Archive for May, 2007

Aquatic Park

Berkeley Peace Lantern Ceremony, photo by Joe Reifer

I was just marking my calendar for the Berkeley Peace Lantern Ceremony, which is held in early August to commemorate the Hiroshima atomic bombing. Attendees of the event make paper lanterns, which are sent afloat at the Berkeley Aquatic Park. There are also music and speeches, and in the past I have enjoyed attending this event. I realized as I noted the event that I had not written yet about the Aquatic Park. If you’re not familiar with Berkeley, the Aquatic Park is located in southwest Berkeley on the east side of I-80. At the north end of the Aquatic Park is the bicycle bridge, connecting to the Berkeley Marina. The Parks dept. map shows it pretty well (blue at bottom left).

Because I am including paths in my walk, I have walked around the Aquatic Park on the walk/bike path. The east side is nice (but watch out for flying objects — there’s a disc golf course along this side), but the west side was not as pleasant; you are walking right next to the freeway wall with the sounds and smells of cars and trucks whizzing by. This side is really best travelled by bicycle in my opinion. On the water itself, I have seen rowing and canoeing. There is a water ski ramp, but I have not actually seen anyone using it yet. The Aquatic Park was a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project build in the 1930s; its existence was apparently threatened in 1963 when developers wanted to fill it in and make it into a business park.

Although I like the Aquatic Park and its amenities, it seems in need of some upgrades — particularly those that would make it a bit safer. Although the park is pleasant and filled with people (joggers, dog walkers, picnickers, children, etc.) on weekends and after work, I’m not inclined to walk by myself along this path at non-busy times — especially because there seem to be shrubbery and other places where people could lurk, and I have also noted people just sitting and waiting in their cars at the south end of the park. Berkeley has big plans in place for streetscape improvements along the route from the Fourth Street shopping area and the Amtrak station to the Aquatic Park and bicycle bridge. It looks the improvements will mostly occur around the north area of the park near the bridge, but perhaps this will increase the amount of foot traffic and safety in the area a bit.


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Signs of Spring, Part 2: Spring Cleaning

Here we are at the end of May, and I don’t know how Spring passed so quickly. I had hoped to have a longer Signs of Spring series, but it will just end up being a double feature. I don’t have too much to talk about in this post; I really just wanted to share my favorite items left on the sidewalk from the traditional spring purging of the closets and basements of Berkeley. The most fascinating thing about these roadside collections is the display that goes into some of them; they are often laid out as if they were for sale in a store, rather than piled in a box for people to sort through. I was especially perplexed by the scene in the top photo. The items — three bicycle wheels, a security gate, and security window — were strapped to a dolly that had obviously been used to transport the items to its spot along the Ohlone Greenway. It almost seemed as though someone was transporting the items somewhere and had just given up. Why wouldn’t the owner have left the items and taken back the dolly? The items were there for a few more days and then disappeared.

Spring cleaning blends into college classes ending, and the items left by the road have shifted a bit from small objects to larger furniture. Last year, I wondered where all of the furniture went; this year posters are up in the campus area warning people about furniture dumping. As Georgia documents on Local Ecologist, the furniture is still there.

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State of the Arts in Berkeley

Several days ago I had an errand to do in Emeryville, so I did what I usually do when I need to go there: walk. I always enjoy the walk through southwest Berkeley to get there, but Emeryville is another story. If you are not familiar with this town, it is difficult and frustrating to be on foot – navigating the freeway and rail crossings, backtracking many times due to “no crossing on this side of the street” signs, dangerous intersections, etc. I had hoped to make some detours on the way home through Berkeley, but the trip to Emeryville had taken longer than I had anticipated. One of the places I had planned to check in on was The Shipyard, and – after hearing the news about this place the next day – I was sorry I had not stopped. The Shipyard is a collective art space located on the southern edge of Berkeley in a group of shipping containers. Well, I should say “may be” located. The Shipyard has been told by the City of Berkeley that it must move from the location. Scott Beale’s Laughing Squid blog has very thorough coverage of the news.

