Archive for March, 2007

Imagining Art

Last year, Berkeley Public Library joined Link+, a union catalog of several California and Nevada libraries. Items may be borrowed from the participating libraries at no cost (as compared to most interlibrary loan systems, which charge a fee). I have been checking out all sorts of books that I have been wanting to look at but that are not available at the Berkeley library (most often books from academic presses or more suitable for college libraries). Recently, I checked out and read the double book Belltown Paradise/Making Their Own Plans. Both books look at community activism efforts, the first in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle and the other in various communities around the world. Lots of interesting ideas in both books, but some of the most intriguing to me came from artist Buster Simpson. The projects section of Simpson’s website includes photos of many of the projects, including one of my favorites: tree guards fashioned from crutches and from bedframes. This book reminded me to keep looking, to look just a little harder at what is around me when I am out there walking. A few months ago I was drawn to this crutch leaning up against a tree by the curb. I liked the lines of the crutch next to the tree trunk, and I liked the idea that the crutch was there for someone else to use (being the kind of thing that many people only need for a couple of months while healing from an injury), but I did think of the possibilities of the crutch being used for the trees themselves. In any case, I definitely recommend the book to walkers, artists, and anyone interested in community garden and art projects.

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Poetry on Addison Street

I have been meaning to talk about the Addison Street Poetry Walk for awhile, and now seems like an appropriate time with April’s National Poetry Month approaching. I do not want to go so far as to say that poets, compared to other writers, musicians, and artists, have it the hardest in terms of getting exposure for their work; one could make an argument for any specific group within this realm. (A New Yorker article from earlier this year, The Moneyed Muse, offers an interesting glimpse at some recent struggles in the poetry world.) However, I do imagine that there are many Americans who go for long periods of time without being exposed to much poetry beyond the greeting card stand. Not so in Berkeley; the city seems to have a higher than usual commitment to the promotion of poetry. The Poetry Walk is a series of 120 or so cast-iron plates set into the sidewalk along Addison Street in downtown Berkeley, each displaying poetry. The poems range from works form Ohlone Indian times to lyrics from the punk band Operation Ivy. A book on the poetry walk is available from local publisher Heydey Books.

UC Berkeley hosts the free Lunch Poems series, and Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, teaches in the English department. Poetry Flash, which includes poetry reviews and event listings, is published in Berkeley. But most relevant to my walk is the poetry I have found tacked up to fences, boards, and other places. Especially along the stairways and pathways, I have founded handwritten and typed poems tacked up for strollers to enjoy along the way.

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Vegetables on the Roof

Along the Ohlone Greenway, which I talked about in my previous post, one of my favorite spots to stop is the EcoHouse at Peralta and Hopkins streets (right next to the Karl Linn Community Garden). The Ecohouse is a demonstration home and gardens for a variety of green building and gardening techniques. There is always something to see there — vegetables and fruit growing in the permaculture garden, the ducks that eat bugs and swim around in a bathtub, the shed made of natural building materials. Recently, a greywater system was installed, the first permitted residential system in Berkeley.

One of my favorite features of the EcoHouse, though, is the “living roof” on top of the garden shed. A few months ago, the roof was planted with vegetable seedlings that now appear to be providing a nice harvest of greens. The idea of “green roofs” or “living roofs” has been around for sometime, but it seems to be growing in popularity. I have seen new books out on the subject and various articles and academic papers as well. Green roofs vary, but they generally constitute plantings on some sort of structure, such as a shed, parking garage roof, or office building. They use light-weight planting mediums (so that the roof doesn’t collapse) and some sort of planting. I have seem examples of green roofs with low plantings such as sedums, and with native grasses, but not with vegetables, so this was a pleasant surprise. There was a series of workshops at the EcoHouse last fall, including one where the green roof was installed. I imagine there will be future classes there — the Ecology Center calendar is the best place to find out about such events.

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Santa Fe Right-of-Way & Ohlone Greenway

Last fall I wrote about the multi-use pathway that opened along a section of the Santa Fe Right-of-Way. Over the past few months I have used the path quite often, and am finding that it has slowly been discovered by other walkers and cyclists. Where this paved section ends at Delaware Street, path users must take the street for a few blocks to connect to the Ohlone Greenway along the BART tracks. Recently a fence in the connecting section of the trail was opened on a trial basis, so I decided to check it out. Actually, I had previously walked both of these undeveloped trails up to the fence on either side, so it was a nice feeling to not have to backtrack along my route this time! It was a very pleasant and quiet walk between houses and through the grassy field (which I imagine wouldn’t be so grassy if it was paved like the other section).

