Archive for January, 2007

West Berkeley in Review

No, I am not really done talking about West Berkeley (WB), but last week I completed the two remaining blocks I had not yet walked west of San Pablo Avenue. It was really quite by accident; I knew I had to get to those streets eventually and happened to be nearby running an errand. Then over the weekend, I walked a number of streets all the way across town at the northeastern edges of Berkeley. More on that walk later and contrasts between two vastly different areas of this city…

Although I have been enjoying walking everywhere in Berkeley, I found myself picking WB for many of my early walks. Why was that? As I thought about my overall experience in this part of town, I believe it was because it was very different than many other places I have walked in Berkeley and elsewhere. I have done lots of walking in urban, rural, and suburban areas, but not so much in industrial places like WB. And I think what I most appreciated about WB was its accessibility to walkers. Industrial activity in the San Francisco Bay Area is mostly found surrounding the edges of the bay itself. This makes sense when you think about early activity in the area — cargo came in by ship through the Golden Gate from elsewhere in the world and to the ports, then was transported by rail around the bay and outward. Today, the bay shoreline area is a mix of industrial activity, landfill (with parks or housing complexes), and wildlife restoration areas. The industrial areas are still accessible by car, but not as easy to get to on foot. They are often far away from public transportation, require navigation of hazardous freeway on-ramps, and in some cases (such as a bit of the Port of Oakland area) are fenced off or otherwise not as accessible due to national security concerns. With WB this is not the case; it is short walk from BART or one of the many buses that run along San Pablo, and I explored the entire area without any problems accessing streets on foot and without any questioning glances or questions about what I was doing walking around there.

Third Floor, Looking Out [Flint/Cal Ink] by Joe Reifer

I was surprised to find just how much manufacturing had happened (or was still happening) in Berkeley. Thanks to a great pamphlet from the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association called Discovering West Berkeley: A Self-Guided Tour, I learned more about the history of some of the factories, warehouses, and industrial buildings in the area. Some of the manufacturing and industrial activities included iron and steel foundries, tanneries, printing inks, fruit packing, and manufacture of vegetable oils, condiments (H.J. Heinz), carbonated beverages (Canada Dry), soap and glycerin (Colgate-Palmolive-Peet), adhesives, paper bags and boxes, knitting (bathing suits and sweaters), clocks, and drinking fountains.

I could not really conclude from my walk what the future of West Berkeley might be. Right now it seems like it could go in many directions. There is a mix of industrial, retail (Fourth Street) and wholesale outlets, apartment buildings, regular houses, newly built “live-work” and loft buildings, and restaurants. West Berkeley has been at the center of many debates since I moved here, from how its spaces will be used (light industrial, housing, etc.) to concerns with odors from Pacific Steel Casting to the building of a new Berkeley Bowl store. West Berkeley will definitely be an area that I will continue to go back to in order to observe that changes, at whatever speed they happen.

In addition to Discovering West Berkeley (which is available at Berkeley Public Library) I recommend the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s Back to the Bay: Exploring the Margin of the San Francisco Bay Region, for further research about industrial activity around the San Francisco Bay, and the San Francisco Bay Shoreline Guide for learning about both the wildlife and the character of bay shoreline areas.

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Front Yard Animals

Gary over at Runs Brooklyn recently organized the wonderful photos he takes on his runs, and one my favorite of his groupings was animals. As a result of looking at his photos, I was wondering how many animals I had seen on my walks. Looking back at my photos, I found quite a few. Most of which were in front yards of residences. I am not sure I have much to say about this other than it being an interesting pattern. I’ve included a few of my favorites here.

Tire elephant:



Rhino (thanks to Jef for reminding that I had taken this photo):

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Why People Walk, Part 2: Psychogeography

While researching other walking projects, I have seen quite a few have been definited as psychogeography. What exactly is psychogeography? According to the Toronto Psychogeography Society,

The word psychogeography was coined by the Situationist Guy Debord. It describes the specific effects of the geographical environment on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.

