Sunday, 8 April 2012

HOW TO CREATE – AND PRESERVE – A NICE NEIGHBORHOOD


















I have to confess that I have special feelings for one little street in the world, or rather, a short stretch of a street, four blocks long. It is located in Northern California and its name is Stuart Street.

I have met this little green enclave for the first time in 1976. We rented an apartment there from Mr. and Mrs. Fujimoto, a nice Japanese family. The first morning after moving in, I ventured out into the street with my trusted Pentax Spotmatic. It was a clear morning, with blue sky and dewy growth and I was immediately enchanted by this green marvel of a street. Slowly promenading upwards, I admired the little gardens adorning the front of each building, as well as the alley of trees providing welcome shade for the walker.

















Suddenly, I stopped, taken aback by the view of a flower I had never seen before. It gleamed red, alighted from a ray of sun having found its way through the leafy greens and looked to me like a glorious dish brush, with red bristles surrounding a golden yellow flower stem. "Click", said the camera (in those days they didn't yet say "Clapunck") and the slide in question is still resting quietly in my cupboard of old slides back home. From time to time I had picture shows from my early trip to Berkeley at the University of Stockholm where I then worked, and that picture always received an astonished "Aah!" from the audience.

I did  not take many pictures of Stuart Street in those days – I think I have only about five in my cupboard at home – but that red flower, aptly named "Bottlebrush", got me hooked on Stuart Street. When I came back to stay there two years ago, I immediately rushed out to take some more pictures and you have already seen the results in earlier chapters of this blog.















The surprising fact about Stuart Street is that it appears to remain in a bubble of contented stability. I cannot see that any of the lovely little houses on these four blocks has been torn down and replaced with more modern, uglier structures. All the buildings remain essentially as they were more than 35 years ago, when I first took the picture of the bottle brush; a time traveler, suddenly transported forward from the 'seventies, would not feel that he had travelled into the future at all!

How can this be? Why haven't at least some houses and properties been remade into ugly modern apartment buildings? As I understand it, we have two explanations for that. Firstly, the city zoning ordinances promote the preservation of the present structures, by drawing a sharp distinction between residential and commercial city areas. As long as an area remains classified as a residential area, it is not easy to convert buildings without consent from the City Council.
















But the second explanation is more important. The residents on Stuart Street, at least those on the first block upward from the apartment I am renting, are famous for having formed, some twenty years back, a close-knitted association (called SNAP, Stuart Street Neighbors Actively Prepared) that works actively for the upkeep of a good neighborhood. One of the pioneers of this association, Mr. Kurt Reeh, who lives on Stuart Street, was so kind as to invite me over for tea and tell me the background story of this venture.

The prime cause for starting this association was a serious earthquake, that shook Berkeley and Oakland in 1989. Within a year, the second block upwards from my apartment began to organize itself in the above mentioned association in order to prepare the residents for the next big quake. Although fear of future quakes has abated since, other natural catastrophes, such as the big Berkeley and Oakland Hills fire storm of 1991 that destroyed more than 3000 residences, kept neighborhood vigilance alive. Subsequently, the neighbor co-operation got more broadened goals and this nucleus of neighbor gatherings also got enlarged into a bigger association, with links to the city government. Nowadays, there is a net of city-sponsored such associations all over Berkeley. Stuart Street forms part of the Le Conte Neighborhood Association, with Karl Reeh as co-ordinator.

With this very active representation of resident interests vis-á-vis the City Council, I am confident that the best part of South Berkeley living, as demonstrated by the manifold of small houses along Stuart Street, each adorned with its individually configured garden (the variation is surprising!) will survive the curse of modernity and be as pleasant to behold to future generations as it was and is to me at my recurring visits.




4 comments:

Eva said...

What lovely neighbourhood association! Tell them to keep up their commendable work!
Kind regards
Eva

practicalmystic said...

I think we live on the same block, and I saw you out front taking pictures the other day. Our 3-story apartment building is almost 100 years old! What previous owners did to redesign the place is a marvel to me. I've never been happier or stayed anywhere longer than on this cozy Stuart Street block, just 2 blocks from the Berkeley Bowl and Telegraph. Rent control too! Now where else are you gonna find all THAT?

Emil Ems said...

Dear Eva,
Thank you for your comment, which I will forward to the neighborhood association as soon as I meet them. I am sure they will be thrilled by having admirers even from so far away as Sweden!

Dear practicalmystic,
I cannot bu agree with your appreciation of this marvelous street. If you would care to send me your street address by e-mail (my address is on every picture on the blog), it would be my pleasure to send you any photo of value that I have taken of your house.

Anja said...

Many thanks , Emil!
What a lovely place to live!
Here in Stockholm we got a lot of snow again last Friday, so enjoy your stay.
Best regards

Anja and Ove (who is vey ill)