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.