May 20, 2006


I lived in Berkeley for more than a dozen years, and a lot of the people who know me here still think of me as living there (the place always kind of suited me). I still go there several times a week, and I continue to think of Telegraph Avenue and a lot of other bits of Berkeley as part of my extended home, even though I've lived in Oakland now for quite a while.

Berkeley can be a frustrating place, a sort of icon or easy shorthand symbol that everyone in the US seems to know something about, regardless of how untrue that something is (and most of the stories about Berkeley that end up in the national media or get bandied about in conversations are fantasies that say more about the media outlets and their willing audiences than about Berkeley, but never mind). It's definitely a City Of Stereotypes (aging hippies, students, protesters, the homeless, punks, clueless academics, newagers, etc. — the usual menagerie of strident, self-righteous, or flaky stereotypes that congeal in a town dominated by a very well-known university campus). And it does too often seem heroically hell-bent on living up to those stereotypes, no matter how stupid or self-destructive the effort or the results.

But as I've said elsewhere, there's more to it than that. Molly Ivins once wrote an affectionate (and now rather out-of-date) piece about Berkeley (she found it hard to resist "the lunatic comedy of the place") that gives a better flavour of the place than the usual easy-target tabloid sensationalism ("Berkeley Bans US Flag!!!!"). But even she misses a lot of what's actually different about Berkeley — not the steretoypes — not the students, not the pathetic old hippies, not the preening self-absorbed gesture politics — but the fact that normal life goes on surrounded by such stereotypes, and that for all those stereotypes, most Berkeleyites are really fairly normal people living fairly normal lives. Sure, that normality's typically a little skewed compared to (say) Kansas, but part of the attraction of Berkeley is the ability to find this little oasis of culture and urban living in amongst all the other crap.

After all, this is a city that within my memory still had working foundries and other heavy industry, and which for all the "Godless Berkeley" sneers seems to have an awful lot of first-rate seminaries and sprawling churches, and which has about as many used car yards as book shops. Yes, it has an excellent city orchestra headed up by Kent Nagano, and was ground zero for the whole California Cuisine thing, but it also has one of the best business schools in the country, and a huge number of really crappy fast food outlets — students have to eat too, you know…. And despite the growing and very visible fleet of Priuses on the streets, a surprisingly high proportion of Berkeleyites drives Hummers, Escalades, or similarly obnoxious SUVs. And Berkeley's downtown YMCA is one of the most popular places in town. So there's a little more to it than most people realise, I guess.

And it's the only city or town I've lived in with an element named after it. That's got to be worth something…
Die Rättin
Up On Telegraph
Berkeley Typewriters
The Little Things
Berkeley Hardware
The Hygenic Dog Food Factory
Godless Berkeley
Owl Drugs
God Bless!


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