Public Comment

Squeaky Wheel: Lament of the Moderate

Toni Mester
Friday March 17, 2017 - 04:09:00 PM

It’s hard being a moderate in Berkeley, because people here think in extremes and like to label people accordingly.

When was the last time that a Berkeley activist was called a moderate, either as an insult or a compliment? I should know because that’s what I’m supposed to be according to a complicated test of political attitudes that I recently took on-line. The questions mostly concerned the role of government, which is the usual determinant of political categories. Conservatives want to limit the reach of government into the lives of the people and stress individual rights and responsibilities. Liberals think that government has a greater role in leveling the playing field, and progressives feel that the government should step in and ensure justice for all. In the test, put together by a professor of political science, I landed squarely in the middle. 

Moderates are adaptive pragmatists, not chameleons entirely, but we choose our fights with caution and a healthy regard for survival. I grew up in Port Jervis, N.Y. a small Republican town during the McCarthy era, and my liberal Democratic parents showed us how to get along in that conservative community. We ran a construction oriented family business, Tri-State Electric Company, and knew just about everybody around town through the business and social activities of my parents including the Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis, and the Boy Scouts. Every year my father took dozens of boys to Ten Mile River camp for a couple of weeks and called it a vacation. Crime was almost non-existent. I can only remember one homicide in the years I was growing up, and that was in Goshen, the county seat. We only locked our doors when we went away for more than a day. 

Berkeley is almost the polar opposite in politics. Although ten times the size of my hometown and tinged with big city crime, it has the same small town flavor and beautiful natural surroundings. People know each other and contribute to the life of the community. Dozens of people volunteer in commissions, the arts, religion, and all kinds of civic engagement. Most people are just trying to get along.  

My Berkeley years were mostly dedicated to pursuing a career in education. I’m finishing up life on the course that I set for myself in high school, as an independent woman. 

Feminists are akin to flaming radicals in the minds of most conservatives because they think the government shouldn’t interfere in the lives of men, especially rich white men, but should control the lives of women, right down to what we should do with our reproductive organs. If you don’t have control over your own body, whether you’re labeled a conservative, moderate, liberal or progressive takes on a secondary meaning. Conservative women, an important constituent group that supported Trump, think that the government should enforce their personal choice and prevent other women from exercising ours. So much for the freedom caucus! 

Berkeley Rep is now showing a gripping drama “Roe” about abortion rights and the personalities involved in the Supreme Court case “Roe v. Wade” and its aftermath. Not didactic and highly entertaining, “Roe” reminds us about the world outside the Bay Area, both politics and culture.  

But I digress. The point is that political categories tend to fall apart under the scrutiny of a single issue. According to Frances Dinkelspiel of Berkeleyside, I am a member of Berkeley’s “progressive wing” because I wrote a couple of checks to Kate Harrison along with six other people she names, including two I’ve never met, out of the hundreds that donated to her campaign. 

I don’t mind if Dinkelspiel labels me a progressive, even though the term used to serve as a euphemism for communist or somebody who voted for Henry Wallace in 1948. I belong to the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club, which is definitely to the left. We are a lively and sociable group who hold potlucks, picnics, discussions, and actions, some of which I favor more than others. Democrats gain power through an endorsing club, and I could never belong to the “moderate” Berkeley Democratic Club, who supported district elections, the bane of the flatlands. 

In the comments on that article, an anonymous writer said that progressives are anti-development and claimed that he knew me in my 20’s when I was anti-development and that my ideas haven’t changed. 

Just to set the record straight, I moved to Berkeley when I was 30 years old, and for the first six years was involved in publishing and writing for Plexus, a women’s monthly. The first time that I gave any thought to housing issues was in 1978 after I got evicted from an apartment on Roosevelt Street and bought an affordable fixer-upper in West Berkeley. I was far more interested in running rivers and sailing than politics. We only get one youth, and after enduring five years of university study, I was intent on spending time outdoors. 

A couple of years later I got involved in fighting the Santa Fe plan for the waterfront on behalf of the Sierra Club, which wanted the meadow, the brickyard, and the north basin strip as a keystone for the Eastshore Park. The Santa Fe development included 1,500 hotel rooms and 3 million square feet of office, R&D, light industry, and small retail. It wasn’t the development that the Sierra Club hated, but the fact that it stood in the way of the park. Only now, in the era of climate change and Bay rise, is the best argument against that development painfully apparent: much of the area, especially the low-lying meadow, is soon going to be under water. 

