Archive for Neighborhoods: North Berkeley & Hills

Wet Weather


Photo by Joe Reifer

Over the past month, as we have finally had some periods of rain, I have been asked whether I walk in the wet weather. Yes — I enjoy walking in a mist or light rain, but I do try to plan walks so that I do not get caught in a downpour. I also like being out on a walk right after a heavy period of rain, to observe its effects on the city environment. I have not seen too much heavy flooding, though water tends to accumulate at many street corners; I have wished on more than a few occasions that I had rain boots.

Growing up in the San Francisco area, I got used to hearing about the landslides that happen every year that we had heavy rains. The photos would regularly appear in the local newspapers showing a family beside their home in the Santa Cruz Mountains or up by the Russian River that had slid several feet down a hill. Despite knowing this, I was not aware until moving to Berkeley that there were concerns in the hills here as well. Up in the hills along the Hayward earthquake fault are zones where homes have slowly been shifting down the hill (sometimes even creating property line disputes) and where there is potential danger of more serious landslides. Despite the headache of dealing with the concerns that come with having a house in the potential landslide zone, it seems that many people are willing to take the risk (or would take the risk if the could afford to live there) for the chance to live somewhere where they can see the Golden Gate Bridge from their window or deck.

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Challenges of Walking in the Hills

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I map out a route for a walk before I go out, and write it on a piece of note paper to keep in my pocket. I carry a map as well, but try to avoid pulling it out to look at it on the way. In some areas of the Berkeley hills, I am finding this to be a bit of a challenge. A few times I have made the wrong turn or been unsure about which way to turn, mostly because not all intersections have street signs or even markings in the pavement. Getting really lost is not an issue — I know the major streets in the hills and landmarks can be used to figure out which way one is heading — but walking all of the streets in the hills is proving to be a much slower process than the grids of the flatter areas.

Walking up the hills has not proved to be too much of a problem. There are some steep ones, but most are winding and views at the top are rewarding. Near the beginning of this walking project, I walked Marin Avenue, which is probably one of the steepest streets in town, 25% grade in some places. I walk a few blocks of it here and there on other routes to get to other streets, but generally I avoid it. And I am always a bit nervous about crossing Marin as well — it is similar to the steep streets in San Francisco, where cars will drive up and over a bit into the crosswalk area to avoid rolling back on the slope, and the visibility isn’t always the greatest. I ran across the Berkeley Hills Death Ride (inspired by the Markleeville, CA, Death Ride over mountain passes) which is a bicycling challenge on the some of the steepest hills of Berkeley. I remember seeing a listing for this ride one year where the riders were to meet at Peets Coffee for triple or quad espressos before doing the ride. Which reminds me that I forgot to mention in my entry about coffee roasters that Peets locations all over the Bay Area seem to be favorite meeting spots for group bike rides. The Peets on Domingo Ave. in Berkeley seems to be one of the more popular locations for starting rides through the Berkeley hills.

Direction confusion and hill steepness were not big surprises to me, and really have not been major issues. The most surprising challenge in walking in the hills has been residents who seem concerned to see someone walking down their street. Particularly on dead-end streets, but also on other non-major streets, I have had people stare at me from their cars or the fronts of their houses, obviously wondering what I was doing there. What I am starting to realize is that you do not get glances if you are walking down the street in a jogging outfit and headphones, or if you are walking with a dog, but someone just walking in regular clothes (and especially alone) and looking around is suspicious looking to many people. I can certainly understand the concern — burglaries do happen in Berkeley as they do everywhere else — but it is kind of a strange thing that just walking without some other obvious motivation, such as exercise or walking your dog, is a suspicious activity. Of course this doesn’t stop me, and if someone asked I would have nothing to hide, but it is an interesting observation.

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Walking Near Tilden Park

The northeast boundary of Berkeley and of the area I am walking is Tilden Park. I originally thought that my walk of every street and pathway of Berkeley might include Tilden, but the park is actually located in unincorporated Contra Costa County. Although I like Tilden and its hiking trails, I am grateful that I do not need to walk the roads in the 2000-acre park, many of which are pretty hazardous for the pedestrian. Tilden offers hiking opportunities on a variety of levels — everything from a pleasant flat stroll to a strenuous trek up to Wildcat Peak or Vollmer Peak, plus a swimming lake, picnic areas, trails open to mountain bikes, steam trains, a botanic garden, a farm and environmental education center, and more. I have been pleased to learn from walking near the Tilden border that the park and its amenities are more accessible without a car than many other Bay Area hiking areas. For one, the 67 AC Transit bus runs every half hour or so from downtown Berkeley BART up through the park on weekends, and near the entrance on weekdays (line 65 also comes within a few blocks of the park). I also found that there a number of other ways to pop onto to trails in Tilden from the surrounding neighborhoods. This has been one of my favorite parts of walking near Tilden; to be strolling down the street and suddenly see a trail entrance.

A few days ago I was reading an article in the Chronicle about the Berkeley State of the City address, one of the focuses of which was a vision for a more environmentally sustainable Berkeley. In the article, one Berkeley councilmember was quoted as saying that the environmental goals were “very optimistic”; “It’s going to be very hard to change people,” she said. “In my district alone, we’ve got to stop people driving up and down the hill four or five times a day.” This statement reminded me of the observation that I have found that the most unpleasant streets for walking are not just near the freeway entrances. Cedar, Hopkins, and Marin are particularly car-choked, especially on weekdays from about 2:30 on, as people pick up children from school, run errands, and come home from work. These streets seems to have a constant stream of traffic as the main thoroughfares from the Highway 80 and the flatland areas of Berkeley up into the almost entirely residential Berkeley hills.

