Archive for Books

Odds & Ends

It’s always exciting to run across other people’s walk-every-street projects. Actually, I’ve been reading Eric Fischer’s blog for awhile because he often talks about walking and neighborhoods; now he’s started his walk of every street in San Francisco.

In his blog, Eric also pointed out a couple of recent walking articles that I had missed: A New York magazine article discussing walking and longevity, and a series of articles in the New York Times about “what might be called long walking, regularly walking 20, 40 or 60 blocks to work, school or appointments.” Both of these are very interesting reads.

Last year, around the 1906 San Francisco earthquake centennial, I did a fair amount of reading on early San Francisco life. Some of my favorite reading was about the various odd characters, so I was pleased to run across the recently published Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley. I haven’t read it yet, but the chapter titles look enticing, such as “John E. Boyd: The Boss Baggage Buster of Beautiful Berkeley” and “Henry S. Peterson and the Berkeley Lawn Mower Invention.” Berkeley Public Library doesn’t seem to have this on order yet, but I submitted a suggestion for the title.

Also in the new books department: Inkworks Press, which I mentioned in my post awhile back about Worker Cooperatives, has a new book showing over 400 photos of some of the posters it has printed since the cooperative was founded in 1974. If you’re in Berkeley, you can buy the book, Visions of Peace and Justice, at Inkworks Press on 7th Street (between Heinz and Grayson). Berkeley Public has a reference-only copy of the book at the main library.


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Walking Isn’t Boring, Part 5: Exploring Machines and Infrastructure

General note: This series of entries is inspired by the idea that walking in even the most ordinary of places can be interesting.

Recently a bunch of books that had been on my reserve list at the library came all at once, and a number of them relate to walking. One that has really had me thinking about lots of ideas for walking-related projects is Ed Sobey’s A Field Guide to Roadside Technology. The book is set up like a bird or plant field guide, but the content is the infrastructure and machines that one might spot in different place around the country. It describes all sorts of technologies, such as utilities, telephone systems, traffic signals, traffic counters and surveillance counters, bridges, sewer grates, manholes, wires, and antennas. In reading through the descriptions, I found that I learned something new about even familiar machines. Unless you have absolutely no luddite tendencies, I do recommend reading the book in bits and pieces — it can be a bit overwhelming to see just how many different technologies we have in place today.

The author suggests keeping this book with you on your travels so you can look up unknown machines as you go. This is a great idea, and one could also take a photo of an unfamiliar object and look it up later. Almost every location will have some of these technologies, and learning about them would be one way to have interesting walks in otherwise mundane locations. If you were the sort of obsessive, checking-off-lists type of person, you could do as some birdwatchers and try to find everything listed in the book. Or, the book could be used as the basis for an urban scavenger hunt — i.e., find and take photos of as many of the items in the book as possible. Regardless of how the book is used, though, it is an interesting read for any walker. I finally have the answers to some of my questions about various boxes, markers, and wires that I see on my walks. For more ideas, take a look at Walking Fort Bragg — Ron has found all sorts of interesting markings on the street, misaligned manhole covers, utility work, etc.

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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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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 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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Learning About Landmarks & Architecture

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.

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Walking Isn’t Boring, Part 4: Outside Lies Magic

General note: This series of entries is inspired by the idea that walking in even the most ordinary of places can be interesting.

Sometime before embarking on my Berkeley walk, I read an interesting book called Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. Written by John Stilgoe, a professor of landscape history at Harvard University, the book encourages the reader to get out on foot or on bicycle and explore and observe the world around them, learning to notice the details that are often overlooked when travelling by car or when one is out of the car but in a rush or thinking about other things. Well, even before starting this walk I knew I did not need any encouragement on that front. But then things start to get challenging. Stilgoe thinks that a lot can be discovered in the most ordinary of places, the locations without intriguing architecture, interesting landmarks, beautiful landscapes.

I remember that my first read of the book left me with some doubts about whether the ideas presented in the book were really possible, so I went back recently to re-read the book. What I found was surprising. Over the months that I have been walking and trying to keep an open mind about what I see, I have observed many of the things that Stilgoe mentions in the book. Among other things, he talks about looking at old railroad tracks, sidewalk engravings, plants, lawns, and electrical lines. Then I got the part where he discusses exploring rundown commercial strips, particularly the right-of-ways where all of the trash dumpsters and piles of junk are kept. And then he talks about the frontage roads along highways. Way up on the list of my least favorite things are freeways and shopping centers, especially the endless strip malls filled with chain stores. Luckily, Berkeley has more pleasant and unique streets than most cities, but there are still some areas that I have found challenging to walk. One of them is the frontage road to I-8o. As I have mentioned before, this freeway is consistently ranked at the top of the list of traffic nightmares in the Bay Area. Despite the wall separating the walker from the road, there is the constant noise of the cars, the unpleasant smells, and views of trash and broken glass. The areas surrounding the freeways exits can be similarly unpleasant, particularly the black soot that covers all of the buildings and the slick black oil spots on the roads and sidewalks. But in the process of deciding to look objectively at my surroundings, I have found myself forgetting about the unpleasantness and seeing the details that I might have missed in past when I was just in a rush to get through the area.

After reading this book a second time, I realized that despite Stilgoe’s convincing ideas, I did not fully appreciate the book until I actually got out and did what he said to do. And in fact, the first sentence of the book says it all: “Get out now.”

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Walking Isn’t Boring, Part 2: Mundane Journeys

General note: This series of entries is inspired by the idea that walking in even the most ordinary of places can be interesting.

San Francisco, being a popular tourist destination, has inspired all sorts of guidebooks. Most of them cover at least some of the popular landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, and the Transamerica Pyramid. Kate Pocrass’ book Mundane Journeys does not mention any of these places. This tiny book of tours (which all start with “Walk, bike, or public transit to…”) suggests ways to look beyond the obvious and find interesting details in ordinary places. On a trip to the popular tourist area of North Beach, for example, you will play hopscotch on a playground and look at dot patterns on a sidewalk. In other locations, you will look at garage doors, apartment buildings, sidewalk patterns, window displays, and more. These ideas can be applied wherever you are walking, and can inspire thought and questions. In the photo posted here, for example, the building number appears three times on the front of this Berkeley apartment building (at this size it is hard to tell, but the number is also on the glass front door). This amused me greatly, and I wondered why three times and in what order and under what circumstances was each set of numbers installed on the building.

The other emphasis of Mundane Journeys is interacting with people in shops and businesses. Some of the stops on her journeys having you entering small businesses and asking questions or considering getting something interesting to eat or drink (such as a Cuban soft drink or coconut mochi). I find this more difficult to do. Often I will say hello to people in residential neighborhoods who are pruning their roses or weeding their gardens, but I have hesitated to walk into many of the businesses. Recently, though, I was walking on Telegraph Ave., and had two nice interactions with business owners. I used to avoid this, thinking I was bothering people unnecessarily, but there is a difference between wasting someone’s time and being genuinely interested in their small business. Even if I am not there to purchase an item or service now, I will remember it in the future or recommend it to someone else who needs the service. Also, many people who have small businesses (especially those offerering a service) just seem to enjoy talking with other people. It is unrealistic to think that one could have the same experience in a large urban area as in a small town, but there is often still the opportunity to create some connection with the people who live and work there.

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