Archive for November, 2006

Dog-gone

It had been awhile since I was at the very southern Berkeley border on San Pablo, so I was surprised to find that the Twin Castle Express that resides there had closed and was soon to be demolished. Having not eaten a hot dog or any other meat in a number of years, I was not particularly saddened about not being able to order the burgers, fries, soft-serve cones and other items this stand offered, but I did enjoy the (It think) 1950s signage at the restaurant. Where will the signs go, I wonder? I’m not ready to jump the fence and grab these signs for myself (although if it was anthropomorphic carrot instead of a hot dog on the sign pictured below, I might have had to consider it.

Most interesting was the fact that I could find no talk in the local papers and elsewhere online about anyone wanting to save this building. Is there no contingent in Berkeley interested in classic roadside architecture or old-fashioned burger and hot dog stands? Is it the location (San Pablo Avenue, which doesn’t seem to get as much attention as other places in terms of development concerns)? Are there just too many places to get an inexpensive old-fashioned hot dog or hamburger, in Berkeley? There is Top Dog on Durant, Oscar’s on Shattuck, and the Doggie High across from Berkeley High School, Foster’s Freeze further north on San Pablo from where Twin Castle used to be, plus others I probably haven’t noticed yet. Who knows. But one thing I do know for sure — you can’t know everything about the place you live by reading the newspapers. You have to get out there and keep your eyes open for changes.

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Sidewalks

Awhile back, I talked about the interesting things one might see by looking down while walking. Here in Berkeley it has definitely proved to be interesting. I am very intrigued by the all of the old railroad tracks that still exist, particularly in West Berkeley. It has also been fun to see where old sidewalks have been replaced by the slightly spongy material that prevents trees from cracking through. I’ve kept an eye out for interesting engravings in the sidewalks as well. But I still have work to do with learning to pay attention to everything around me. This portion of sidewalk is located in front of a violin shop on University Avenue, a street I walk along often as it is an east-west connector. I am intrigued by the violin shop because there are no storefront windows (it is more like a regular house), and I often watch to see if people are coming in or out with violin in hand. The shop also has a nice violin cut-out in its wood entrance. But because I was always looking up at the store, I never noticed the violin engravings in the sidewalk!

Inevitably on busy streets, cyclists will sometimes ride on the sidewalks. Although I have encountered bicycles on the sidewalks while I am walking they have not caused any problems for me as a walker. Likely this is because I am generally comfortable riding and being around bicycles. I know that sometimes this causes problems, though; even on designated shared bicycle and pedestrian paths I have seen startled walkers when bicycles come by. Once in awhile I am a little bit surprised when someone is riding on the sidewalk when there is a nice wide bicycle lane on the street, but otherwise I haven’t spent too much time being bothered even if a cyclist shouldn’t really be riding there. One thing I have found in general as I have walked more and more is that I am less likely to be upset or angry about any incidents. Cars speeding through intersections as I try to cross used to bother me sometimes, but now I just wait and let them go and move on. But getting back to the bicycles, I was surprised to see some discussions recently about how many more bicycles ride on sidewalks now that many cities have incorporated wheelchair accessibility into the sidewalks in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Berkeley, in fact, was a pioneer for curb cuts, as well as for other rights and services for the disabled.) I had never thought about this before, and I am not sure whether any scientific studies have been done on the topic, but it makes sense that this would be the case. Certainly plenty of cyclists are comfortable riding up and down regular curbs, but it is much easier to do so without effort when there are curb cuts. Until thinking about this possibility, it had never occurred to be that there was anything negative that could be associated with curb cuts other than the usual city government arguments that surround priorities in funds used for public infrastructure. But I should have realized that there is always more than one side to everything. I don’t want to make it a priority to try come up with possible negative aspects of things that I see when I am walking, but this was a small wake-up call that there is much more to think about even when I believe I have come to a conclusion about an idea.