After walking the Santa Fe section, I popped onto the Ohlone Greenway and walked north a bit through Berkeley to the Albany border. The trail continues through Albany, past the BART stations in El Cerrito to Richmond. There are several rail-trails and other multi-use trails in the Bay Area, most of which I have walked or cycled at some point. I am a big fan of trails like this that can be used for transportation and recreation, especially here in the population-dense Bay Area. The Ohlone Greenway is used quite a bit, but does not seem to be as wildly popular as some other trails I have visited. Some other trails can get so busy to the point of being unpleasant. If you have never been to a path like this, imagine a trail filled with lots of walkers, runners, cyclists, wheelchairs, strollers and baby joggers, people with headphones, people walking three or four abreast and talking, inline skaters, etc. — it gets to be pretty dangerous. This has not been my experience with the Ohlone Greenway; commute times and weekend afternoons are moderately busy on the trail, but it has never been over-run by people. Also, there are separate cycling and walking paths in most sections, and often an additional informal trail through dirt/grass on the side — in other words, plenty of space to avoid most collisions.

So what makes certain trails more popular than others for recreation use? Part of this is probably the setting. The most popular multi-use trails I have visited are in some natural setting — either through parks or along the water (Bay, reservoir, etc.) — as opposed to an urban area. It is probably an appealing combination for many people to have a flat, paved path that is easy to navigate with a bike/wheelchair/stroller, and get to experience nature at the same time. Another factor may be how much a trail is separated from traffic. Some trails avoid street crossings in some way, such as by an overpass or underpass. The Ohlone Greenway has many street crossings, some of which do not have traffic stop signs or lights. This isn’t too much of an issue for walking, but on a bike it can be a bit frustrating to have to stop so often, and dangerous in places. For fans of urban walks, though, the Greenway offers diverse sights, particularly in the Berkeley section: metal sculpture, murals, historical displays, exercise equipment, creeks, community gardens, benches, etc. Although I see plenty of people jogging along the Greenway, it is as much a place for strollers enjoying the sights along the way. This is not something you see much of on heavily used recreation trails.

So the section of the Santa Fe Right-of-Way is open for a six-month trial period. Why a trial period? My walk in the daytime on the Santa Fe and Ohlone pathways was a pleasant one — spring flowers blooming, birds chirping, dogs being walked, cyclists on the way home from work or school — but this walk was during the day. Nighttime is a different story. While a few incidents of crime have occurred on multi-use paths in the Bay Area during daylight hours, the activity increases at night when it is dark and there are fewer people out and more secluded areas. There is also the concern that a fair amount of gang activity and drug dealing happens by bicycle, and creating an easy route between Richmond, El Cerrito, Albany, Berkeley, and Oakland opens up all of the cities to more crime. I am not an expert in city planning, but it does seem that one of the better solutions to minimizing this problem on the paths is to keep them well-lit. The section of the Santa Fe Right-of-Way that was completed last fall has many lights, and people on the trail are visible to passing cars and walkers. There is no dense shrubbery in this trail section, and there is an emergency call box at University Avenue. Some other trails are closed at night, but this isn’t very possible with the number of entrance points to the trails in Berkeley.

If you want to check out the trial section of the Santa Fe Right-of-Way, you might want to start at University Ave. (just across the street from the Montessori school), walk the section that was paved last fall, cross Delaware St., and continue along the dirt pathway and through the now opened gate to connect with the Ohlone Greenway.

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Small Businesses & Chain Stores

In my last post, I mentioned the upcoming closing of the Barnes & Noble bookstore on Shattuck. Some readers not from Berkeley may have been surprised that there was a large chain bookstore in Berkeley. In fact, Berkeley is not entirely devoid of larger chain stores. There is not Walmart or Costco, of course, but there are outlets of businesses such as Starbucks, Safeway, Longs Drugs, Walgreens, REI, and Orchard Supply Hardware. And yes, there are several fast food chains here as well. However, there are many independently owned businesses in Berkeley, including some of the businesses that seem to be disappearing elsewhere such as travel agents, shoe repair, and small appliance repair. And in this small city there are two stores devoted to typewriter sales and repair!

