this vitally important role."

Updated: Utility Issues Could Slow Repair after Chez Panisse Fire in Berkeley

By Bay City News
Friday March 08, 2013 - 11:10:00 PM

The fire that struck Berkeley's famous Chez Panisse restaurant early this morning caused about $150,000 to $200,000 in damage but it could reopen soon, Berkeley fire Acting Deputy Chief Avery Webb said. 

Webb said the cause of the fire, which was reported shortly after 3 a.m., hasn't yet been determined but investigators are focusing on some electrical equipment under the building's porch, which is where the fire started. 

"We're suspecting that electrical plates played some role in the fire" at the restaurant at 1517 Shattuck Ave., Webb said. 

A working sprinkler system inside the building helped stop the fire from spreading to the entire structure, fire officials said. The blaze was brought under control shortly before 4:30 a.m. 

Waters sent a message out on Twitter around 10 a.m. that said, "Luckily no one hurt and the main structure of Chez Panisse intact. Hope to reopen the Cafe next weekend. Thank you for your love + support." 

Webb said Berkeley health officials met with Chez Panisse representatives today to review what measures need to be taken before the restaurant is allowed to reopen. 

He said there was damage to the front of the building, along the side and underneath the building, as well as some damage to electrical equipment and water pipes. 

Webb said, "Fixing the utilities might be the primary cause of a delay in reopening as well as dealing with the smoke issue." 


Updated: Berkeley's Chez Panisse Hit by 3 am Fire

By Hannah Albarazi (BCN)
Friday March 08, 2013 - 08:07:00 AM

Berkeley's famous Chez Panisse restaurant could reopen as soon as next weekend after being damaged in a fire early this morning, according to its equally famous founder, Alice Waters. 

Waters sent a message out on Twitter around 10 a.m. that said, "Luckily no one hurt and the main structure of Chez Panisse intact. Hope to reopen the Cafe next weekend. Thank you for your love + support." 

The fire at the 1517 Shattuck Ave. restaurant was reported just after 3 a.m., fire officials said. 

A working sprinkler system inside the building helped stop the fire from spreading to the entire structure, fire officials said. 

The fire was brought under control shortly before 4:30 a.m.

Berkeley Rents Reach All-Time Highs but Reinvestment Lags

From Lisa Stephens and Stephen Barton, Ph.D.
Friday March 08, 2013 - 05:10:00 PM

Market rents in Berkeley’s rent stabilized apartments reached all-time highs in 2012 according to the latest “Quarterly Market Median” rent report by Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Program. The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $1,850 a month, up 8.8% from 2011, and the median rent for a one-bedroom was $1,325, up 6.0% from 2011. These rents surpass the previous highs, which were registered in 2007 and 2008 just before the nationwide financial crisis and recession fully hit the Bay Area. The report is based on the market rents charged to the 4,416 new tenants who moved into one of Berkeley’s 19,000 rent stabilized apartments in 2012. 

A Rent Board review of the effects of fifteen years of “vacancy decontrol” finds that with rents reaching unprecedented levels property values have doubled. However, no more than 10% of the increased rent is being reinvested in the community through building renovations or higher tax payments. Most of the owners of “soft-story” buildings that are not safe in the event of an earthquake have failed to reinforce them and thousands of tenants continue to have unresolved maintenance issues despite the higher rents. Vacancy decontrol, imposed on the City of Berkeley by the State of California beginning in 1999, allows landlords to raise the rent without limits when a new tenancy begins, although subsequent rent increases are limited until the tenant moves out. 

Both the full Quarterly Market Median Report and the new report on Rent Stabilization and the Berkeley Rental Housing Market 15 Years After Vacancy Decontrol are available on the City of Berkeley Rent Board’s Research Reports webpage at: www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/rent/reports. 

In brief summary, the Board finds that since vacancy decontrol began in 1999 fully 85% of Berkeley’s 19,000 rent stabilized apartments have turned over and had the rent increased to an amount close to the current market level. “Real” (meaning inflation-adjusted) rents have increased by more than 50% and tenants in Berkeley now pay an additional $100 million more annually in rent over and above what they would have paid if rent increases had been held to the rate of inflation. Meanwhile, only 10% of the increased rent has been reinvested in the community, with about 6% going to building renovations and 4% to increased tax payments. 

With increasing rents, the value of rent stabilized properties has more than doubled, increasing by at least $1.2 billion, but 70% of these properties still have old assessed values, saving owners more than $10 million annually in property taxes. Meanwhile 2,000 apartments in “soft story” buildings remain unsafe in the event of an earthquake and one quarter of all tenants in a recent survey reported persistent maintenance problems. 

A recent Rent Board study reviewed a random sample of 68 properties with 10 units or more, containing a total of 1,455 units. Fully 81% of the units in the sample had received a vacancy increase and this increased the average rent per unit by $534 a month or $6,400 a year over and above the annual inflation increases that Berkeley’s former strong rent control system would have allowed. Building permit data indicates that the owners’ total average reinvestment was less than 6.0% of the increased rent. Another economic study found that less than 4% of the increased rent was going to local governments in the form of increased taxes, largely because under Proposition 13 the property tax cannot increase by more than 2% annually until the property is sold no matter how much the property value increases. 

“It is unconscionable that Berkeley’s tenants must pay such extraordinary increases in rents due to our dysfunctional housing market.” says Lisa Stephens, Chair of the elected Rent Board. “Even worse is that so little is reinvested in the community, either through improvements in the buildings or in taxes on these windfall increases in property values. Low income workers and students from low-income families are being hit from two directions at once with rents going up and incomes going down. Berkeley has always been a center for writers, intellectuals, musicians and people concerned with social justice and the environment rather than just how much money they can make. Berkeley is one of the most supportive places for people with disabilities to live. All that is at risk as the cost of housing goes up.” 