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TV House


Photo by Joe Reifer

I don’t really keep up with shopping trends or media hype surrounding holiday shopping, but while I was doing some unrelated research I found that flat-screen TVs are supposedly one of the “hottest” gift items this holidays season. It made me remember that I had wanted to point out the “TV house” in south Berkeley, which I have passed a couple of times on my walks. I wonder how many knocks on the door the residents of the house have received. Somehow it reminds me of being in a museum looking at modern art; there will be the people who stand quietly and contemplate the piece of art, others who confidently announce what they are certain the piece means to their companions or other museum-goers, and even others who just have to know the answer and will inquire about the piece of art. Strangely, despite my strong feelings about television, consumerism, and waste, I don’t actually need to know what the meaning is behind this display or the intentions of the person who placed the TVs there; I just enjoy running across something interesting and out-of-the-ordinary once in awhile. If the holiday shopping predictions are correct, perhaps there will be many more TVs sitting by the side of the road waiting to be added to this display.

I will be walking but likely not posting over the Thanksgiving weekend, so expect a new post early next week. I will definitely walk in Berkeley, but I may also go for a walk in downtown San Francisco as Joe and I have done in the past on the day after Thanksgiving. It is a great chance to see the interaction between everyone who has come out for the “biggest shopping day” — the shoppers, the fur protesters at the department stores, the Buy Nothing Day groups (which in the past have included people dressing up as sheep and running through the stores and shouting “bahhhhhh nothing”), the Critical Mass cyclists, and whoever else decides to show up that day.

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Other Walkers, Part 4

Despite all of the interesting and fun things going on in Berkeley and the rest of the East Bay, it is sometimes difficult to convince friends and acquaintances in San Francisco to make the trip over here. I can understand — driving over the Bay Bridge at most times is a nightmare, and BART might seem intimidating if you are not used to taking public transportation (though it is an easy and quick trip to and from San Francisco) or if you are uncomfortable with being in an underwater tube. New York City seems to have a reputation for taking the “I never leave the city” sentiment to a whole other level. I have heard plenty of stories of references to anywhere outside of the city as “upstate” or comments about not having any reason to go anywhere else. But even leaving Manhattan for the other boroughs is unheard of for some. Staten Island always seems to get the worst of it. In a New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece from earlier this fall about a guidebook to the borough of Queens, one of the founders of the company says “the one [guidebook] we really will not do is Staten Island. There‚Äôs just nothing there.” Despite the humorous nature of the article, I wished upon reading that statement that I could move to Staten Island for a year and walk all of its streets. Somehow I do not believe there is really nothing there. Luckily, I can stay where I am right now because someone just started walking streets the of Staten Island. Needless to say, I am pretty excited to follow the progress of the walk, and I am particularly interested in hearing more about the abandoned hospitals and other buildings that are supposed to be located there.

Speaking of abandonment, another walker I am now following is Neath, who is based in Montreal. His blog, Walking Turcot Yards, describes his exploration of “a vast incredible ‘abandoned’ space in the south west of Montreal.” Lots of interesting topics are covered on the blog — such as urban exploration, development, and railroad history — and there are many great photos of the area. One interesting thing that I have been finding in my periodic searches for others walkers is people doing walks as art projects or as an academic exploration in fields such as landscape architecture, urban theory, and psychogeography. Stayed tuned for a future post looking at some of these projects and at the different reasons why people are out there walking.

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Front-Yard Gardens Revisited

One of the Walking Berkeley posts that has generated the most interest and e-mail messages was my post awhile ago about Front-Yard and Parking Strip Gardens. I was surprised that so many people were interested in the topic, but even more intrigued to find that I regularly get visitors to my blog from people searching for terms such as “front yard vegetable gardens” and “growing vegetables in the front yard.” In the time since this previous post, I have also spotted more front-yard vegetable gardens in Berkeley. Perhaps more people are interested in converting their lawns to food than I previously thought.