If you have been following this blog for awhile, you can see that I have quite a few questions that I have been pondering as I walk in Berkeley. One that I have been thinking about from the very start of the walk is whether Berkeley is a supportive place for artists and a good place for those who appreciate the arts. This is a very difficult question to answer, and so far my best answer is “it depends.” It is also a difficult question to answer based only on what I see on walks. For a small city, Berkeley has a fair number of arts venues – the Berkeley Art Museum, art galleries, a few theaters, opportunities to see dance, music, poetry readings, etc. In the downtown area, I have seen signs referring to the growing Addison Arts District. Rental studios for artists are available in West Berkeley, and artist open studios are held a couple of times a year.

My sense in my travels around Berkeley is that there is support for the arts and artists, but that the city is somewhat lacking in a diversity of arts experiences and opportunities for artists. One reason for this is a very universal one in the arts community: many artists want or need to work in a place where it does not cost too much to have the appropriate space they need to work on their art. It is possible to find such a space in Berkeley, but not that easy — especially if a large space is needed. Artists who have lived in Berkeley for many years and have low housing costs or those who have a good income level or other source of income can easily have studios here. Artists with lower incomes and more experimental arts are not as prevalent here as in other places where the cost of living is comparably more affordable. Of course there are always exceptions – and I know artists who have found appropriate rentals in the neighboring suburbs of Albany and El Cerrito as well.

After hearing about the Shipyard, I realized that what is not here in Berkeley has helped me pinpoint and better explain my sense of arts here. In Oakland (where the Shipyard may look for a new space), is a large industrial arts center called The Crucible. This organization offers arts events and classes in welding, blacksmithing, jewelry making, neon, fire arts, and a variety of other interesting disciplines. Originally the organization was located in West Berkeley but was not able to stay in the city. Before I moved to Berkeley, I went to a few events at an experimental music venue near Ashby BART that was called the Jazz House/Tuva Space. This space was closed and a Berkeley Police parking lot is in its place. Over the past few years, artists’ communities in West Berkeley (such as the Drayage) have closed due to lease or building code issues. Behind each of these arts venues, and the others like them, there is a complicated story to which there are always numerous points of view. And these events are certainly not unique to Berkeley; artists being in situations where they need to find new places to do their art is an age-old story. As I mentioned at the start of this entry, I can’t really say from my observations whether or not Berkeley is a supportive place for artists. What I can do is to observe the types of arts that do exist here and those that do not.

I expect to talk more about art in Berkeley at some point, and would love any feedback from artists who live here or have lived here — and of course anyone else who has an opinion about this topic!

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Hidden Gems of Berkeley

Instead of walking every street Berkeley, I could have just as easily decided to cycle every street. Several factors make walking a better choice for this project in Berkeley: its small size, the steep streets of the Berkeley hills (fine if you are just riding, but stopping and starting several times on a hill is not much fun), the many paths and stairways that need to be navigated on foot, etc. In the flatlands of Berkeley, though, going by bicycle is a great way to see points of interest around town. This Sunday, May 20 (10 am to 2 pm) is a good chance to do just this. Environmental planner John Steere is leading the fifth Hidden Gems of Berkeley [note: PDF file] bike ride exploring “quirky architecture, lovely gardens, excellence in urban design, and an eclectic collection of historical, natural, and unusual features.”

Small section of the Hidden Gems map, designed by John Coveney

This year’s ride starts at Halcyon Commons, and explores “hidden gems” in South Berkeley and Elmwood. You’ll get to hear from guest guides/historians and see the fish house, the TV house, front yard sculptures, vegetable gardens, and many other interesting sights. The ride is free, and the lovely Hidden Gems map can be purchased for a small fee that day.

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Front Porches

I had fully intended to continue Signs of Spring as a short series. Maybe I will get a chance, but right now it feels like summer. However, my walks over the past few days of warmer temperatures have shed some new light on a question I have been pondering over the past few months: why don’t I see more people sitting out in front of their houses on their porches or stoops, and what sorts of conditions would need to occur for this to happen more often? I had wondered upon starting this walking project if I would talk to many people who lived in the homes on all of the streets of Berkeley that I was walking. I have had a few conversations, but not as many as I had expected. Ironically, the last time was early on a weekday morning with a woman who was examining the smashed windshield of her car and was stressed about how she was going to get the window fixed, make it to work, find a safer parking spot for her car, etc. We had a good conversation, but it felt slightly odd reassuring someone about a car headache!

