Here’s an idea for how to spend the rest of my life that I hadn’t previously considered. I got this letter in today’s email:
“I am with the North East Texas Economic Development Alliance and will be in your area April 7th - 10th. I would like to speak with you about the opportunity for expansion or relocation of Berkeley Daily Planet to Texas.
“Our region offers an abundance of opportunities for companies, particularly, manufacturing and wholesale/distribution related companies.Well, there are days when it seems alluring. Much of what used to appeal to me about California in general and Berkeley in particular seems to be evaporating. Maybe starting over in Commerce, Texas, is the cure for the Berkeley blues.
“It is well known that Texas offers many advantages to California companies. In fact, according to Chief Executive's eighth annual survey of CEO opinion of Best and Worst States in which to do business, ‘Texas easily clinched the No. 1 rank, whereas, California was ranked dead last’.
“Please reply to this email or contact me at 866-820-9389 to schedule a meeting.
“Brian J. Malone
At this juncture I’m inevitably reminded of Molly Ivin’s story about the small town in Texas that advertised for some gay guys to start chichi antique stores to attract tourists. Perhaps what Commerce, TX, (pop. 9,100 in the 2010 census) wants is a Bit o’ Berkeley to spice up the place.
But last week I heard a lot from people who seemed to think that Berkeley just ain’t what it used to be. I was invited to be part of a a panel discussion sponsored by the Berkeley Historical Society and the League of Women Voters on the topic of how development activities may potentially impact the cultural and physical characteristics of downtown Berkeley.
One of my fellow panelists was an architect who had chaired a city-sponsored committee to develop a plan for “streetscape and open space improvements” in the downtown. He is currently designing a proposed high-rise residential building for Berkeley Way and Shattuck Avenue. (Fortuitously for him, but not surprisingly, he’s also the chair of Berkeley’s Planning Commission, which can’t be bad for business, or at least for his business.) He was very enthusiastic about changes he’d seen since he first arrived in Berkeley, and about what he envisioned for the future.
He noted that when he first saw Shattuck Avenue it was dominated by dull stores like J.C. Penney and Ross, and now it seemed to him to be much improved, with restaurants and theaters replacing previous mundane uses. The building he proposes, for example, will displace the Berkeley Sewing and Vacuum Center, and another nearby will replace University Ace Hardware. We had a letter last week deploring the loss of these practical establishments, but that’s progress, isn’t it?
Or is it? Other panelists (including me) and many of the vocal audience members were not so sure that the contemplated downtown, one dominated by restaurants, entertainment venues and expensive apartment blocks, will be an improvement over one heavy on retail and repair businesses.
Even the entertainment venues are at risk: there’s a proposal in the works, fronted (naturally) by a former manager in the city of Berkeley’s Planning Department, which would replace the Shattuck Theater with yet another massive tower, effectively destroying most of a block which is now a designated city landmark. The old revolving door smacks the citizenry again.
Most of Berkeley doesn’t seem to have any idea of what’s going on. I was discussing the panel topic over dinner at Le Bateau Ivre, a charming old restaurant in a historic building on Telegraph, and the people at the next table, overhearing our conversation, broke in with alarm when they heard of the possible fate of the theater. Yes, they said, they do read the Chronicle, but they hadn’t seen anything about it, and they were upset.
All too often civic discourse is dominated by those who think all change is progress. Citizens learn only after the fact that profit-centered change often works contrary to the public interest. The recent spate of Public Comments in the Planet about the result of “improvements” to the Berkeley Public Libraries illustrates how this happens even in the public sector. Judging from the letters we’ve gotten here recently, library patrons have lost rather than gained from the changes, and they did not come cheap.
Who profited from demolishing two of our four branch libraries and extensively remodeling the others, you might ask? Well, bond-sellers always make money on ventures like this, as do architects, construction companies and the building trades. Technology vendors (yes, I used to be one) profit from schemes that replace humans with gadgets, which seems to be a key part of libraries’ business plans these days. Fewer librarians on the front desk = higher salaries for the top dogs.
In Commerce, TX, they’re looking for new businesses, but I doubt that they’re looking for the trailing edge of an unprofitable newspaper to make the difference. Actually, they seem to be doing pretty well on their own. From Wikipedia:
“Due to being a rural college town with proximity to Dallas, Commerce has an economy that remained steady for years, but recently has seen some increase with a few new businesses opening and others being renovated. The downtown area is approximately one mile from the University and is the hub for town festivities. The downtown area includes three bars, Chinese food restaurant, fashion retailer, office supplies retailer, thrift shop, real estate, law, and tax preparation offices, pet supplies retailer, Chamber of Commerce, and four banks.”Berkeley, ten times the size, doesn’t have a pet store downtown any more, or a fashion retailer, as I remember. Our locally owned office supply stores have folded, though we do have a chain. On the other hand, we have many, many more Chinese restaurants.
Commerce, like Berkeley, is a college town. Texas A&M-Commerce, just a mile from downtown, seems to have more students than Commerce has townies, per the 2010 census.
Density doesn’t seem to be an issue: Texas had plenty of space, plenty of cars and plenty of gasoline last time I was there. As a student of American government, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to learn that someone from the building industry chairs Commerce’s equivalent of the Berkeley Planning Commission, but I haven’t checked.
It might be that, following Molly’s scenario, the folks in the North East Texas Economic Development Alliance (NETEA) are just looking for a little of the Berkeley coolness factor to add some of the Berkeley edge to the town festivities, to make life out there on the prairie more fun. If so, I’m afraid they’d be sadly disappointed in today’s Berkeley, and even more so in the Berkeley of tomorrow as envisioned by the powers-that-build.
Before NETEA offers the Daily Planet alluring incentives to bring Berkeley’s fabled pizzazz to Commerce, TX, they should check out a piece by Lexi Pandell that appeared in The Bold Italic, a lively online San Francisco publication: Why is Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley So Uncool?
Her punchline: “The only thing worse than Telegraph never recovering is it becoming yet another gentrified strip of road.” Sadly, I think that might be exactly what the planners and the builders in unholy alliance have in mind for all of Berkeley, including downtown.
Or maybe it’s already happened. A commenter on a hyper-local Berkeley site recently suggested that North Berkeley could secede and become a tidy residential enclave like Piedmont. I don’t think it was a joke. We could change the name, perhaps, to Piedmont Del Norte. Or, in hommage to our burgeoning downtown forest of towers, we could become West Manhattan--no, West Dallas would be more like it.
Sorry, North East Texas, you might be too late to find any Cool around here.