Archive for October, 2006

Converted Storefronts

In my last post I mentioned storefronts that have been converted to private residences, and subsequent uses of the windows for personal displays. One person commenting on this post has some good thoughts about how these storefronts could be put back into use as small grocery stores or other businesses. I wonder about this possibility myself, although (aside from any zoning issues) I think only certain businesses would be approved by the homeowners in the area. Most people do not want any store that promotes people hanging out on the corner. Some of the corner markets still in existence that do not sell alcohol still sometimes attract hordes of teenagers in the afternoons and early evenings (so much so that some have signs that say “Only 3 students in store at a time.” Any businesses emanating smells (such as hair and nail salons) would be an issue as well. I have seen some professional offices, such as small architecture firms and law offices, on neighborhoods streets. These are generally quiet and only open during the day, of course.

What I have often imagined when walking by these old storefronts is more neighborhood cafes. They provide a place for people to hold meetings, run into neighbors, and catch a bite to eat near their homes. From my observations on walks, there seems to be no shortage of interest in more cafes. The new ones that have opened since I moved here have immediately become popular spots. Caffe Trieste, for example, opened at the corner of San Pablo and Dwight in a small strip that includes a few vintage clothing and antique stores and other small boutiques. Right away it seemed to be packed with people, day and night — eating and drinking, talking, reading, knitting, and working. The coffee was likely an attraction in and of itself (the original Caffe Trieste in San Francisco’s North Beach is known for its authentic espresso), but more importantly a cafe was greatly welcomed in this southwest Berkeley area where there are liquor stores, fast food restaurants, auto repair shops, and not too many gathering spots. While I think more cafes could be opened successfully throughout Berkeley, most of the converted storefronts would probably not work for this use unless the cafes had very limited hours. Most of the storefronts are not on commercial strips like San Pablo, and so the noise would probably not be acceptable to neighbors. In addition to the question of what would work in these storefronts, I have wondered why certain cities (such as New York and San Francisco) can have businesses interspersed with housing in neighborhoods, and yet it doesn’t work in other places. It may have something to do with people’s perception of whether they live in an urban or a suburban area, and so therefore what they expect of the environment in which they live. Whether Berkeley is urban or suburban or both is not a topic I am ready to tackle at this point. I’ll leave that for another day, or perhaps not at all (I wonder it anyone really cares about discussions like this beyond academia).

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Looking Into the Windows


Besides the windows themselves, I find myself looking for what I can see through the windows. No, I am not talking about being a peeping tom and spying on people, though it is interesting to observe how private or public people are with their lives inside their homes. Some people have the front windows covered, while others go about their lives with the curtains wide open. But I have also found many interesting objects placed or displayed in windows throughout Berkeley. Of course there are the political signs and seasonal decorations, but also plants, children’s drawings, toys, bottles, jars of collected items such as shells and rocks, figurines, and more.

In some neighborhoods, buildings that once housed corner markets or other businesses are now private residences. The large front windows and display areas have sometimes been re-purposed to create personal art galleries. I have made a point to go by the window pictured here, which has displays that are occasionally changed or replaced. Most of the displays feature wood, textiles, and vaguely political messages. This one caught my eye because of its mysterious nature. Considering the past political themes, I first thought it was a reference to the President. If I had come to this window for the first time, though, I would think that it was a message to someone in the artist’s personal life. I have never seen anyone at the house, so it will have to remain a mystery for now.

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Windows

Similar to fences and gates, the variations in windows of houses are interesting to observe while walking. Due to the large number of older bungalows in Berkeley, there are many more interesting windows than other areas with newer houses that usually have windows with vinyl or aluminum frames. Despite the drafts and noise they let in, many houses still have the original (usually double-hung) windows with their interesting patterns, colored or stained glass, leaded glass, and other variations. And no wonder — newer replicas of the old windows are expensive and just don’t really look like the originals.

Windows can also be an indicator of level of crime in certain neighborhoods, specifically by the presence of security bars. With neighboring Oakland and Richmond unfortunately always in the news due to the high rate of violent crime in those cities, Berkeley may seem like a relatively safe place to live. And while it is true that bullets are not flying at every street corner, there is still plenty of crime here in Berkeley. Where the houses are more expensive, people tend to spend more money on expensive security systems and gates. In other areas, security grills or bars tend to be more common (and unfortunately pose a safety hazard in case of fire). People like to theorize about the vague idea of a “borderline” or a “transitional” or “up-and-coming” or “soon to be gentrified” neighborhood. Whether a neighborhood changes and how quickly it does so is difficult to determine, but it is possible to observe certain qualities that show where an area has changed at some point. One of the indicators I have seen most often on my walks is the mix in a neighborhood of homes with and without window bars; where some people have decided to take them off and others are still hesitant to remove them permanently.

The Ohlone Greenway cuts through a good part of Berkeley, and so I naturally end up on portions of it during many of my walks. I noticed work being done on the house pictured here, which is located right off the path, and was naturally curious about the end product. The remodel intrigues me because, as you will notice, the only windows are all small and high up on the house. Originally the house had larger windows, which were filled in. The windows themselves are not atypical; interesting salvaged windows are very popular and can be found at places like Ohmega Salvage and Urban Ore. But in most cases, I have seen them used decoratively, with other larger windows being the primary source of light for the house. I wondered if the homeowner actually wanted a darker interior or whether perhaps this was a creative solution to prevent break-ins without window bars.