“The real estate industry expects that Berkeley will become a destination for people priced out of the San Francisco rental market because it offers excellent restaurants, theaters and music venues within easy walking distance of BART. As this strategy takes hold it is likely to bring higher-income people into the market for older rental housing as well as for new housing, and continue the upward trend in rents in the coming years” said Deputy Director Stephen Barton, who oversees research and policy analysis for the Rent Board. 

Lisa Stephens is Chair of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board. Stephen Barton, Ph.D, .is Deputy Director of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board.

Graffitirazzi – Bathroom Edition

By Gar Smith
Friday March 08, 2013 - 04:40:00 PM
Gar Smith
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Public bathrooms have long been a convenient target for private moments of public expression. Before the Internet and social networking, the walls of privies were the preferred medium for anonymous rants, flames and occasional flights of poetry or philosophy. All it took was a pen or a pencil. Today, of course, the restless restroom artist is also armed with Magic Markers. 

























Sometimes, in more established venues (like this wall in the bathroom of The Monkeyhouse, a legendary "secret music hall" on University Avenue) the graffiti comes in the form of layers of cut-and-paste images. 













At the other end of the artistic ladder sits the lowly porta-potty. The plastic walls of these public loos are typically splattered with obscenities and rival gang-tags but sometimes, on closer inspection, there are moments of artistic elegance to be found among the graffiti-genitalia. 

























Artistry aside, the rewards of Bathroom Graffiti are sometimes found in a humorous note dashed off with a simple scrawl. In this case, most likely, by an English major. (Look closely and you will be rewarded.) 



Can the Sequester be Stopped? Don't Count on the Middle Class to Do It

By Becky O'Malley
Friday March 08, 2013 - 04:44:00 PM

Good old John Conyers is at it again, cutting through the phoney baloney that perennially passes for political thinking in Washington.

If my failing memory serves, he was one of the small number of prescient members of the House of Representatives who co-sponsored a bill of impeachment against Lyndon Johnson in 1967 or ’68 as a way of trying to stop the war on Vietnam. Somewhere in my house I might still have the copy of the bill which I think Conyers’ office sent me at the time.

Wikipedia gives all the credit for that effort to Bella Abszug, another brave and outspoken congressperson, but I’m pretty sure John Conyers’ name was there too, along with that of Congressman Robert Drinan, a radical Catholic priest of the post-Vatican II generation which the current hierarchy is trying to forget.

Then in 1972 John Conyers sponsored a bill which would have impeached Richard Nixon. That one didn’t make it to the floor for a vote either, but later versions did. Nixon ended the discussion by resigning.

Here we are now, more than four decades later, and my email informs me (I haven’t seen it in print yet) that Conyers has filed a bill which would end sequestration, which is a fancy name for a childish concept that should never have been passed by our permanently confused Congress. 

We got this letter this week, signed by Rep. Alan Grayson, an outspoken liberal recently re-elected in Florida: 

“Last Friday, my friend Congressman John Conyers introduced a bill called the "Cancel the Sequester Act of 2013"—a bill that, not surprisingly, cancels the sequester. 

In case you haven't heard, the sequester is an endless series of irrational and cruel budget cuts. Fortunately, since Congress invented the sequester, Congress can also kill it. 

Here's the entire bill: 

"Section 251A of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 is repealed." 

That's it. That's the solution, in a single sentence. No loopholes. No self-imposed crises. Just one sentence. 

Join us by signing a petition in support of just-say-no to the sequester. 75,000 people already have.” 

Click here to add your name to this petition, and then pass it along to your friends. 

When I checked today, the total number of signers had climbed to well above 225,000, edging toward the half-million signature goal. 

Our congresspersons, particularly the Tea Partyers in the House, just love analogizing government budgeting to household finance, as inappropriate as the few smart economists who manage to get into the popular press have shown that concept to be. But from a Tea Party perspective, it’s just like a family putting a few dollars from every paycheck into the sugar bowl on the tea table—and eventually it’s supposed add up to a new TV for the front room. 

Of course, if that money had gone into an interest-bearing bank account (at least in the days before banks started doing their damndest to cheat their depositors) the TV would be paid for sooner. Savings invested increase faster, even in the public sector. 

Congress is foolish to put the country’s revenues in the proverbial piggybank, when they would multiply and defeat the recession if they were spent on public works which put money into consumer pockets. And the money being cut not only undermines consumer confidence, it potentially wreaks havoc on the poorest among us. 

Conyers’ bill latest probably is doomed from the start, since he’d need all the Democrats and even some Republicans to get the House to pass it. Almost all the Repugs and all too many Democrats don’t care much about what happens to the poor or even to the underpaid members of the working class, groups which are more and more ignored in discussions of how the global economy has gone wrong. 

I find it interesting that in three articles I read this week I detected a growing dissatisfaction among international public intellectuals with a political point of view, often articulated by President Barack Obama among others, that preserving some sort of hallowed middle class way of life should be government’s major goal. 

Michael Lewis, reviewing John Lanchester’s new novel Capital in the New York Review of Books, observes that as Britons took up American-style high finance: 

“…a brand-new social type was born: the highly educated middle-class Brit who was more crassly American than any American. In the early years this new hybrid was so obviously not an indigenous species that he had a certain charm about him, like, say, kudzu in the American South at the end of the nineteenth century, or a pet Burmese python near the Florida Everglades at the end of the twentieth. But then he completely overran the place. Within a decade half the graduates of Oxford and Cambridge were trying to forget whatever they’d been taught about how to live their lives and were remaking themselves in the image of Wall Street. Monty Python was able to survive many things, but Goldman Sachs wasn’t one of them.” 