Recently, I attended a joint subcommittee meeting of the parks and public works commissions and heard a description of how the king tides are already submerging part of the meadow and lower University Avenue. 

For a couple of years, the waterfront planning process was a breeze, with Marge Macris and Clem Shute at the helm, but when it came time for the adoption of the specific plan, one faction thought we could just take the land by initiative without risking a loss in federal court. Some of my former comrades hissed me when I asked the City Council to sponsor an alternative with a mechanism that ensured a fair return-on-investment. That was the Measures P and Q battle, for those who weren’t here in 1986, and the Sierra Club’s Measure Q not only held up in court but also helped to get Loni Hancock elected Mayor. The history of that and related battles are told by Sierra Club activist Norman LaForce in his book Creating the Eastshore State Park

Even though we won, the P and Q fight left a bitter taste. I went back to minding my own business, but one day I got a notice in the mail about a development called Parker Plaza that included a café, something our neighborhood needed. So I went to the Zoning Adjustments Board meeting, supported the project, and made a friend in one of the developers. A couple of years later, he convinced me to join him on the Bayer Development Agreement advisory committee, where I advocated for the education program as a community benefit. Again, I found myself under attack by extremists who seemed not to care if Berkeley’s largest private employer – a union shop- left town. 

The pressures of work forced me to drop out of the West Berkeley Plan, and I didn’t get involved in local politics again for over fifteen years, primarily as a parks advocate. Parks are my heritage, having grown up just a few miles from the Appalachian Trail, the Pinchot estate, Childs Park, the Delaware River Gap, and all the mysterious and eternal forests of the Catskills. 

Before I depart, I would like to see West Berkeley zoning reformed, specifically those zones (C-W and R-1A) that were mostly overlooked by the West Berkeley Plan. I have appealed projects in these two zones to raise awareness of bad design and related inadequacies in the codes. My core beliefs about development and building design are based on ideas that I gleaned in my youth from reading Architectural Forum, a magazine managed and later published by my uncle Larry. The editor Peter Blake and columnist Jane Jacobs were two of the writers who influenced my thinking. 

What is now called “Smart Growth” is nothing new. Blake hated single use urban zoning and the sprawling suburbs, and Uncle Larry shared these views, although he lived in Long Beach and took the Long Island Railroad to work at Time and Life in Manhattan. The same kind of contradiction happens today when people advocate for the use of transit at meetings and then drive off in their cars. 

My cousin is a retired developer. The last time I visited him in Philadelphia, he regaled me with a story of how his company proposed a medium density subdivision to a suburban city in Pennsylvania. Their project was mostly two and three story townhouses in a park-like setting with trails, a stream, a pond, and gardens. But the city turned them down because the residents and the Council wanted the suburban standard: detached, single-family homes, white picket fences and two-car garages. And despite the attempts of Plan Bay Area to fight sprawl, many of the new outlying developments hold to that old formula, by the looks of the offerings in the real estate section on the Sunday Chronicle. 

Although many Berkeleyans champion smart growth, a majority of residential parcels remain zoned R-1, and new projects in the hills are appealed as often as the flats. Some critics claim that the new Council is anti-development, overlooking their recent denial of three appeals, two in the hills (2702-2706 Shasta Road; 1441 Grizzly Peak) and one in West Berkeley (1737 Tenth Street). 

The slow-growth advocates don’t offer much of an alternative for creating new housing to meet the great demand, especially affordable housing. Transit oriented development has proved to be no panacea in preventing congestion and pollution. Robbed of its green veneer, TOD is just another option. The most environmentally sound alternative is not building anything at all, but that is not realistic or morally acceptable. People need places to live. 

It’s only because politicians, activists and our local population in general are moving to the middle are we seeing some real change, in the overwhelming approval of the Alameda County housing bond in Berkeley (87%), the attempts to house the homeless, and to increase density in the R-1 by allowing ADUs. 

Moderation brings so many benefits that Aristotle wrote an entire book on the subject, The Ethics, that shows us how to live by “the golden mean.” It’s sitting on a shelf around here. Maybe it’s time to see if the old guy has some useful advice for this feminist and the rest of us progressives. 

Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley.