December 11, 2011

The Death And Life Of Telegraph Avenue

Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, after the fire

A couple of weeks ago a massive fire gutted the Sequoia apartments building on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley; as of now (a few weeks later), the Sequoia's been demolished, and Cafe Intermezzo, Raleigh’s Bar And Grill and Thai Noodle II are no more — and dozens of students are (or were) homeless. For a lot of people like me, on top of the loss of Cody's, Andronico's, Blake's, Owl Drugs, etc., it feels like the end of something special for Telegraph and the surrounding Southside neighborhood. I'm not so sure — predicting the imminent death of Telegraph Avenue is one of those perennial media hardies 'round here, and it's still there despite it all. But this time it's harder than usual to be optimistic.

Telegraph and Southside have been one of the centers of my life since I moved to this part of the world. When I first wandered up through the UC campus to see what Telegraph was all about, it felt like a smaller and much sunnier version of the Camden Markets of the 1980's — street vendors selling clothes, music, food, jewelry, etc.; cheap cafes, bars, and coffee shops; bookshops and music stores; music venues; shops selling unselfconsciously edgy clothes and fashion — all surrounded by a whole bunch of funky (and worse) apartments and student accommodation. Southside was lorded over by the university, and the people on the street were a mixture of students, aging lefties, academics (I once nearly ran over Robert Reich on my bicycle when he stepped off the curb without looking), hipsters, tourists, travelers, and boring normals like me. Unlike large parts of the rest of California, people actually walked along Telegraph and the surrounding streets (and often got there on foot, too), and it was both destination and thoroughfare.

I drifted into the scene and started selling stuff (T-shirts, photos, jewelry, etc.) on the street as a relief seller or for friends, and got to know a bunch of the regulars on the street and in the stores. I shopped at places like Cody's or Moe's (for books) or Amoeba and Rasputin's (for music), got my breakfast and coffee at the Milano (and played the card shark there at night, too, for a while), ate at Intermezzo, Smart Alec's, or (rarely) Raleighs, got my hair cut at Panache or the tiny place inside the arcade between Channing and Durant, bought groceries at Andronicos (a few blocks further south), watched live music at Blake's (never my fave Berkeley venue, but never mind), bought generic clothes at the Gap (it's a tough job, but someone's got to do it), supplies and medicine at Owl Drugs, classical music at Tower Records' excellent classical music store, shoes at Bill's, etc. Even now, although I actually live in Oakland, it's still my default Saturday morning destination. A fairly congenial place for me, in other words.

But it's always been way too easy to romanticize the place: Telegraph was also Riot Central, especially with the nearby People's Park thing, and has often been plagued by random violence (even in broad daylight — I've been assaulted there at least three times over the years. Not seriously, but it's been enough to make me very wary after dark). The homeless (literally) lying around with their pit bulls outside store entrances edgily harassing passers-by in the worst years didn't exactly help the ambience either. Economic insecurity is the norm for a lot of businesses up there: the reality is that it periodically totters on the brink of becoming either a bombed-out ghost town or a cleaned-up suburban strip mall (most people seem to root for the former, often with way too much enthusiasm).

That list of places I gave earlier feels very nostalgic nowadays. A lot of those places are either boarded up, derelict, burned out, or have been empty for years (Cody's, Blake's, Panache, Andronico's, Intermezzo, Raleighs, etc.), have fled for greener pastures (e.g. the Gap), went out of business years ago (e.g. Tower), or have been shoved aside by generic corporate replacements (e.g. Owl Drugs by Walgreens, trying to be the Duane Reade of Berkeley). The Sequoia building fire just hastened the process: several businesses and a large handsome building containing dozens of (really crappy) apartments burned out, gone.

Some of the destruction was inevitable — who buys CD's any more? (Not me). Or books? (I do, but only until I get an iPad) — and the recession has been a killer. But there's more to it than that: in the City Of (Proud) Stereotypes, the various groups associated with Telegraph often seem to be trying to outdo themselves in living up to the various (warring) stereotypes they identify with. Telegraph itself just becomes so much collateral damage; people just shake their heads and walk on by (to Cal, or to downtown, or back to BART or the bus or theirs cars).

For me, one of the most telling sign of what's wrong — more than the empty stores, the boarded-up shopfronts, or the burned-out buildings — is that the average street seller on Telegraph is now (I'd estimate) well into his or her 60's. There are simply very few young faces either in front of or behind the tables or stalls (it's always a weird feeling when I'm the youngest person around). In fact, the faces I do see there are often the same faces I saw when I first got here (when I helped sell). I was at an art show opening in one of the hipper parts of Oakland the other evening where an artist I know slightly (and who's about half my age) was showing a collection of smaller commercial pieces — the sort of things that would probably sell well to non-hippies on Telegraph. When I asked him whether he'd ever thought of selling on Telegraph he rolled his eyes, smirked, and said "two words: tie-dye hell". He'd rather sell at the various state and county fairs (as would I, come to think of it).

Another telling sign is that while in decades past you'd probably naturally head up to Telegraph (or Sproul plaza nearby) to start or join protests or political action or to witness some sort of mass cultural event, nowadays you'd probably head for somewhere else (downtown Oakland, for example, way down the other end of Telegraph Avenue). Telegraph's not the center of anything much, really. It feels like an outpost — of the university, of the bustling art scene in Oakland, of the resurgent food precincts down around Shattuck or up in the Northside, of the progressive (or otherwise) politics being forged and argued in Oakland. It's still a thoroughfare, but not much of a destination.

Is it going to recover? What would "recover" mean? I don't know. But it's done it before, and the fire(s) might just spur enough of the right kind of redevelopment to avoid the worst that anyone wants for it. Some part of Telegraph seems to want to be like Santa Monica's Third Street — bright, shiny, safe, alive, popular… and absolutely dominated by large corporate outlets (Levi's, Gap, Skechers, etc. — I'm more the Venice type, myself). Another part seems to want something more along the lines of Camden Markets, but that would require a much younger and more arty and outward-looking bunch of sellers on the street. Another vision seems to be of Peoples Park writ large, a sort of scrappy street full of street people left to do their own thing in their own super-democratic "fuck you!" way (or, more cynically, a Boulevard of Broken Dreams).

But every time I get too optimistic, I just have to walk past the vacant fenced-off hole just opposite the missing Sequoia building, a striking monument to Telegraph's (and Berkeley's) inability to get its act together. Within my memory, that site used to be the (derelict) old Berkeley Inn; it's been vacant for twenty years, the victim of all sorts of politics, economic, legal, and cultural battles.

We shall see….

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At 12/14/2011 5:10 pm, Anonymous S. said...

Very good evocative piece Jimmy. Really enjoyed it. I crave a clarification though. Did you play against the card shark at the Milano or did you yourself play the role of card shark there? If the latter then I have a bit of re-thinking to do.

At 12/14/2011 6:31 pm, Blogger Jimmy Little said...

S. — ta. I'd say "both" on the card shark thing but it was a very Berkeley cardsharkishness, involving Bridge and Hearts (both of which I was once quite good at) rather than poker….


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