In the London Review of Books, Israeli writer Yonatan Mendel characterizes Yair Lapid, whose new “There is a Future” party came in second in the recent elections in Israel, as representing his country’s consuming middle class and ignoring everyone else: 

“He was distinguishing between ‘those who give’, meaning ‘us’, successful individuals, the ones who make money, and ‘those who take’, meaning ‘them’, the unemployed, the Arab citizens and the Haredi Jews, all those groups who chose their poverty at our expense.” 

Sounds like Mitt, doesn’t it, but Barack Obama talks a lot about serving the middle class, too. 

Whoever that might be in this country… the Obama administration has stretched the boundaries all the way from families making little more than the minimum wage to those with a quarter of a million dollars in annual income . The Republicans pushed the top end, those fortunate folks who must be protected from tax hikes, up even further, to $400,000. 

All too often, protecting the middle class turns out to be just another version of the old truism “them as has gits”. It’s the bourgeoisie we’re protecting, in other words, still pretty comfortable after all these years, although those on the bottom can be in danger of slipping off the last rung of the ladder. 

And sometimes even the economically secure are left out of the middle class comfort zone. 

Ta Nehisi Coates on the New York Times op-ed page this week reflects, with appropriate ironic quotation marks, on the special problems African-Americans at all income levels face in participating in the ranks of middle-class privilege: 

“The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the ‘middle class,’ will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. Forest Whitaker fits that bill, and he was addressed as such.” 

Whitaker, a well-known, well-off African-American actor, was falsely accused of shoplifting in the upper West Side deli which Coates and his African American family also patronize. 

Sequestration, another artificial political concept, turns out to rest comparatively lightly on the middle class, so it might not be the stick which gets Congress moving after all. The worst the middle class seems to have to worry about is longer security lines at airports, and even that won’t happen for a while. 

That’s why you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for Conyers’ bill to pass. He's always been ahead of the public with his clever fixes to problems they don't even recognize when they see them. As long as the sequester disproportionately harms the powerless, what difference does it make to the rest of us, after all? 







Odd Bodkins: How long since a fish... (Cartoon)

By Dan O'Neill
Friday March 08, 2013 - 04:44:00 PM


Dan O'Neill


Public Comment

Letters about Telegraph

Friday March 08, 2013 - 05:17:00 PM

Not Troubled In the 50's 

Ted Friedman’s 3/2 article on Telegraph Ave. quotes Steve Finacom as saying, ”…the Avenue has always been troubled”.. 

Not so; as a past President of the Berkeley Historical Society he should know better. Prior to the Free Speech rallies and Governor Reagan’s overreacting teargassing of Telegraph Ave, Teley was fine. Fraser’s, Sather Gate Books, Gramophone Shop, Blake’s and many more – all pleasant premises with a broad range of customers. Or perhaps earlier, when the Student Union building took over the block before Sather Gate and we lost Jules, Creed’s, Roos Bros. (which had to move to Bancroft), White Log and other reasonably well-behaved premises of bygone Cal life. 

Cy Silver 

The Economy is Not Fine. 

The Village is fine; the economy is not. Maintain some sort of justice for offsetting rips, assaults, and walk off kidnappings, shrieks of pandemonium in one or more of the apartments, allowable dirty bomb and pandemic exchanges: maybe somebody will admire the new lighting and see the clean-uped environment. Thanks for that. 

Santa Monica's 3rd Street is just as quiet as much of the time; inspite of a beach rides pier, Oceanside waltz and 25 times the population, and a rebuilt shopping mall at the other end (recently rebuilt for increasing business). They also have store rips, blackmail topped with assault escapades in the smaller places; AND blaring music from off key mutants looking for a reality series. How would students study? Regardless, it’s the same small village, except with prices for competing in a real estate buyers' market. 

Stores can be seen - Eddie is the best (wham!). No customer wants to crawl around greed-keep the 3 feet. Eliminate the street vendors; you will have a sleeper stretch. Bums-real clusters-that is "Issue Impossible." We need justice (not strong arms), cleanliness and varied individualism; otherwise we have snots, rips and snotty bums. 

Michelle Trahan 



Plea from McKinney-Vento Families: We Need the Community to Speak Out about the Termination of Services Homeless Coordinator Nancy Johnson

From Leo Stegman
Friday March 08, 2013 - 05:22:00 PM

On September 19, 2012, low-income parents at the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) spoke out against the cutting of funds for the McKinney-Vento Act from $34,000 to $17,000. Amidst an economic depression the BUSD staff cut funding to McKinney-Vento Act, a statute to assist families facing housing issues because of a lack of resources in the education of their children. 

During the next few months the many community member came to the BUSD School Board meeting, and sent numerous emails to the Co-Interim Superintendents Javetta Cleveland and Neil Smith requesting that the BUSD increase the funding for the McKinney-Vento Act and to continue the contract of Ms. Nancy Johnson. 

As the Homeless Coordinator for the BUSD, for the last 15 years, Ms. Johnson has been a valuable asset to families and students receiving assistance under the McKinney-Vento Act. As a retired teacher, employee at Berkeley Oakland Support Services, and resident of Berkeley she has a vast reservoir of knowledge as it pertains to issues of class, race and homelessness. Her institutional knowledge on the McKinney-Vento Act in BUSD is un-equalled and un-paralleled. 

