Soul of Berkeley

by Steed Dropout
May 9, 2012


I’ve written numerous Berkeley Daily Planet pieces attempting to characterize ourselves. I’d like to stick with this idea, because I am fascinated by conceptualizing Berkeley.

How would you characterize Berkeley? Berzerkeley, People’s Republic, nut capitol of the state, where an urban legend has it that released mentally-ill patients are dumped here. A town dominated, often bullied by the university. A town of academics, or academic-posers, U.C. employees, students, and police.

Berkeley High town, home to a gourmet ghetto, a dangerous South side, dangerously close to everything the South side is not — the Elmwood. The West side makes danger palpable.

Two-department Cop town, in a high-crime town. Herds of police respond to calls downtown and on the South side. Minimum of two officers per call, says the chief, but we’ve seen gargantuan cop-ops around town.

A common occurrence, as Berkeley Police stand guard to protect privacy of a man being arrested for his own protection. Photo by Ted Friedman.

When a crime-in-progress is reported, cops pile-on. Surely you’ve noticed. BPD has 177 officers, UCPD, 64, who often team-up.

Yet after the recent murder in the hills, some Berkeleyans don’t feel safe.

Here on the South side, we’re unsafe, and we know it. We’ve all devised various self-protection schemes, to re-assure ourselves.

A town where you can’t buy, even rent, what you need — new books, magazines, videos. We not only can’t buy what we want, but can’t even get what the Rolling Stones thinks we need.

The fed-closing, recently, of a major pot club on San Pablo portends a loss of Berkeley’s hold on “pot capitol of the nation,” and is a blow to our economy — as an estimated million and a half in taxes pauses while the club tries to relocate. A Berkeley realtor says that — factoring in the rules governing pot club location — the only location suitable for the club is presently rented.

We are deluged with coffee shops, tattoo parlors, me-too pipe shops, and chain stores, but are we losing our brand, and what is that brand? Is Berkeley’s soul slip-sliding away?

What a town, and I’ve left out Solano, and the Arts District, and our historic neighborhoods.

People's Park mural, by Berkeley artist O'Brien Thiele and lawyer/artist Osha Neumann. Less than half a block from the park and within feet of Berkeley's 'center,' Telegraph and Haste, now a disaster zone after the demolition of an historic apartment house and across the street from a twenty-five year undeveloped empty lot. Photo by Ted Friedman.

Berkeley is an edgy place, almost as edgy as Manhattan, when Manhattan had the edge.


Berkeley’s soul its, spiritual center, where and what is it? Whenever I hear that something is spiritual, I secure my billfold. Still, as sappy as this is, understanding ourselves requires that we examine our souls.

Can you report a soul?

Probably not, but I will try.

Is our soul city hall, or is it Telegraph Avenue. Tilden Park or Annapurna, a Teley head shop from the 60s. All those, and more to be discovered all the time.

Perceptions of Berkeley reside solipsistically in the percepter, don’t they? Or do our ideas of Berkeley come from the Visitor’s Bureau? Does the mayor speak for Berkeley, as major media thinks? The mayor could retire wealthily if he could rent parking space to major media vans, incessantly descending on his residence for interviews.

The mayor, our police chiefs, their rank-and -file, our city-councilmen, our four thousand city commissioners, a student, shop-clerks, host-ambassadors, street tramps, public inebriates, you and me. We all have our takes on Berkeley.

Berkeley is an alarming place. As I step out of my apartment building, one-half block from People’s Park, two blocks from lower Telegraph, I enter a sinister den of drunks, drug users, and nuts. I love it. I’ve thrown in with the nuts, and druggies, perhaps with good reason.

Just the other day, I saw my neighbor, Hate Man, who has his own wiki page, based on world-wide renown, “pushing” someone on my block. One of Hate’s protocols involves pushing shoulders for conflict resolution, cigarettes, and other goods.

Hate and Weight. Berkeley's most famous 'eccentric,' Hate Man,foreground, dancing at recent 43rd People's Park anniversary. In background, jock punches at crowd, but why? Photo by Ted Friedman.

“I hate you,” I said. You have to say that. “You’re leading a world-wide Fuck You Revolution,” I enthused. He hesitated; he’s a former front page New York Times reporter from the 60s, who’s been voluntarily homeless on the South-side for 35 years.

“Fucked Up is gaining on us,” he riposted. Hate Man has a lot to say about the soul of Berkeley.

The soul of Berkeley is how we feel about Berkeley. It’s what makes us tick.

I’m from Springfield, Illinois, where we never doubted our soul. Lincoln’s hometown, state capitol. Arguments were settled by ass-kissing at 5th and Monroe, our center. “If you’re right, I’ll kiss your ass at 5th and Monroe,” we joked.

Fifth and Monroe is now a ghost-town.

Could that happen on lower Teley? Tienda Ho, an imported rag-shop close-by the Med, closed recently, in part because its customers were being groped coming out of the shop.

Not so long ago Springfield was polling on-line, “does Springfield suck?” Last time I checked, suck was winning.

Does berkeley suck? Plenty of Berkeleyans think so. When I first moved here in 1970, friends who had to leave did so with great regret, and those of us left behind pitied them. Now we envy them and pity ourselves.

How Berkeley is this? Last hours of Occupy Berkeley at Civic Center Park. Historic Veteran's Memorial Building in background, left. Photo by Ted Friedman.

But like the legendary new yorker, we resemble, we complain, but wouldn’t move an inch. I was gone for the worst year of my life once, and had to claw my way back. I vowed I’d never leave. And I don’t travel!

If they give credit for continuous time served, I’ve done hard Berkeley time. Forty-two years, with no time off for good behavior. And remember, I don’t travel.

What is Berkeley’s center? We’re still looking, since our last choice, Telegraph and Haste has become a post-war zone — rubble.

You can’t locate a soul without finding its center. It may be that the burned-out hole in Berkeley’s heart at Haste and Telegraph is our wounded soul. Perhaps the center/soul has shifted to more cheerful parts of town.

There are lots of exciting questions out there. Berkeley holds the answers.

You just saved the price of a ticket from Springfield, Illinois to Berkeley.

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