Back when the E. coli spinach outbreak occurred, spinach was still available at the farmer’s markets here. Many of the farmers had posted large signs next to their spinach explaining that their spinach was grown on a small farm completely unconnected and much different than the industrial spinach that was identified with the outbreak. I wondered at the time if some people also made the decision to finally start growing some of their own vegetables. Interestingly, I spotted this front-yard garden not far from the location of the South Berkeley Farmer’s Market. The greens were young enough where I could not tell for sure what they were, but likely either spinach or chard. In the background are the beginnings of either leeks or onions. This garden is different than most I have seen in the front of houses; usually there are raised beds or some sort of container, but in this yard they have used most of the available space for food. The garden is located on a very busy street, but the fence protects it somewhat from trampling or picking.

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Berkeley for Children


Photo by Joe Reifer

On Halloween last week I walked across town to a party during the time when all of the trick-or-treaters were out and about. I know there are lots of children in Berkeley, but I was surprised at the sheer number of children in neighborhoods (such as near the Berkeley campus) where I did not expect that many lived. On many of my walks I have taken note of all sorts of things that children can do here in Berkeley, but I have found this to be an area where it was challenging to stay neutral about the observations. As most people do, I have preconceived ideas (based on my childhood and my opinions as an adult) about what makes somewhere a good place to grow up. I am usually perplexed by and somewhat skeptical about the “best places to raise a family” lists published by various media outlets and polling organizations because they are often so subjective; everyone puts different weights on criteria ranging from quality of schools to crime level, housing affordability, and availability of services and opportunities specific to the needs of their children (such as health care for a particular condition or strong arts and sports programs). I can’t make too many comments about these factors on my walks anyway, but I can report on what I have seen for children around town. There are lots of parks and playgrounds throughout town with typical play equipment and structures. Virginia-McGee Totland has much more than the average in the way of toys and structures, and the Adventure Playground has a unique setup with hammers, lumber, paints, and opportunities for children to build and create. There are public swimming pools, and several parks have basketball and tennis courts, recreation centers, and fields for baseball, softball, and soccer. Tilden Park, in the Berkeley hills, has a merry-go-round, animal farm and nature area, a lake for swimming, a steam train, picnic areas, and hiking trails. Berkeley Iceland offers ice skating and hockey opportunities. In the way of culture and learning, there is a children’s museum, the Hall of Health, the Berkeley Art Museum, and other museums on the Berkeley campus. I am sure there will be even more to see as I continue to walk new streets.

Two Berkeley women maintain a blog called Rookie Moms that has the goal of offering 365 activities for new parents. I have to admit that before I looked through it I wondered if it was just going to be a resource for parents who have lots of money to spend on themselves and their babies, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this wasn’t entirely the case. Their Week in Berkeley section conveniently lists a variety of activities and notes the cost in cases where there is one. If you look at the blog entries tagged free/cheap and Berkeley, you’ll find all sorts of other interesting ideas, including library story times, nice places to walk with a stroller, “tiny tot” swimming lessons, and more. For those with money to spend, there are suggestions for baby- and child-friendly places to eat, classes, and services for parents.

No, I have not forgotten about schools, but I will talk about that in a separate post in the future because there are quite a few points to cover there.

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Learning About Landmarks & Architecture

One general guideline I like to stick to for my walks is avoid learning too much about an area before I walk there, and also to go without any guidebooks or reference books. While out on a walk, I might jot down the address or name of a building that I want to look up later, and I may go back to an area for a second look at a later date. The primary reason for doing this is so that I can keep an open mind about what I see on my walks. If I am focused on one thing, I might miss out on something else. I also want to decide for myself what I think of something I see, not what someone else says about it. Using this method seemed particularly important in Berkeley, where architecture, landmarks, and land use is a contentious topic and the subject of endless debates.

A perfect example came up just as I was pulling together information for this post, in fact. I ran across a page on landmarks preservation opinions, which uses examples of to show what Berkeley should and should not look like from a preservation viewpoint. Now I have seen plenty of examples of what I do not like in terms of building and land use, but the building they picture does not fall into what I would consider to be the worst of the worst. the building pictured on the right is located at University Avenue and Acton Street. Most of the building is housing of some sort, though I am not sure of the cost, floor plans, etc. , and at the bottom is retail space. One of these is the Bread Workshop, a bakery and sandwich shop that is known for its sustainable business practices. Also at this corner and on the surrounding blocks is a supermarket, a popular independent coffee bar, restaurants, a copy shop, and various other small businesses. Bus lines and BART are nearby. From my observations out on walks, it seemed liked this a thriving corner and a great place for people to live and be able to take care of many errands without using a car. Seeing this photo now is okay, because I can think about what I have observed on my own and do more research if necessary. But if I had seen this photo of a “bad” Berkeley before walking by this building, would I felt differently about what I saw? I’m not sure, but I do know that it might have distracted me from walking with an open mind.