So what does it mean to take a psychogeographic walk and how exactly does it differ from just taking a “regular” walk? The Toronto Psychogeography Society offers some clues in the descriptions of some its past outings. It appears that (unlike the my walks for this project!) a psychogeographic walk does not generally have a planned route, that the walkers might follow something that interests them: a sight, a smell, a sound. From further research, I found that there is also algorithmic or generative psychogeography, which follows a repeating pattern, such as “go two blocks and turn right, go two blocks and turn left, go one block and turn right, and then repeat.” I also saw variations on these ideas, such a walk pattern that was written as a pseudo computer program, Then I found Conflux, a NYC “festival for contemporary psychogeography,” which seems much broader than the traditional definitions of psychogeography and appears to include more of the types of projects that I mentioned in my previous Why People Walk post.

I ran across a few psychogeography events in the Bay Area, but nothing so far that seems to be active. Eventually (once I am finished with my current walk) I would like to do a psychogeography walk in Berkeley. Please post a comment if you happen to know of anyone who is already this or if you might be interested in joining in on such a walk.

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Plants and the Weather

A few months ago I was wandering through Berkeley Horticultural Nursery to see what was new. Berkeley Hort (as it is known to locals) is a favorite nursery in the Bay Area because of its wide variety of unique and hard-to-find plants. In the fruit tree section I spotted several varieties of tropical plants that I had never seen growing in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Can you really grow mangoes here?” I asked one of the nursery employees. His reply was, maybe if the conditions are just right you will get a little fruit in several years, but definitely don’t count on it. The thing is that the trees will probably sell (and I have to admit that I was a bit intrigued myself). The Bay area is an interesting place for gardeners because of its many climate zones and its mild climate. Some plants that may or may not make it, depending on where you live and what the weather is like in a particular year.

Berkeley’s climate seems closer to some of the milder areas of San Francisco than some of the other areas I have lived in the Bay Area. Often this means that the summers are cooler and foggier, but there is little to no frost in the winter. This winter has been much colder, and many of the borderline tropical plants don’t seem to be surviving the weather. I have seen many a shriveled datura and bird-of-paradise on my recent walks. One of the most interesting observations, though, has been the wrapping of plants in an attempt to protect them from the frost. In many other parts of the country, frost protection is a regular winter activity. There are specially designed covers for this that are made of synthetic fabrics and come in different sizes and shapes. Most of the covers I have seen on my walks have been improvised out of blankets and bedsheets, and some (such as cotton sheets) are less successful than others. I do feel slightly guilty for saying this, as I am somewhat deriving enjoyment out of others’ suffering, but it has been lots of fun for me as walker to run across the interesting color combinations and patterns created by the cobbled-together plant coverings.

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Religious Institutions, Part 1

For a relatively small city, Berkeley seems to have a great number of religious institutions in a variety of faiths. I am sure this must be due to a number of factors, but maybe it has some relation to the existence of the Graduate Theological Union. I was walking in the area north of campus this weekend where many of the GTU buildings are located, and was thinking about how huge this place is. In fact, the GTU website says that it is “the largest partnership of seminaries and graduate schools in the country.” Baptist, Episcopal, Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian, Unitarian Universalist, and multidenominational programs are offered at the GTU, in the neighborhood sometimes called “Holy Hill.”

In addition to the number of faiths represented in Berkeley, I was also surprised to see so many religious services offered in other languages. Spanish services are common in many areas of California, but I have also noticed signs announcing  programs in Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) and … Finnish!  In trying to find out more about Finnish church services, I found that UC Berkeley is one of only 11 U.S. universities offering Finnish language studies and also that there is an active Bay Area Finnish Network. There are two buildings that used to house Finnish centers — the Finnish Hall and the Finnish Brotherhood Hall (now the site of various community meetings and classes).

More to come in the future regarding religion — Judaism, Buddhism, architecture, etc.

