Sunday 27 June 2010


Where could you find such a calm park lane, surveyed by a police officer relaxing on his Harley Davidson cruiser? Would you believe me if I told you that we are in Oakland, the town known for its high crime rate, racial tensions and dismal city planning? Well, we are not actually in Oakland, but in a small enclave to this unfortunate city, located in the hills and completely surrounded by the Oak City.
Piedmont, as is its name, was, in the Roaring Twenties, known as the City of the Millionaires, since it held the largest fraction of millionaires among the US towns. It is still a miracle of wealth and income, with median income per family at USD 150 000 USD (compared to 110 000 in Beverly Hills) and a per capita income of 80 000 (about at par with Beverly Hills, but three times that of Oakland)

The day after my visit to Haas Business School, to meet my old professor (“Fiat Lux?”), I was invited by two new-won friends, Akiko and Edward, to visit their home in Piedmont. I gladly accepted the invitation; the Oakland Hills and Piedmont have already been discussed in comments to one of the earlier blog postings (“Earth Day à la Berkeley”); the visit would provide me with an opportunity to put additional flesh on my arguments put down there.

My hosts, wishing me to experience the best that Oakland and Piedmont had to show for themselves, started the tour with a visit to JACK LONDON SQUARE, a nice tourist area located around the original Oakland harbour. The ferry terminals, one of them still being operated for traffic to San Francisco (“Of Cables and Ferries”), are located there. This is also the site of the Transcontinental Railroad Terminal. In olden times, railroad passengers coming from the East had to complete their journey to San Francisco by ferry boat.

The whole area has recently, that is, under mayor Brown’s augur, been refurbished as an, albeit modest, counterpart to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Everything looks spit clean and new and the whole area is a pleasure to amble through. However, I could not but notice that the many shops and restaurants were essentially empty, with few people around. Quite a striking contrast to SF’s Fisherman’s Wharf, I would say! I keep my fingers crossed for the success of this touristic venture, it would be a pity to see it going into slow decay due to limited interest from the town people and the tourists.

For an intrigued foreigner, there are several attractions on the square. The first, a rather funky statue of an Indian wind spirit, points seaward as if indicating that Oakland’s fate and fortune are to be gained at sea. The second feature is more down to earth. It consists of the cabin, transported to Oakland log by log and rebuilt here, that Jack London inhabited whilst digging for gold in Klondike, more than hundred years ago. In front of this edifice a wily wolf is greeting the admiring visitors, reminding us of Jack’s most popular book, “The Call of the Wild”. Notably, when writing his books, Jack preferred a more comfortable environment, sitting in a house in – who could have guessed – Piedmont of all places!

The final attraction of interest is, of course, the yacht of former President Roosevelt, the USS Potomac. When inspecting this beauty of a boat, I could not help myself appreciating this formidable president who, whilst holding the world’s future in his hands, could still be quite content with using such a small and cosy vessel to cruise the seas with. At present, the boat is used for pleasure cruises along Oakland’s harbour.

After a refreshing lunch at Oakland’s most exclusive food retail store, located just at the fringe of Piedmont to cater to its distinguished population, it was time to mount the hills (by car, of course) and have a look around in the sophisticated interior of this exalted township. First stop was at Piedmont Park, a jewel of greenery in the midst of town. In addition to encompassing wide greens, surrounded by exotic trees, it also harbours a rather wild ravine, along which we descended, amidst ancient redwoods, oaks and sycamores, to finally arrive at one of Piedmont’s hallmarks, its olden mineral springs.

At the springs, nothing much can be discerned of its ancient splendour. The well itself has been plugged and the place looks like just any odd bend in a path alongside a brook in the Bay. But, hundred years, or so, ago, here was a delightful pavilion residing way down in the cleft, awaiting visitors from all over the Bay, not to speak of the Piedmont population itself. Jack London was surely there, improving his ailing health with life-promoting drinks from the well; and so was, frequently, Mark Twain, as told by a sign just opposite the original site of the pavilion.

Appreciating the cool shades of the canyon, we remounted along the winding path, soon arriving at a lonely Eucalyptus giant that must have been planted at the time the pavilion was built. But eventually we were back at the upper greens of Piedmont Park and could continue our journey towards Akiko and Edward’s residence on Richardson Avenue.

