As if there weren’t enough reasons already to get out the car, here’s another one that I have discovered: walking and bicycling have given me a much better understanding of geography and a better sense of direction. For a long time, I thought I was someone who was doomed to be terrible with directions. Put me in a car, and I probably will always be that way. I think my brain shuts down sometimes when I’m in a car because I’m not particularly interested in filling it with knowledge of all of the freeways, freeway exits, alternative routes to avoid traffic, and all of the other things that are involved in making a smooth trip from point A to B in a vehicle. Outside of the car, though, is a different story. Why is this? Part of it, in my case, is that I enjoy spending a fair amount of time looking at walking and bicycling maps, planning and imagining different routes, and studying the topography of an area. One thing that particularly fascinates me when looking at area maps is the borders of cities and towns. The historical and political development of particular cities and regions is often complex, and often some areas end up forming strange and interesting shapes and patterns on a map!
Early on in my walk, I noticed that many times the border between Berkeley and the next city sometimes ran right through a street. In most of these cases, I just walked the full length of a street, because it would be difficult to tell exactly where the border was (and it made for a smoother, though longer, walk). One day I happened to be walking along a section of the Berkeley-Albany border when it was an Albany garbage pickup day. I started laughing when I realized that on trash day I could figure out exactly where the border was by seeing where the line of garbage cans at the curbs ended.
A recent Salon article by Oakland resident Novella Carpenter, “Why I Pick Lettuce For the Black Panthers,” touches on a couple of points related to topics I’ve been planning to talk about here. One is about school gardens in Berkeley, which I will discuss in a future post. The other concerns my thoughts about the borders of Berkeley. In the article, Carpenter describes crossing over the border from Oakland to Berkeley:
After 30 flat blocks, the landscape changes. I’m in Berkeley. There’s a Nuclear-Free Zone sign and then the gleaming giant words “THERE” and “HERE” — a piece of public sculpture that has always rubbed me the wrong way. “There is no there there,” Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, her hometown. Seventy years later, does Berkeley, land of Priuses and million-dollar bungalows, really have to remind us?
This entry point to Berkeley is interesting because it is one of the few places I have observed where it is really obvious that you are going from a bordering city into Berkeley. After having walked near all of the borders, I’ve noticed that in most places there is a slow blend from one city to the next rather than an abrupt change where you know you are entering somewhere new. Berkeley’s west border is the Bay, and its east border is mostly either Tilden Park or University of California land. But where Berkeley borders cities (Albany, Kensington, Emeryville, and Oakland), it’s harder to tell when you’ve crossed over. The houses along the north borders of Berkeley are often similar to those of Albany or Kensington. The Claremont area blends with the neighboring Oakland hills. It’s really hard to tell (except for indicators like the Nuclear Free Zone signs on major streets and the Here/There sculpture) when you are going from North Oakland to South Berkeley. When I’ve walked in South Berkeley, I see the same things happening on MLK Jr. Way and on Adeline Street in Berkeley that Carpenter mentions seeing in Oakland. The only border area where there was a discernible change from one place to the other was places along the short Berkeley-Emeryville border — Folger Street seems much like the surrounding area of west Berkeley, but as you turn onto Hollis and across 67th on the Emeryville side, you are suddenly amongst industrial buildings that have been converted to offices and newly built live-work lofts.
The quote from this article really brought me back to thinking about one of the original reasons why I started this walk. Do you really have to walk every street?, many people have asked. It may seem like a silly exercise to some, or an obsessive-compulsive project, but as I near the end of walking every street, I am glad I have made the effort to do it. One of those reasons is that Berkeley could otherwise just seem like the “land of Priuses and million-dollar bungalows.” There is no denying there are a lot of Priuses in Berkeley, and there are plenty of million-dollar bungalows — I have seen quite a few of both. I have seen parts of Berkeley that still fit with the image of 1960s Berkeley. But I have also seen that there is a lot of everything else in the range of income levels, types of cars, level of environmental awareness, social behavior, and so on. This morning, for instance, I was reading a new South and West Berkeley Transportation Plan (posted on the city’s Transportation website) which in its analysis notes that (from Metropolitan Transportation Commission findings based on the 2000 Census) “fully 39 percent of South and West Berkeley residents were living in poverty.” Is this number accurate, or has it been adjusted to fit the needs of this study? It’s hard to know, and I have never been one to trust statistics in studies. But based on my experiences having walked in south and west Berkeley, I would have come up with a similar percentage. Instead of just reading this article and wondering whether to believe it, I actually can decide for myself whether it is true from what I have observed. And, hopefully some of what I have written about in this blog has given others a look at the many aspects of Berkeley and has encouraged a few people (my ultimate goal) to get out and walk around their own communities!
Also — I’ve found that thinking about borders has been quite a bit of fun, and it has also led me to wanting to spend time in the future walking in small communities that have branched off from the rest of a city (such as Piedmont and Kensington in the East Bay) to see what the borders are like in those areas and what, if any, differences there are between those areas and surrounding cities.