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Fences & Gates

Amongst the many other things I try to observe in residential neighborhoods is the fences and gates that homeowners choose for the front of their homes. It seems to vary greatly here from no fences or gates at all, to wood, chain link, iron, and other materials. For the most part, I have not seen many homes that are completely fenced or walled off and hidden from view. On major streets, many house understandably have fences or tall shrubs to block the traffic noise.


The dilemma with fences and gates is how to use them in a way that protects the owners’ privacy, prevents plants from getting trampled, keeps pets secured, etc., but also appear inviting. Sometimes this has been accomplished by lower fences, decorative woodwork, designs that don’t completely shut the public out. A few people have chosen to get creative with metalwork, use of recycled items (such as the mattress spring pictured above), or just a touch of humor.

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Political Signs

As I mentioned last week, there have been plenty of Halloween decorations to look at right now while I am out walking. Because we are getting close to the November elections, many front yards also bear signs promoting candidates and ballot measures. It will be interesting to see how close the results of the election are to what I can gather from viewing the lawn signs on my walks. Right now, for instance, I have seen a fairly equal number of signs for the two leading candidates for mayor. Will the race end up being fairly close? I have seen many “Yes” signs for Berkeley’s Measure A, which renews and combines existing taxes (expiring in 2007) that fund the public schools, but so far not a single “No on Measure B” sign. Is this a sign that the measure will pass overwhelmingly, or is just that Berkeley residents against the measure are not putting signs out in their yards (i.e., thinking that regardless of what they argue, a “No” sign would label them as someone who doesn’t care about children)?

If you have been reading Walking Berkeley for awhile, you know that my commentary about Berkeley is based on what I see while I am out on my quest to walk every street in this city. I purposely avoid using this blog as a general place to talk about Berkeley politics, as it is not the focus of my project, and because there are plenty of other places to read about the Berkeley political landscape. The San Francisco Chronicle regularly reports on Berkeley politics and culture, sometimes with a focus on perpetuating the “Berzerkeley” image. The Daily Californian, a U.C. Berkeley student newspaper, writes about the city in addition to campus issues. The Berkeley Daily Planet provides the most newspaper coverage of Berkeley politics. A fair amount of space in this newspaper is devoted to discussing and promoting architectural heritage and opposing development, but the newspaper also covers other political topics and runs many and varied editorials and letters to the editor. Beyond the newspapers, several blogs and political and neighborhood organization websites contain opinions about local issues.

When I started this walking project and was searching for mentions of others who had taken on similar walks, quite a few of the search results that turned up for variations of “walking the streets” turned out to be articles about political candidates pounding the pavement of their districts prior to the elections.

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Revisiting

As I have mentioned in previous posts, most of my walks start from my home. Now that I am pretty far into my walk of Berkeley’s streets, that means I walk some streets multiple times. I have found that I don’t mind retracing parts of previous routes; I now have things that I want to revisit to see changes or progress. Over the summer for instance, I walked by the Berkeley Amtrak station and found paint color tests across the street from the station. When I walked by again a few weeks ago, a mural was in progress in the same spot. Later this year, I will walk by again and hopefully see a completed project.

Unfortunately, not every follow-up visit to a location in progress is positive. You may remember my mention of the playground reconstruction at Cedar-Rose Park. It has taken months to rebuild this playground, and it looks as if it may be just about finished. When I walked by this morning, though, the brand new concrete play structures already had graffiti scrawled on them. Usually seeing graffiti is not a surprise. Graffiti, mostly gang-related (though what was at this playground appeared to be anarchist graffiti), can be found all over town and throughout the urban areas of the Bay Area. But it was just sort of sad to see it on a newly re-constructed public playground for children. I didn’t have the heart to take a photo of it.

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Walking Isn’t Boring, Part 3: Holiday Decorations

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

For some of the people close to me, I am not the most fun person to be around during the holiday season. For whatever reason, I do not get that excited about many of the holiday traditions that most people love, and I am not a fan of the shopping excess that is a huge focus of the American holiday season. This year, though, I find I am actually looking forward to something that comes along with the holidays, that being all of the decorations that people put on their porches and in their front yards and on their rooftops.

Over the weekend, I noticed the first of the pumpkins and cardboard Halloween decorations. Those will be followed by gourds, turkeys, and other Thanksgiving and harvest decorations, and then the Christmas lights and displays, menorahs for Hanukkah, and paper snowflakes (yes, even in California) and other winter decor. What most interests me most is finding the unique personal expression that goes into holiday decorations. This display for instance, found last year in a front yard in Berkeley, featured lots of reindeer, lights, and … a frog figurine?


Photo by Joe Reifer

I am not the only walker who has been noticing the holiday displays. Ron, who recently started a blog about walking the streets of Fort Bragg, California, found a scary Halloween display at a house that already seemed haunted during the rest of the year. If you are interested in learning more about the Mendocino Coast town of Fort Bragg (not to be confused with the military town of Fort Bragg, North Carolina), be sure to check out Ron’s blog!

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