Through the community's voice and vigilance the BUSD Board Members decided that the District Staff should meet with the community that receives McKinney-Vento assistance to decide how service are provided to us. Many of us were adamant that Nancy Johnson's services are greatly valued by the community of McKinney-Vento Services in BUSD. 

In a move of bureaucratic disingenuousness and duplicity the District is now hiring two half-time positions, and has told Ms. Johnson her services were not being retained and her contract was unilaterally terminated. Ultimately, her stay was given until the end of March 28, 2013. 

The community of BUSD students and families are devastated by the District's move to terminate Ms. Johnson's contract. Her firsthand knowledge of the familial history of the many BUSD students receiving assistance under the McKinney-Vento, combined with the her unequalled institutional knowledge, are irreplaceable to the community. The termination of Ms. Johnson's service goes directly against the wishes of the students and parents at the School Board meetings. The parents and families are the people that receive; we know what services that we need/ 

Therefore, we are requesting that Ms. Johnson be retained until the end of the 2012-2013 academic year. In addition, according to BUSD's own statistics, approximately of 10 percent of BUSD students are are identified as students eligible for McKinney-Vento assistance under the act, and most of them are students of color. If the BUSD is serious about the shrinking the well-chronicled “Racial Achievement Gap”, people like Nancy Johnson are needed to assist the BUSD to provide a free and quality education to all of its students. 

We are asking that you support us in our goal by emailing Board Members Karen Hemphill., karenhemphill@berkeley.net: Josh Daniels, joshdaniels@berkeley.net Judy Appel, judyappel@berkeley.net, Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, BeatrizLeyva-Cutler@berkeley.net, Juliette Mueller, juliettemueller@students.berkeley.net, and Co-interim Superintendents Javetta Cleveland, javettacleveland@berkeley.net and Neil Smith, neilsmith@berkeley.net, stating that you would like Ms. Johnson's contract extended until at least until the end of the 2012-2013 academic year.

Pity the Poor Dowmtrodden Smoker

By Carol Denney
Friday March 08, 2013 - 06:02:00 PM

It’s baffling. Berkeley’s rent board commissioners assume that smokers only risk being unfairly targeted for eviction and becoming homeless because they’re helpless thralls to tobacco. As though they were incapable of stepping outside to smoke!

In my apartment building it’s the opposite: 100% of the on-site staff smokes. A majority of the board smokes. Those who raise the issue or try to document the exposure are shut out of meetings, refused information, excluded from discussion, and yes, targeted for eviction. The majority in our building, who do not smoke, know better than to say a word.

Berkeley’s rent board doesn’t seem to hear this group, which represents the majority of tenants nationwide, especially in Alameda County. That majority is being forced to smoke involuntarily.

Commissioners opine at meetings about smokers who might have to give up smoking” in their own home”, since doing so fills the home in the apartment next door full of toxic fumes. They practically weep at the inconvenience of having to take a stroll outside (it might be dangerous!) or using nicotine patches, gum, or lozenges in inclement weather, which all smokers do on plane flights or at movies anyway (the expense! the horror!).

They assume that this would be so unworkable that people would just light up (helplessly!) be evicted en masse, and end up under the freeway. Not that this has ever happened anywhere nationwide, mind you – they’re just certain it will happen here, first, in Berkeley, California.

Sound familiar? It does to anyone who has lived in California long enough to remember the tobacco industry’s campaign against smokefree restaurant and bar laws. The sky was going to fall. When the restaurant and bar business revenues didn’t decline, but rather increased, when compliance was relatively effortless, the heated hyperbole evaporated.

Until now. Now you can hear its echoes down at the rent board, where the sky seems to be about to fall all over again.

This renter wishes just once the rent board would consider that even if the mythology about mass evictions of smokers were true, there is something worse than losing one’s home: losing one’s life.

There are thousands of renters currently being entirely evicted from their own healthy lives by secondhand smoke. There are thousands of children being evicted from ever getting a chance to run or play sports by developing asthma as a result of secondhand smoke from apartment neighbors. There are thousands living with debilitating cancer treatments if they’re lucky enough to have coverage at all, and renters are most likely to have the least medical options.

Smokers have options: the stroll, the patch, etc. The rest of us don’t. We can only hope that someday the rent board remembers that we, and our families, are at risk for something much worse than eviction.


DISPATCHES FROM THE EDGE: Hugo Chavez: Lest We Forget

By Conn Hallinan
Monday March 11, 2013 - 08:41:00 PM

In early December 2001, I was searching through my files looking for a column topic. At the time I was writing on foreign policy for the San Francisco Examiner, one of the town’s two dailies. A back page clip I had filed and forgotten caught my attention: on Nov. 7 the National Security Agency, the Pentagon, and the U.S. State Department had convened a two-day meeting on U.S. policy vis-à-vis Venezuela. My first thought was, “Uh, oh.” 

I knew something about those kinds of meetings. There was one in 1953 just before the CIA and British intelligence engineered the coup in Iran that put the despicable Shah into power. Same thing for the 1963 coup in South Vietnam and the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende in Chile. 

Chavez had reaped the ire of the Bush administration when, during a speech condemning the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he asked if bombing Afghanistan in retaliation was a good idea? Chavez called it “fighting terrorism with terrorism,” not a very good choice of words, but, in retrospect, spot on. The invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent Iraqi War have been utterly disastrous for the U.S. and visited widespread terror on the populations of both countries. Upwards of a million Iraqis died as a direct and indirect effect of the war, five million were turned into refugees, and the bloodshed is far from over. Much the same—albeit on a smaller scale—is happening to the Afghans. 

Would that we had paid the man some attention.  