In any case, early in the Berkeley walk I found myself sometimes having an idealistic daydream about taking years to finish the walk because I couldn’t make it down one street without having several interesting conversations with the people who lived there. Of course, I knew this really wouldn’t be the case, but I did start to wonder why I could sometimes have walks in residential areas where I barely saw anyone outside their house. My first thought was that long work hours and long commutes meant that many people were not home that often. This could be true in some cases, but Berkeley also has lots of students, people who work at home or not at all, and other alternatives to typical work patterns. Commercial districts are busy at all hours, and streets are rarely empty of cars. And then on weekends, when I do much of my walking, it’s not often that I see someone reading a newspaper or a book on the porch.

Another theory, and a valid one I think, is that many Berkeley houses have small porches. Porches here, for the most part, are not the kind that you might find in other parts of the country that circle the house or are large enough for a porch swing or other seating. Many houses have small chairs on the porch, but not ones that seem comfortable for long sittings; they are more likely used to remove muddy shoes or set down packages before entering the front door. I have also considered the idea, run into the ground in the media, that we are becoming more and more internal, that we spend more time in front of the TV set and the computer and less time outside and socializing with our neighbors. I don’t want to spend too much time on this — most of you have heard or read about this too many times — and I also can’t say for sure whether it is true or not.

All theories aside, what circumstances might cause people to sit on their porch or stoop? I wasn’t sure until I started noticing a pattern of people sitting outside with their cell phones. Whether it’s to get better reception or to gain a bit of privacy from the rest of the household, the porch seems to be a favorite spot for chatting on the mobile phone. Obviously this is completely different than sitting on the porch and talking with people as they pass by; I have not once had anyone look up from their conversation and wave or smile. But perhaps some people will talk to a neighbor after they are done on the phone. One amusing thought I had, as someone who tends to question statistics, is a survey result saying that “people spend x% more time on their porches these days” (with the increase due not to more socializing but the sharp rise in cell phone use).

This week, however, temperatures have been higher that usual for this time of year. Suddenly I have seen all sorts of people outside: kids playing in the sprinklers, people reading books on the stoop, others socializing. Many of the houses here were built without much insulation, and even those who have decent insulation and some fans are not accustomed to high temperatures. Heat waves in an area with normally mild temperatures can bring people out and socializing with neighbors and passers-by. On one short walk to the grocery store I passed a man yelling across the street to offer a neighbor a cold beer, and then talked to some children who were picking strawberries from their front-yard garden.

I hope by the end of this walk to have some other thoughts to share about the lack of porch-sitters, and what might change the situation. As usual, any opinions are welcome!

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Odds & Ends

The website recently published a list of the Top Ten Bloggiest Neighborhoods. No Berkeley neighborhoods on the list, but who knows — maybe someday! Around the same time that I saw this list Mark Celsor left a comment here about his Willard Park Blog started last month, described as “a place to post information about life in the neighborhoods just south of the university in Berkeley. The blog takes its name from Willard Park at the corner of Derby and Hillegass, halfway between the Elmwood and Telegraph shopping districts.” Camelia Street Blog is a “neighborhood blog devoted to quality of life issues for those living and working in west Berkeley.” The long-running Scrambled Eggs & Lox blog covers the Potter Creek area of west Berkeley.

It’s been awhile since I’ve heard about any other every-street walkers, so it was fun to find out about this guy who walked every street in Manhattan in under 3 months. Thanks to Gary at Runs Brooklyn for letting me know about this site!

Many of you have commented or sent notes about the photos on my blog, some of which are taken by Joe Reifer. If you’re in the Bay area and want to check out some more of his work, there will be an opening for his show this Friday (along with photographer Troy Paiva) at the Lucky Juju Pinball Gallery in Alameda. For a car-free trip from Berkeley, take BART to 12th Street Oakland and connect to AC Transit Bus 51, which has a drop off right by Lucky Juju (Santa Clara St.) and runs every 10-20 minutes. And speaking of Alameda, I have always thought this would be a great city for walking every street: it’s an island, it has lots of interesting houses and buildings, and a closed naval air station that has lots of redevelopment projects in process.

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