Friday 20 April 2012


The people sitting here in the title picture are some valiant warriors for and guardians of a city worth living in: the LeConte Neighborhood Association, embracing most of the residences in South Berkeley. The man on top of the "pyramid" in the picture is Karl Reeh, the Association's co-ordinator, well known by now as a valid source of information about all things Berkeley-ish.

I am standing in the large cafeteria of LeConte Elementary School on Russell Street in South Berkeley. For being such an important institute of learning, much embraced by the generations of residents having started their education here, the room is looking – let's admit it – rather worn down and shabby, with a refrigerator from the 'fifties (I presume) laboring with impressive noise in the background, with drapes askew and generally with a forlorn look about it. I wouldn't care to mention this, were it not of importance for what will be discussed later on in this post.

Last evening the Association held a meeting there and I was eager to attend it, as soon as I heard about it. You may have guessed from my earlier blog posts this year that I have kind of fallen in love with the South Berkeley neighborhood and any activities aiming at preserving it receive my keen attention nowadays. The Association, emerging from the neighborhood initiative SNAP, is officially recognized by the City Council and is manning the planning City's Planning Commissions, as already explained in an earlier blog. Its Commission representatives, and anyone else having a planning problem to bring forward, are presenting their case at regular meetings of the Association, to gain support for their initiatives in the typical American way of signing lists and writing letters to their City Councillor.

Listening to the problems put on the table by a number of engaged speakers opened my eyes to the planning problems encountered in this wonderful city, albeit maybe a bit atypical for the average American town. Previously I had the impression that the city zoning delineations are set in stone, only to be changed at long term reviews with ample opportunities for concerned citizens to express their concerns and affect the outcome for the general good. The meeting made me understand that the issue is far from as clear-cut. Even if zoning delineations and rules applying for each zone are being decided for long periods ahead, they are not set in stone. There is a constant process of finagling and manipulating going on, with the persistent danger that well-financed developers, in cahoots with easily persuaded City Councillors could, by bending the rules, get new building initiatives voted through that deviated considerably from the agreed upon long-term development plans.

Even in zones reserved for calm residences, lax supervision by the city often is permitting owners of large such a residence to convert it into rented apartments. Some of these buildings soon degenerate, due to landlord's neglect and without city supervision, into worn-down and destitute remains of their former glory.

To this has to be added that Berkeley is a poor city, with a serious budget problem and much in debt. Even if there were an ambition to govern city development for the general good, a constant lack of financing would prevent the city of carrying out such projects on its own. Any redevelopment of worn-down city areas, such as the Downtown and some industrial areas in West Berkeley, has to depend on financing by private developers, holding the city hostage with plans that, on the one hand, provide a host of needed new real estate but, on the other hand, lead to a city landscape seriously lacking in aesthetic values, counter to the demands for a human scale and often directly offending to the eyes of the beholder.

Once you have understood the real world of town planning in this city, you also start seeing its effects. Public institutions owned by the city are badly maintained, due to lack of funds. Furthermore, open public spaces, such as parks and some sports fields, are ever being threatened to be taken over by developers for building purposes. There is an on-going process of University institutions and housing encroaching upon the small residence areas to its North and South. And new development actions, in Downtown as well as in West Berkeley, threaten to permanently change the character of the city, by introducing walls of high-risers in a city known for its buildings with a human perspective. But why spend a lot of words on this? Seeing is believing! Take a look at the latest grand scheme, as it looks seen from one of Berkeley's foremost public attractions, the Aquatic Park on the waterfront:

How effective is a grass roots organization as the LeConte Association in countering all these threats to a humane and delightful Berkeley? It is difficult for me to judge. What I was seeing here in LeConte Elementary was a group of friendly neighbors, getting increasingly upset and angry at the various new schemes being envisaged and even put in action by a forward City Council. What I cannot judge is, how the various action lists being signed at the meeting and all the subsequent contacts with Councillors will affect the final outcome of those plans. I am recalling my long-time friend and Stockholm City activist Richard Murray, who in Stockholm was forced to form a local political party when he wanted to get his views observed and implemented. This party, the Stockholm Party, was for a long time instrumental in achieving a more humane Stockholm. But here in the US the local politic system seems to work differently and it may well be, that its more individualistic approach, which I find quite engaging, works here as well as our more institutional approach did in Stockholm.


Hans Christian Cars said...

Dear Emil,
Egoistically, I can only hope that you won't like it so much over there that you decide to stay for good
Please remember, a cool, clear and quiet Swedish summer day is unbeatable.

Eva said...

Dear Emil,
I would like to congratulate the citizens of Berkley to their devoted engagement in their living area!
Best wishes

silkworm said...

You've come a long way from photographing beautiful flowers and healthy, smiling youth to joining a neighborhood group in the fight against random, unconscious urban planning. (Developers'll never see/love our homes like we do.)
Now you're a bona fide Berkeley citizen!