But for the Bush administration, Chavez’s statement presented an opportunity to rid itself of a troublesome voice. In came the White House’s Latin America “A Team.” 

The top gun in that odious outfit was Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for western hemispheric affairs and former Reagan Administration point man for the 1981-87 Contra War against Nicaragua. The General Accounting Office had nailed Reich during the 1986 Iran-Contra scandal for “prohibited convert propaganda,” planting false stories and opinion pieces in newspapers. A Cuban exile, Reich had helped spring Orlando Bosch in 1987 from a Venezuelan prison where Bosch was in jail for bombing a civilian Cuban airliner and killing 73 people. 

Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for western hemisphere affairs, also a Cuban exile and former chief of staff for the Contras, was the Pentagon side of the team. 

While Reich met with civilian opponents of Chavez and conservative businessman Pedro Carmona, Pardo-Maurer huddled with military leaders, including Gen. Lucas Romero Rincon. Carmona and Rincon would play a key role in the April 11, 2002 coup against Chavez. The National Endowment for Democracy and United States Agency for International Development were also supporting Chavez’s opponents with money and advice, and both organizations have long histories of subversion and covert operations. 

I had no special information about the possibility of a coup but it didn’t take a crystal ball to see that the armies of the night were on the move. So I wrote a column titled “Coup in the Wind” that laid out the meetings, identified the actors, and reminded readers that the U.S. has a long and sordid history of organizing and supporting coups in Latin America. 

In little more than three and a half months later, the plotters struck, arrested Chavez, suspended the constitution, dissolved the legislature, dismissed the Supreme Court, the Attorney General and the National Election Commission, and fired provincial governors. We had seen this all before, and I flinched at what I thought would inevitably follow: executions, death squads, “disappeared” opponents, smashed unions, and a cowed population. But April 11, 2002 was not 1954 in Guatemala, 1964 in Brazil, 1973 in Chile, or 1976 in Argentina. Chavez had lifted millions of people out of poverty, opened schools, increased literacy, and tackled malnutrition. In vast numbers those people rose up, and, for the first time in Latin American history, a coup was overturned. 

Three days after Chavez was returned to office, Martha Honey at Foreign Policy In Focus sent me an email saying she liked the coup column and would I consider writing a follow-up for the think tank? I knew all about Martha Honey and her husband, Tony Avirgan. As reporters for the Costa Rican Tico Times, they had uncovered much of the Iran-Contra plot and were legends among those of us in the alternative press. I also knew about FPIF. It is hard to write sensible things about U.S. foreign policy without it. So I did a piece called “Anatomy of a Coup,” detailing U.S. support for the plotters. Since then I have written over 200 columns, so in a way it was Hugo Chavez that landed me at FPIF. 

Chavez became the president of a country where 70 percent of the population was considered “poor,” in spite of $30 billion in yearly oil revenues. It was a country where two percent of the population owned 60 percent of the land, and where the gap between rich and poor was among the widest on the continent.  

Today, according to the Gini Coefficient, Venezuela has the lowest rate of inequality in Latin America. Poverty has been reduced to 21 percent, and extreme poverty from 40 percent to 7.3 percent. Illiteracy has been eliminated and, proportionally, Venezuela is number two in Latin America for the number of university students. Infant mortality has dropped from 25 per 1,000 to 13 per 1,000, the same as it is for Black Americans. Chavez’s government increased the number of health clinics by 169.6 percent, and hands out free food to five million Venezuelans. Take a moment to read “The Achievements of Hugo Chavez” by public health experts Carles Muntaner, Joan Benach, and sociologist Maria Paez Victor in CounterPunch

Comparing the man’s accomplishments to his U.S. obits was like taking a trip through Alice’s looking glass. Virtually none of the information about poverty and illiteracy was included, and when it was grudgingly admitted that he did have programs for the poor, it was “balanced” with claims of soaring debts, widespread shortages, rampant crime, economic chaos, and “authoritarianism.” 

Venezuela’s debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product is lower than that of the U.S. and Europe. Inflation has fallen to a four-year low. There is crime, but neighboring Colombia is far more dangerous, particularly if you happen to be a trade unionist. And more people in Venezuela are eating better than they have ever eaten in the history of the country. Over the past decade growth has averaged 4. 3 percent, and joblessness dropped from 11.3 percent to 7.7 percent. Americans would kill for those figures. 

As for being an “authoritarian,” most the country’s media is venomously anti-Chavez and publishes regularly, and his opponents hold weekly rallies and protests. Want to try that in U.S. ally Honduras (or Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, etc.)? 

The old Venezuelan elites—aided by the U.S.—will now attempt to turn the clock back to 1997, the year before Chavez took over. But that will not be easy. Quite literally millions of people have been brought into the democratic process and they will not cede power without a fight. Once people have better housing, schools, nutrition, jobs and health care, it is very difficult to take those things away. Chavez handed a better life to the vast majority of Venezuelans, and, as they demonstrated in April 2002, they are perfectly able to defend those gains. 

“Charismatic and idiosyncratic, capable of building friendships. Communicating to the masses as few other leaders ever have, Mr. Chavez will be missed,” is the way former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva put it. 

He will be missed, indeed. 


Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com 

Updated: ECLECTIC RANT: Does Hugo Chavez's Death Mean The End Of His Bolivarian Revolution?

By Ralph E. Stone
Monday March 11, 2013 - 03:37:00 PM

On March 5, 2013, Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias, the president of Venezuela, died of a massive heart attack and his cancer was very advanced when he died. Was his dream of a "Bolivarian Revolution" buried with him?  