Well there, I had the pleasure of admiring the impressive exhibits of Edward’s main hobby. It appears that he is an aficionado of collecting rocks. When we think of rock collecting back home, on the old continent, we usually imagine small marbles, collected on the beach, or sophisticated minerals, preferably crystallised, such as, mountain crystals found in Alpine caves. But this is not the American way! True to America’s love affair with all things large, stone collecting amounts to picking huge boulders from creeks that have conveniently dried out in summertime, and polishing them lovingly with soft cloth to bring out their true structure. Edward is one of the leading figures in the Association of stone collectors and has won several prices in national, as well as international, exhibitions arranged by the Association. Apparently, this type of collecting is very popular in California, as well as, to my surprise, in Japan.

Having glanced admiringly, for some time, at these giants among collected stones, we found it convenient to continue our admiration of grandeur on a larger scale, embarking on a sightseeing tour along the streets of upper Piedmont, to admire the residences of the more affluent part of its inhabitants. There is no dearth of views in those upper reaches. From you house’s veranda, you have a clear view of Lake Merritt, Downtown Oakland and the Bay, with the island of Alameda (an old navy base) clearly discernible just beyond Lake Merritt to the left. West Oakland, the destitute area of the poor, inclining downward towards the Bay to the right, is conveniently hidden from view by the skyscrapers of Downtown.

Whilst ambling among the fashionable houses on the hills, it occurred to me that even the smallest of them would have to be called “mansions”, with their generous lay-out and lovingly maintained surroundings. But this was not all; the higher up the hills you came, the larger and more self-sustained the residences; we were not seeing mansions anymore, but increasingly huge expansive estates meriting naught else but the notation “manor”. But there is only that much pleasure to be gained by gaping at expansive residences! Whilst you are admiring glimpses of this residential splendour, my hosts and myself found it more convenient to reassemble at their home for a well deserved after dinner coffee!


kari_lantto said...

So how many bridges did you see at the maximum?

kari_lantto said...

I do remember Jack London! He was one of my favorites as a teenager. While no indian spirit, there were quite a few stores downthere already 2001, when I bought a hat for our ride around southern california in an open red Mustang (a boy's dream, wouldn't you say).

Emil Ems said...

Dear Kari,
I am extremely pleased that you refreshed the question of the bridges, not to speak about your intriguing quest in a red Mustang. This gives me the occasion of completing the story of Bent's residence. You may recall that you advised me to consult the telephone catalogue. Well, to no avail! After ponde-ring the issue some more, it occured to me that lookin for the obituary might prove more successful. Said and done! It was beautifully written by no other than the venerable professor Åkerlöf! So I took the liberty of addressing him concerning the issue. For your benefit, as well as for the rest of us that keep Bent in fond remembrance, I include my correspondence with George in the comment that follows.

No, I would exptect you to query immediately, after having read this correspondence, how many bridges actually could be seen from Bent's residence. To my eternal shame I have to confess that I never made it up to his chalet. Terrace Drive lies up in the Berkeley Hills well up in the North of Campus and it would have taken me about 4 hours hike to reach this far from my residence at Stuart. I had the full intention of visiting the place but, one way or another, things always came between. So I have to leave the task of looking up Bent's residence to other, more agile travellers. How about it, Eva, would you have an interest in going there?

Even without having visited this lofty place, I can already now tell you, to judge from the map and in my numble opinion, that Bent could have seen only at most 4 bridges, by counting the Bay Bridge twice, adding to it the Golden Gate Bridge and, additionally, the Richmond Bridge. But I wouldn't mind standing corrected by a visitor to Bent's "eagle view".

Emil Ems said...

Here it comes now, my correspondence with George about Bent's residence:

"Dear Professor Åkerlöf,
I was an economics student at Berkeley back in the 'seventies, as a graduate student visiting from the university of Stockholm. I had the privilege of meeting you in your capacity of graduate student adviser, but you will of course not remember me.

I am retired now from the EU Commission and am in the process of revisiting places having been of special interest for me as a youngster. At the moment, I am renting an apartment here in Berkeley for two months and writing a blog about the Bay Area. This blog is interactive, with many friends commenting and asking me to look up places and events on their behalf and to document them with pictures and tales.