I am planning very soon to devote a post to topics related to the borders of Berkeley, but one point I want to touch upon now is the interesting phenomenon of chain stores right over the Berkeley border. One of Berkeley’s bordering cities is Emeryville, which was once industrial similar to West Berkeley. Now a large percentage of the city is loft spaces and shopping malls. Just about any chain store that you can thing of that exists in the Bay Area can be found in Emeryville. Between all of the shopping center entrances and the freeway on-ramps, Emeryville is not the easiest or most pleasant place for walking. Many of the same stores here in Emervyville, south of Berkeley, can be found to the north in El Cerrito. A year or so ago, a new Target store opened literally right over the Berkeley border in Albany. Generally visiting a chain store necessitates heading out of town to the north or south.

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Odds & Ends

Some notes related to past entries:

When I wrote my last post about books, I did not realize that Barnes & Noble was planning to close. This is not the sort of news that will probably cause a stir like Cody’s closing — Barnes & Noble is a huge chain, and there are other nearby locations — but it is interesting to think about. Across the street on Shattuck from Barnes & Noble is the independent bookseller Pegasus, but the two stores carry a very different selection of books.

Last summer when I talked about the North Berkeley rock parks, I mentioned that a new books was due out called Berkeley Rocks. It’s out now, and I just got a copy of the book. It’s a very fun and interesting book, and includes photos of both things I have seen on my walks and also locations that cannot be seen from the street — including creative ways that homeowners have incorporated the North Berkeley rhyolite into their homes’ architecture. Well worth checking out! The public library has a couple of copies of the book on order, but they have not come in as of this writing.

Some of you may have looked at the website Turn Here, which features short films about specific neighborhoods in the Bay Area and beyond. For Berkeley, they have a humorous film on the Gourmet Ghetto, another about the Shipyard artist community, and East Bay coffee. Lots more neighborhood films on the website as well; it seems like a good vacation planning tool as well.

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Finding Books in Berkeley

On a recent trip to the library, I picked up Berkeley, A Literary Tribute, published in 1997 by Heyday Books. I am usually not a big fan of literary anthologies, but I had an interest in seeing what was included in the collection. Overall, I enjoyed the book more than I expected — it was a bit uneven in sections, but still included fiction and nonfiction set in different parts of town and a mix of writers that included Allen Ginsberg, Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, and Bobby Seale. In Malcolm Margolin’s introdution to the book, he notes that Berkeley has over 50 bookstores. I wonder how many bookstores are here now, ten years after this was written? I have seen quite a few bookstores, but I just can’t believe that there are over 50 out there now.

But what about the bookstores that I have noted on walks? Well, there are some general bookstores that sell new books, and even a chain bookstore (Barnes & Noble), and also quite a few stores selling used and antiquarian books. But some of the most interesting bookstores I have stumbled across have been specialty stores. Some of these include University Press Books (selling, of course, all sorts of books from university presses), Builders Booksource (architecture and building), Comic Relief (comics and graphic novels), Dark Carnival (sci-fi, fantasy, mystery), Eastwind (Asian), Ecology Center (environmental), Revolution (radical politics), and Mrs. Dalloway’s (gardening).

Berkeley also has a large number of small publishers and presses, a number of which have small bookstores, such as Nolo Press (legal), Dharma Publishing (Buddhist), and North Atlantic Books (martial arts and metaphysics). The Friends of the Berkeley Public Library operates a bookstore just off of Telegraph, as well as one in the main library and mini-booksales at the branches. Although I am an avid reader, I am also somewhat of a minimalist, otherwise I might have to restrict my walks to the hours when most bookstores are closed! Literally (no pun intended) there is a bookstore or a place to buy books around every corner. But as if that were not enough, there are books on the streets. It’s not quite like New York, but there is a tradition in Berkeley of leaving unwanted items on the street for others to pick up for free (or, from another point of view, to junk up the streets and contribute to urban blight). On most walks I pass at least one box of books set out at the curbside, and have also seen a couple of what seem to be more permanent structures for sharing books and other items. But I also pass many recycling bins filled with cardboard boxes with the distinctive Amazon.com logo. Not a strange sight anywhere, but it does cause me to wonder whether there will really be 50 bookstores in Berkeley in another 10 years.

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