Chávez envisioned a modern day Bolivarian Revolution, a Latin American political block with a socialist bent as an alternative to U.S. hegemony. To this end, Chávez was generous with his foreign aid to Latin America and the Caribbean in an effort to blunt U.S.-backed economic policies in Latin America. His efforts garnered some support among the growing number of Latin America’s left-leaning governments. 

Chávez often spoke under a portrait of "The Liberator," quoted his words frequently, and linked himself to this legendary figure to gain popular support for his programs both at home and abroad. Chávez also renamed Venezuela the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and said he was creating a socialist system based on Bolivar's ideals.  

However, Chávez spent so much time on the international stage that he neglected the problems on the home front such as government corruption, inefficiency, and mismanagement; the deteriorating health and education programs; the troubled economy; crime; human rights violations; and media censorship. And many Venezuelans feared that the “socialist revolutionary” was slowly morphing into a president-for-life. 

Just who is this Simón Bolivar anyway? 

Simón Bolivar was born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1783. At age 16, he was sent abroad to continue his education in Spain and France where he was introduced to the progressive works of Rousseau and Voltaire. He married Spaniard Maria Teresa and returned to Venezuela. Maria Teresa died 8 months later of yellow fever. He never married again but had many lovers, including Manuela Saenz affectionately known as Manuleta, whom he met in 1822 and who was with him until a few days before he died. After Maria Teresa's death, he returned to France and met with the leaders of the French Revolution. Bolivar then traveled to the United States to witness the U.S. after the American Revolution. He returned to Caracas filled with revolutionary ideas and quickly joined pro-independence groups. Bolivar's military career began under Francisco de Miranda. When Miranda was captured by the Spanish in 1812, Bolivar took command. 

Over the next decade, Bolivar commanded the independence forces in numerous battles, including the key battle of Carabobo, which brought independence for Venezuela. Bolivar also brought independence from Spanish rule to the entire northwest of South America, creating the Gran Colombia in what today comprises Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.  

Because his central government could not govern such a large land mass with its racial and regional differences, his Gran Colombia lasted just a decade. Disillusioned and in bad health, Bolivar resigned the presidency of Gran Colombia in early 1830. He died in December 1830 at age 47, in Santa Marta, Colombia, while on his way to Europe. Ironically, the newly independent Venezuela banned Bolivar from his homeland for twelve years until 1842, when his remains were finally brought from Santa Marta to Caracas and entombed in the "catedral." In 1876, his remains were transferred to the "Panteon Nacional." 

In 2007 and 2008, my wife and I traveled to Venezuela. (My wife Judi is Venezuelan and speaks Spanish fluently.) We were cautioned never to show disrespect for Bolivar. During our brief stays in Caracas, Venezuela's capital city, we did a mini-tour of Bolivariana, which began at the Plaza Bolivar. Every Venezuelan city has a Plaza Bolivar. The federal district (Caracas) and the capital cities of Venezuela's twenty-two states such as Merida, Coro, Barinas, Guanare -- capital cities we visited -- have a statue of Bolivar on a horse. Other major cities have a statue of Bolivar unhorsed and smaller towns have a bust of Bolivar in their Plaza Bolivar.  

We visited Bolivar's birthplace ("Casa Natal de Bolivar"), the Bolivar museum ("Museo Bolivariana") next door where I was asked to remove my cap out of respect, the nearby cathedral where he was baptized and where his wife and family lie, and the "Panteon Nacional" containing his body -- until he was recently exhumed -- and those of other eminent Venezuelans. 

In 2009, we took a road trip along the coast from Cartagena, Colombia, to visit Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the hacienda where Bolivar spent his last days before he died. Spaniard Joaquin de Mier, the owner of the hacienda and a supporter of Colombia’s independence, invited Bolivar to stay and rest until his departure for Europe. The hacienda grounds contain a massive central structure ("Altar de la Patria"), the Museo Bolivariana, and a 22-hectare garden. 

If Chávez had lived, would his "Bolivarian Revolution" have succeeded? We will never know. It is doubtful, however, that either Nicolás Maduro, Chávez's chosen successor, or Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles, have the charisma or international presence to pick up the baton and carry it to the finish line. But Chávez has planted the seed.  

I personally like the idea of a Latin American union similar to the European Union largely free from U.S. control. For centuries the U.S. has carried the Monroe Doctrine to absurd extremes, treating Latin America as one big U.S. colony. 

I recommend Oliver Stone"s documentary, South of the Border. You know going in that it will be one-sided, but it is refreshing to see and hear Chávez, Lula da Silva (Brazil), Evo Morales (Bolivia), the Kirchners (Argentina), Fernando Lugo (Paraguay), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), and Raúl Castro speak unfiltered through the U.S. media. The film mostly focuses on Chávez.  

I also recommend The General in His Labyrinth (El general en su laberinto) by Gabriel García Márquez, a fictionalized account of the last days of Simón Bolivar.

THE PUBLIC EYE: Disarming Republican Anarchists

By Bob Burnett
Friday March 08, 2013 - 11:01:00 AM

While most Americans were horrified by the December 14th murders of 26 innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, many observers believe Washington lacks the will to curb gun violence. Multiple excuses have been offered for the difficulty of enacting gun control legislation, but the most obvious problem has not been mentioned: the US contains millions of Republican anarchists. These ultra-conservatives fear the government and buy guns for protection. Their Tea Party Congressmen will do everything they can to block common-sense legislation.