But getting back to the guidebooks … I do like to find good references to look up the history and other details of buildings I encounter. Luckily, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association has put out a series of house tour booklets for Berkeley neighborhoods. Additionally, they have published 41 Walking Tours of Berkeley, which a friend gave me recently, and some older booklets that are available at the public library. I have one checked out from the library right now, Discovering West Berkeley: A Self-Guided Tour, which includes the history of many of the industrial buildings and paints a good picture of the types of manufacturing activities that have occurred throughout Berkeley’s history.

Much can be learned about Berkeley’s buildings while out on a walk, thanks to the many historical plaques all over town. The nice thing about Berkeley’s historical plaques compared to many I have seen elsewhere is the amount of detail provided about the history of so many buildings throughout town. Currently there are close to 300 Berkeley landmarks; I am not sure that plaques are up for every single one at this point, but the plaques do seem to be everywhere I turn. The plaque pictured above is for a building that now houses the Strawberry Creek Design Center. Apparently before the design center opened, the building was boarded up and the surrounding area was the site of much drug dealing and other crime. Now there are artist and architecture studios, a cafe, a yoga center, and other professional services and organizations. When I have walked through the complex, people are relaxing on the lawn and under the trees, and there does not (at least during the daytime) seem to be much evidence of criminal activities.

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Walking Isn’t Boring, Part 4: Outside Lies Magic

General note: This series of entries is inspired by the idea that walking in even the most ordinary of places can be interesting.

Sometime before embarking on my Berkeley walk, I read an interesting book called Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. Written by John Stilgoe, a professor of landscape history at Harvard University, the book encourages the reader to get out on foot or on bicycle and explore and observe the world around them, learning to notice the details that are often overlooked when travelling by car or when one is out of the car but in a rush or thinking about other things. Well, even before starting this walk I knew I did not need any encouragement on that front. But then things start to get challenging. Stilgoe thinks that a lot can be discovered in the most ordinary of places, the locations without intriguing architecture, interesting landmarks, beautiful landscapes.

I remember that my first read of the book left me with some doubts about whether the ideas presented in the book were really possible, so I went back recently to re-read the book. What I found was surprising. Over the months that I have been walking and trying to keep an open mind about what I see, I have observed many of the things that Stilgoe mentions in the book. Among other things, he talks about looking at old railroad tracks, sidewalk engravings, plants, lawns, and electrical lines. Then I got the part where he discusses exploring rundown commercial strips, particularly the right-of-ways where all of the trash dumpsters and piles of junk are kept. And then he talks about the frontage roads along highways. Way up on the list of my least favorite things are freeways and shopping centers, especially the endless strip malls filled with chain stores. Luckily, Berkeley has more pleasant and unique streets than most cities, but there are still some areas that I have found challenging to walk. One of them is the frontage road to I-8o. As I have mentioned before, this freeway is consistently ranked at the top of the list of traffic nightmares in the Bay Area. Despite the wall separating the walker from the road, there is the constant noise of the cars, the unpleasant smells, and views of trash and broken glass. The areas surrounding the freeways exits can be similarly unpleasant, particularly the black soot that covers all of the buildings and the slick black oil spots on the roads and sidewalks. But in the process of deciding to look objectively at my surroundings, I have found myself forgetting about the unpleasantness and seeing the details that I might have missed in past when I was just in a rush to get through the area.

After reading this book a second time, I realized that despite Stilgoe’s convincing ideas, I did not fully appreciate the book until I actually got out and did what he said to do. And in fact, the first sentence of the book says it all: “Get out now.”

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