Rich Throw Open Their Doors

by Steed Dropout
May 22, 2013

South Side Berkeley, Ca


Eat the rich is heard every once in awhile on the South side, but usually in jest. Those with iconic images of a Berkeley of rag-tag radicals would be surprised by the affluence of Berkeley’s hills dwellers.

To call these people rich is perhaps stretching it in an age of sheiks and software developers. But here on the south side, if you “got three hots and cot” even if it’s county jail, “it’s all good, brother.”

On the South side we live among elite scavengers, drunks, addicts, and Asian students. I live in an Asian student building near hard-luck People’s Park — about a mile away from the rich. But going that mile takes you into a world of wealth.

Killer Eucalyptus grove dangerously near house at 50 Alvarado which survived '91 East Bay Hills Fire. Photo by Ted Friedman.


The elite tourist event, Sunday, was the thirty-eighth for Berkeley’s architectural protectionists. As many as fifteen hundred paid $60 for a tour of ten lower Berkeley hills mansions. I talked myself in, was issued a press badge and commenced to shoot.

Docents answered questions about architectural modifications. Everyone wondered what these high achievers did for a living. Most of the house-dwellers turned over their places for the day, but one who didn’t said she was an attorney, who worked at home.

A man in his nineties, who lived in the neighborhood in the 1920s, held forth at an event garden party.

Crowds of up 1,500 showed up for 38th historic homes tour to see how the other half lives. Photo by Ted Friedman.

All the tourists were old. The lame jammed the narrow road with autos and a neighbor complained that fire engines couldn’t get through.

The fire engine angle was hot, since this year’s tour focussed on the survivors of the ’91 East Bay Hills Fire, which destroyed every house , but these, in Wildcat Canyon. The fire was stopped where I stood — before it could roar to the Marina.

The fire killed 25 people and injured 150 others. The 1,520 acres destroyed included 3,354 single-family dwellings and 437 apartment and condominium units. The economic loss has been estimated at $1.5 billion.

My first shots captured a turn-of-20th-century house, nestled in a eucalyptus grove. That’s the killer-fire tree which is invariably targeted for destruction after taking the blame for the latest natural disaster.

Unfortunately, I was not allowed to shoot interiors. I was forced to ignore many great shots of designer-furnishings and arts objects and paintings…and of course kitchens.

After the event I went to the events booth to learn the box office receipts. The two events people asked me my impressions of the event. I hadn’t yet formed mine, so I asked them their impressions and they said they were interested in the architecture.

BUT OF COURSE, they’re architectural preservationists. I paid little attention to the architecture and wanted to avoid real estate shots.

Having covered this much, I began browsing these homes for bric-a-brac, furniture, art works, stereos, big screen TVs — like a burglar casing the joint.

No interior shots…but someone left the pantry door open. Photo by Ted Friedman.

I wasn’t the only one. I overheard tourists saying they could put a table like that in their house. At $60 a ticket, these people have be well-off themselves. Some of them lived in the neighborhood.


Not one of these “historical treasures” is distinguished architecturally. These are mostly once-modest upper-class homes; this was just the way people of some means (doctors, lawyers, successful businessmen) lived.

James A. Thomas House, 1940-41. No interior photography allowed. Photo by Ted Friedman.

The homes were presented at their pristine best, but hints of life peeked through. Some of the bric-a-brac was appealing but it obviously came from high-end antiques stores.

Surprisingly no one had expensive home theaters, although there was some mid-level stereo gear. The bay views were not the best. Vast verandas might host big parties or touch-tag.

One tourist, basking in a bay-view from a couch, mused “it’s a storybook house.”

Designer kitchens were state-of-the-art.

Not the best view. From 50 Alvarado Rd. Photo by Ted Friedman.

Biggest design bungle: a house would have three living rooms, each offering the same thing. As if these hills-dwellers were compelled to load up on enormous cushioned couches and easy chairs, or kept trying to “tie the room together.”

I prefer my found-objects bric-a-brac and my view and an apartment the size of their kitchens and my student neighbors and my role as a beleaguered South sider.

Eat the rich.

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