Over the last five years, the Republican Party has veered to the far right and, in the process, been taken over by anarchists, Tea Party extremists who do not believe in centralized government. As University of California linguistics professor George Lakoff observed, “[ultra conservatives] believe that Democracy gives them the liberty to seek their own self-interests by exercising personal responsibility, without having responsibility for anyone else or anyone else having responsibility for them.” Republican Anarchists reject the Founder’s morality, the sentiments that produced the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution. These ultra conservatives don’t believe in the common good or the notion that Americans have a moral responsibility to care for each other. But they do venerate the second amendment to the Constitution, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”

As a consequence, America is an armed camp, ”There are 89 guns for every 100 civilians… That amounts to roughly 270 million guns owned nationwide, far and away the highest gun ownership rate in the world.” But the guns are unevenly distributed. About 35 percent of Americans personally own a gun. “Around 80 percent of gun owners are men. On average they own 7.9 guns each.” 

Republican Anarchists tend to live in Red states, where weapons are concentrated. There’s a disturbing relationship between gun prevalence, resistance to gun control, and anti-government rhetoric. The Daily Beast ranked states by guns per capita (by comparing the number of NCIS background checks – the process you go through when you buy a gun – with the state population). The top ten states are Kentucky, Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia, Alaska, Wyoming, South Dakota, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin. Most of these states rate among the Top ten gun-friendly states. Alaska and Wyoming are also among the top ten in firearms death rate. Wyoming has the highest rate of gun ownership – 59.7 percent of households report at least one gun – and claims to have more guns than people (576,412). While it has the 43rd lowest crime rate in the US, Wyoming also has the fourth highest rate of death by firearms. 

Wherever there’s a high percentage of gun ownership there is also pro-second-amendment rhetoric and inflammatory talk suggesting the federal government threatens individual freedom. In January, gun-rights advocate, Kurt Hofmann, wrote an article “Government prepares for war with the people, and mass media approves,” in which he deplored a “forcible citizen disarmament campaign,” and predicted the current wave of gun control legislation ultimately intends to seize the weapons of “patriots.” 

As the Republican Party has shifted to the right it has embraced groups that, a few years ago, were out of the mainstream: “Patriots,” militias, and members of the sovereign citizen movement. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that “the number of conspiracy-minded antigovernment ‘Patriot’ groups reached an all time high of 1360 in 2012.” The Patriot movement “believes that the federal government is conspiring to take Americans’ guns and destroy their liberties as it paves the way for a global ‘one-world government.’” It’s not clear how many members’ patriots and militia groups have, but the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that the closely affiliated “sovereign” groups have between 100,000-300,000 members. What these groups share is rejection of governmental authority; i.e. they are classic anarchists. 

Since the election of Barack Obama these extremists have become more strident. the Southern Poverty Law Center reported they share a common paranoia: President Obama will suspend the Constitution, declare martial law, and “force Socialism on the American people.” 

This is the dark background that underlies the gun control debate. There are 49 self-identified Tea Party members in the House of Representatives and four in the Senate, plus several dozen more “fellow travelers.” They represent the anarchists in opposing gun-control laws. Recently, Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul proposed a law that would nullify any presidential gun-control actions. Florida Republican Congressman < a href= http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/16/obama-impeachment_n_2488966.html >Trey Radel suggested that if Obama takes executive action it would be grounds for impeachment. 

Commonsense gun control legislation is anathema to Tea Party Republicans. To the anarchists universal background checks suggests intrusive government surveillance. To anarchists limiting magazine size or assault weapons is unacceptable; their guns are not for hunting, they are for self-defense. 

That’s why the current congress won’t pass gun-control legislation. The Republican anarchists are too powerful. Indeed, nothing meaningful will happen until the GOP reinvents itself and disavows its anarchist wing. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at bburnett@sonic.net 


ON MENTAL ILLNESS: CNN's Doctor Drew Reports on Stigma

By Jack Bragen
Friday March 08, 2013 - 11:04:00 AM

Doctor Drew Pinsky is a television psychiatrist who frequently appears on CNN. His coverage and that of CNN are groundbreaking in their treatment of persons with mental illness and the venomous effects of stigma. Drew believes stigma is a cause of death for many persons who suffer from a mental illness. Stigma, according to Drew, prevents people from seeking treatment because of the fear of being ostracized. Stigma forces many mentally ill people to remain "in the closet" concerning their condition. 

Failure to get treatment (including when due to the fear of the social repercussions) can cause death. This is because, without treatment, a mental illness will inevitably run its course, and this can bring a person to a point of suicidality. 

CNN's and Drew's coverage of mental illness have improved since the last time that I wrote about Doctor Drew. He believes that society should have the same attitude concerning illnesses "above the neck" as they do concerning "illnesses below the neck." This means that mental illnesses, including drug addiction, schizophrenia, bipolar illness, and depression, are all medical diseases, just like cancer and heart disease. People incorrectly believe that these illnesses are a sign of weakness and a source of shame. 

He encourages people to deal with issues rather than masking feelings with improperly used prescription drugs. Yet he advocates getting major mental illnesses treated through antidepressant or antipsychotic medication. Benzodiazepines, for example, have a legitimate use-for treating panic disorders. However, these same medications should not be used for the normal stresses that everyone needs to deal with. 

Pinsky has been on several different TV shows concerning mental health and addiction, across the television channels. This includes "celebrity rehab" and other "reality" shows. He frequently appears on "Anderson Cooper 360." 

I believe CNN and Doctor Drew Pinsky would do well to take an additional step, which would be to illustrate the parallel between stigma toward persons with mental illness, and racism, which in the past had divided our country. Stigma toward persons with mental illness and racism are essentially the same thing--hate toward someone who is somehow different. 