In that context, several people enquired about Bent Hansen. You may recall that Bent is well known among us who studied economics in Stockholm in the 'sixties, having been enlightened by his book on economic policy and his lecture notes on general equilibrium theory. One specific question related to Bent's residence when he lived in the Bay area. A friend of mine recalled the tale that Bent had a marvelous apartment, permitting him a view of ALL THE FIVE BAY BRIDGES and asked me to find out, whether this was possible and, if so, where this intriguing residence may be located.

I noticed, when googling for Bent, that you had written a very nice obituary in his honor. From this I gather that you must have known him well and possibly also visited him at his premises. Would it be possible for you to tell me his former address? I would understand if you could not recall the exact details, but the name of the street and community, as well as the approximate location of his residence there would be highly appreciated by me, as well as by the active readers and commentators of the blog.

Below I take the liberty of indicating the web address for one of my recent blog postings, dealing with UCB and including comments where details about Bent's whereabouts are being discussed.

Thanking you in advance for your kind consideration of my question I remain,

Yours sincerely

Dear Emil,

It is on Terrace Drive. Take Arlington Blvd. to Moser Lane. Turn down Moser lane, which is very steep. Take the first left, which will be Terrace (Terrace actually intersect Moser twice. There is also a jug
handle, and this is the second intersection, the other one only being to the right.) It should be about something like the third or fourth house on the left as you go down. I do not have the address. There is a
garage, which rather dominates the entrance, and is right on the street, and then there are stairs which wind their way up to the entrance, which is perhaps obscured by the garage, and which might not even be quite visible from the street. It is possible that the entrance is aligned withTerrace rather than perpendicular to it, which is unusual and would
identify it.

Good luck in your search. I am very happy that there are others who greatly admire Bent.

kari_lantto said...

Gee, well done!

Lars Werin said...

Dear Emil,
I haven’t made any comment on your blog for a while, which is because — believe me or not — I and my wife have been walking in South England, although not in your grand style, of course. So I have been out of cyberspace — I am not as technically advanced as you are. I understand you are now getting towards the end of your blog, so the main thing I want to say is thank you for having let us enjoy what you are writing. Next you have to write your memoirs, covering your childhood in Austria, your studies in Vienna, your move to Sweden, your being a commercial gardener outside Stockholm, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.

Just a little remark on your and Kari’s analysis of Bent Hansen’s bridge views. Funnily, I think I gave the impetus to it by pointing out (a) that Bent, the Danish/Swedish economist we knew from Stockholm, had been an important figure at UCB, and (b) that the novelist David Lodge had stressed the importance of having a view of “both bridges” when at Berkeley. How these two remarks became joined and resulted in a big problem that had to be solved I don’t really understand, but the road to the solution has brought about much fun, and that is the important thing.

You, Kari, George Akerlof, and myself have expressed our admiration for Bent, so allow me to say a few more words about him. Bent was my boss at Konjunkturinstitutet in Stockholm, and a perfect boss because he was inspiring but never interfering. He said a few words, and a horizon opened. He was soft-spoken, perhaps a little bit shy, very kind although sometimes slightly and elegantly sarcastic. He always turned out to have said the right thing. I admired him. Now a funny little story. A famous economist (I don’t remember who) visited the Stockholm School of Economics and gave a lecture. Erik Lundberg, another fine economist who actually was offered a chair at UCB, chaired the affair, and Bent and I were there. Lundberg was brilliant as always, sarcastic, ironic, funny, and his remarks fuelled the discussion. I happened to leave the session together with Bent, and he said to me, I think with a hint of a sigh: Erik Lundberg can talk a lot of nonsense. (He didn’t use the word nonsense, but the Swedish /Danish word skit/skid, but this can’t be translated into “shit” because this would be too sharp.) Now, I understood perfectly well that Bent was only one-third critical of Lundberg, he was two-thirds envious. Bent couldn’t set the tone in the way Lundberg did, he had to rely on his own much softer methods. He was unsure of whether they were good enough. But they were. I am glad I have had a lot to do with both these contrasting first-class economists, and very interesting persons.