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Campus Housing

I seem to find myself walking over by the Berkeley campus at the beginnings and ends of semesters, when many of the students are gone for the breaks. A few blocks just south of the campus and east of Telegraph Avenue have a high concentration of student housing — dormitories, housing coops, and fraternities and sororities. It seems during the semester breaks (and on early weekend mornings when I have also walked there) that the area is almost completely uninhabited. During the past weekend’s walk I saw one student getting dropped off by his parents at a fraternity house; the student seeming eager to get back and the parents looking around warily at the trash on the ground (beer bottles, food wrappers, etc.). Usually I don’t do walks in the evening, but I am sort of curious if this area looks like a stereotypical fraternity row on a Friday or Saturday night. It made me realize that I don’t know that I have ever seen a fraternity party in real life; I think that the school where I was an undergraduate might have had black and gay student fraternities and that was it.I had seen quite a few housing units labeled as “cooperative,” and I was curious about what this was all about. There are 20 coop houses and apartment buildings for UC Berkeley students. The University Cooperative Students’ Association has descriptions of the coops, which include African American and gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered themed houses, a vegetarian house, a women-only hall, and several other coops where the members share work, meals, and decisions about the house. Amenities and events included in some of the descriptions include hot tubs and saunas, electric organs, climbing wall, darkroom, bike repair equipment, disco parties, wine and cheese nights, open mics, talent shows, and more. The UCSA website also has a short history of housing cooperatives at Berkeley, starting in 1933.

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Indian Businesses

On a couple of instances when I first moved to Berkeley, I was stopped near the North Berkeley BART station by confused people who wanted to know how to get to the “shopping district.” I had to inquire further because I was not sure whether they meant Fourth Street, downtown Berkeley, or Telegraph Avenue, or one of some of the other shopping areas around town. In fact, it was none of these; in both cases, the inquiring parties were looking for the shops that sell Indian music, food, saris, and other items. There are quite a few businesses in Berkeley specializing in items from India, and a large concentration can be found along University Avenue from the freeway and several blocks east of there (a short walk from North Berkeley BART). In West Berkeley, Viks Distributors operates a warehouse with Indian spices and staples and the popular Viks Chaat House. Several other Indian restaurants and cafes serving chaat (savory snacks) can be found throughout town.

It somewhat surprised me to find so many Indian businesses here in Berkeley. The Bay Area has a large Indian American population, but I had always thought of those population centers as being in the southern East Bay and Silicon Valley cities of Fremont, Milpitas, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, and surrounding areas. According to the 2000 Census, Asian Indians make up 1.7% of the Berkeley population, while those numbers are 10.2% in Fremont and 10% in Sunnyvale. It will be interesting to see what the breakdown is when we get to the next Census in 2010, and to know how popular over time Berkeley has been as a shopping destination for Indian imports, and what effect (if any) online shops have had on such businesses.

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Starting Anew

After more than a week away from Berkeley, I am back and ready for more walking. Most of my time away was spent in the California desert — Anza Borrego, Palm Springs area, Mojave — which is huge and spread out and not particularly suited to walking (especially in the summer when it gets up to and over 100 degrees F). The town of Palm Springs, however, seems to be a great place for walking — lots of interesting mid-century desert modern architecture, old signs, and much more. In any case, I am finding that after being away for awhile in a different environment I am seeing new things. On my first very short walk to get groceries after returning home, I took two photos along a street I have walked down two or three times a week for the past few years.

In mid-December I spotted this apartment building on one of my walks:

I remembered at one point passing an apartment building with a star, but this one looked different. Was it built at the same time as the other one? Well, when I went back to my photos, I found that it was the same building; it was just painted a different color when I took the picture during the summer:

Also, the plants were blooming in December but not during the summer, and the building had now been “staged” with patio furniture because one of the units was up for sale (interestingly, a TIC — tenancy-in-common — the first of this type I have seen in Berkeley).

My last walk of the year was an eventful one, primarily because I had the pleasure of walking with fellow every-streeter Gary Jarvis of Runs Brooklyn. As he does with his accounts of running every street in Brooklyn, Gary did a great write-up of the walk we took while he was in the area for the holidays. Gary’s blog is very enjoyable to read, with detailed and interesting accounts of Brooklyn neighborhoods infused with his great sense of humor, and it was fun to finally meet him in person and share our experiences as “urban completists” (a brilliant term for these projects — thanks Gary!). A great way to end to end a year of walking Berkeley!

You may be wondering where I am at in terms of completing the walk of every street. I am estimating that distance-wise I am about 3/4 of the way there. However, many of the streets I have left to walk are in the hilly areas of town, which will take much longer than the flat grids of the western part of Berkeley. I also have quite a bit of the Elmwood/Claremont neighborhoods to walk, as well as the Berkeley campus and streets here and there throughout town, so you can expect to hear about all of those areas over the next few months.

Happy walking in 2007!

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