In my personal experience, it has been hard to function in society when I am excluded by individuals and institutions, due to my status of being mentally ill. This information, while it is not supposed to show up on an employer background check, is readily available to people seeking information. I know of someone who tried to get hired as a nurse, but was refused the job at a point when the background check was done. I know of an airline mechanic, starting treatment for bipolar, who committed suicide, apparently because he could no longer work at his job. 

The information that says a person has a mental illness, if it gets out, can spell ruin for a person-because people in society have ignorant attitudes and will discriminate. 

Even before the internet, people had to deal with the poisonous effects of gossip. People spitefully spread bad information about people by word of mouth, and this causes the hurtful exclusion of many good people, who don't deserve this treatment. 

The attitudes of the general public are still intolerant, as they once were with racism. This intolerance also shows itself when you read people's comments that are posted after news pieces that involve mental illness. 

People haven't yet woken up to the fact that we are not "crazies," we are people who suffer from an illness. 

Prejudice against persons with mental illness is still socially acceptable, unlike racism. Overt racism, in most places, is no longer socially acceptable. The same peer pressure ought to exist concerning hate of persons with mental illness. 

Thank you, Doctor Drew, for hosting this discussion.

Arts & Events

Women's History Films to Be Shown at South Berkeley Senior Center

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Friday March 08, 2013 - 05:39:00 PM

In celebration of Women’s History month, the South Berkeley Senior Center is showing films on Tuesdays at 10:30 A.M. and Fridays at 1:30 P.M.. They are documentaries and commercial films and are followed by a short discussion. 

March 1 Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed 

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005), American educator, author and politician, was the first African American woman elected to Congress and the first major-party black candidate for President. 

March 5 Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues 

March 8 Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.  

American actor and singer, Dandridge (1865-1922) is best known for her Academy Award-nominated role in Carmen Jones. 

March 12 Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice 

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) , journalist, newspaper editor and suffragist. She led the fight to criminalize lynching, helped form the NAACP, and aided many black people who migrated from the South to Chicago.  

March 15 Daughters of the Dust –  

Story of a large African-American family as they prepare to move North from the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia at the dawn of the 20th century 

March 19 “I Will:” A Tribute to Black Women 

March 26 Antonia Pantoja 

Dr. Antonia Pantoja (1922- 2002), educator, social worker, feminist and civil rights leader, founded ASPIRA, the Puerto Rican Forum, Boricua College and Producir

March 29 Zora Neal Hurston - Jump at the Sun  

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was an American folklorist, author and anthropologist during the Harlem Renaissance. Probably her most famous literary work is Their Eyes Were Watching God, although all of her novels, stories and essays are important. She made her way from the Deep South to Barnard College and study in anthropology with Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead. Harlem Renaissance writers were critical of her work and even rejected some of it. 

The South Berkeley Senior Center is at 2939 Ellis Street at Ashby Avenue. 510-981-5170. 

AROUND AND ABOUT POETRY: Memorial Reading for Jack Gilbert Sunday Afternoon at the Hillside Club

By Ken Bullock
Friday March 08, 2013 - 05:15:00 PM

When the King of Siam disliked a courtier,/he gave him a beautiful white elephant./The miracle beast deserved such ritual/that to care for him properly meant ruin./Yet to care for him improperly was worse./It appears the gift could not be refused. ("In Dispraise of Poetry," opening poem, 'Views of Jeopardy') 

At a celebration last May 12 at Pegasus Books, poet Jack Gilbert, 87, looked on while his poet friends--including Linda Gregg, Larry Felson and Bill Mayer--read from his new 'Collected Poems' (Knopf). 

Six months later, on November 13, Gilbert, who had been suffering from Alzheimer's for years, died at a Berkeley care facility. 

This Sunday afternoon from 2-5, some of the same friends of the poet from the Pegasus reading will host a free memorial reading for Gilbert at the Hillside Club. 

From Pittsburgh, Gilbert lived in San Francisco on and off from the 1950s through the 80s, spending much time in Europe and later in Japan, then teaching in the Northeast. Associated with poets from the Berkeley and San Francisco Renaissance scenes of the late 40s through 50s, like Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, and friendly with others who had arrived here such as Allen Ginsberg, Gilbert forged his own distinctive identity with his first book, 'Views of Jeopardy,' published in 1962 as the winner of the Yale Younger Poets award. 

Praised by older poets ranging from Rexroth to Auden, Roethke to Rukeyser, championed by editors Dudley Fitts and Gordon Lish, Gilbert became something of a sensation on the national reading circuit when poetry mattered at universities--he later recalled one college marquee in the Midwest displaying his name as "The Hottest Poet in America." But he characteristically slipped away from honors and publicity to live quietly in the Aegean, returning to The States to teach and exist in near-poverty, not publishing another book--'Monolithos'--for 20 years. Several further volumes as well as featured selections in Esquire magazine followed, until last year's 'Collected Books.' 

Our slow crop is used up within an hour. So I live/effortlessly by the ocean, where the sun bestows /and bestows and I return nothing./Go cross-grain through /the fire and call my style lust. But the night forces me./I get so quiet lying under the stars I can't regulate the sound of owls altering me. In that dark in front/of the house, I often think of an old man at Sadler's Wells./The only one left who had seen the famous dances./When they did them again, despite the bad notation,/he would watch patiently, saying, No, no, that's not the way/it was somehow. Until they got it right. But he died. ("Template," 'Monolithos') 

Hillside Club, 2287 Cedar (east of Shattuck between Spruce & Arch), 2-5 p. m. Sunday--free. To speak about Gilbert or read a poem of his at the memorial, contact Bill Mayer: 549-2444, ageofriesling@comcast.net --or Larry Felson: 684-8270, larryfelson325@gmail.com