I am not the best person to come up with ideas for getting people to drive less and reducing the amount of traffic in the hills. My idea of what is doable in terms of walking is unreasonable for most people, and it is not my place to make judgments about how people use their time or the decisions they make about how they go about their lives. I have often thought that one area where traffic could be reduced is trips to parks and hiking areas. What if, for instance, shuttles (run on alternative fuel) ran every 15-20 minutes or so from transit hubs (such as BART or Caltrain stations) or downtown areas of Bay Area cities to the various city/county/regional/state parks? If you made it easy and pleasant, some people might be willing to leave the car at home rather than drive up winding roads and worry about finding a parking spot at the park. Realistically and logistically, this isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, so we have to make do with what is available. I hope eventually to research the best car-free ways to get to parks and recreation areas in the Bay Area, as it is often confusing to figure out and sometimes involves two or three different transit agencies. Tilden, luckily, is fairly straightforward and not too much of a hassle if you live in Berkeley or near BART. I also want to know what the shortest route on foot is from a the North Berkeley and downtown BART stations to Tilden. One of the nice things about Berkeley’s stairways is that a pleasant walk could be had up the various stairways from the flatlands to the park, avoiding some of the steep and winding streets.

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Berkeley Hills


Photo by Joe Reifer

The contrast between the hills and the flatlands of Berkeley comes up often in historical accounts of Berkeley and in current-day conversations about Berkeley. I have talked to a number of people who own homes in the flatlands of Berkeley but hope someday to “trade up” to a house in the hills. I have also encountered some envy and even a few disparaging remarks about the “hill people.” For the most part, though, people seem to appreciate the variety offered by the different parts of town. After a number of walks in the hills, I began to notice that the Berkeley hills are somewhat different from the affluent hilly neighborhoods that I have encountered in other parts of the Bay Area and beyond. There are plenty of large homes with sweeping views of the Bay, but there are also some modest homes mixed in. The photo here (taken earlier this year — I just remembered it after a recent and surprisingly difficult search for a notary) shows a view of a small, one-story ranch house up in the hills. The other houses on the street were much larger, but this one sat amongst them appearing to be untouched by any remodeling.

Another characteristic of the hills is very apparent to a walker is the lack of businesses. Most other neighborhoods have a commercial strip of some sort in the vicinity. It would definitely present a challenge to the walker or cyclist, but I have not doubt there are at least a few people who live in the hills without a car and find ways to haul their groceries up the streets and stairways. One day on a Sunday morning walk on a street bordering Tilden Park, a woman walking out of a house asked me if I knew where she might get some cigarettes around there. It appeared as though she had been at a party up there and stayed the night. I had to break the news to her that she was a long way from a corner store.

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Mechanical Mysteries


Photo by Joe Reifer

One mystery solved (banana trees), two more added to the list: a strange tram and a pulley device. The trolley pictured above might seem perfectly normal in a park or in front of a historical museum. But no — this very short tram is in someone’s front yard in the Thousand Oaks neighborhood. Grocery transport system? Part of a railfan’s collection? Fun for the children? Hard to say.

Across town, not far from University and San Pablo, is a strange weight/pulley system attached to the side of an apartment building. The weight (at least that’s what I think this is) is just hanging from the cord attached to the balcony at the next level up. I have seen all sorts of laundry lines, dumbwaiters, fire escape systems, etc., but I could not immediately see the purpose of this object. Perhaps something is missing from the system. Any clues about this device would be greatly appreciated!

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Rock Parks & More Science Mysteries


Photo by Joe Reifer

Walks in the Berkeley hills seem to be generating quite a few research questions of the scientific sort. One of the highlights of walking in the Berkeley hills is the rock parks — such as Indian Rock Park and Great Stoneface Park — which are city parks that feature rock outcrops that are popular with climbers who want to practice their skills without the cost of going to a climbing gym, and with others who enjoy views across the Bay. I had already visited some of the rock parks in the past, but was surprised to find big rocks in other places in the Thousand Oaks area beyond the parks. Like right in people’s front yards.

As luck would have it, a book about these rocks (which are called Northbrae rhyolite) is due out later this year. It is aptly called Berkeley Rocks. Needless to say, I am pretty excited to see the book, and you can expect a review here when it comes out. In the meantime, a little more about these rocks can be found in a San Francisco Chronicle article from last year, which notes the incorporation of the rocks with architecture of the surrounding houses. Apparently hundreds of homes in the area have rock in their yards. The Berkeley Path Wanderers route sheet for a walk of the rock parks also contains more details about area’s geology.

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BART and the Physics of Sound

Most of my reports so far about my walks discuss what I see in Berkeley, but I have not talked too much about what I hear while I am walking. On several of my recent walks in the Berkeley hills I have been thinking about the sounds of BART. For readers outside of the area, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), is the rail transit system that connects San Francisco and communities on the east side of the Bay. In some areas BART runs below the ground and in many other places it travels along an elevated railway. The three BART stations in Berkeley (Ashby, Berkeley, and North Berkeley) are underground. According the the BART history, quite a bit of controversy surrounded this decision, which cost time delays and money. I would eventually like to learn more about this decision to run the trains underground. I have no doubt that aesthetics played a big part in the choice, but what about the noise? On my walks, it is puzzling to me that the sounds of the BART trains seem louder up in the hills, far away from where the stations run through the flatlands of Berkeley. Why is this? My non-scientific guess is that it has something to do with the proximity of North Berkeley hills to BART where it comes above ground near the Berkeley-Albany border, and the way that sound travels through canyons and hills. Actual scientific explanations welcomed!

Speaking of BART, these signs at North Berkeley BART make me happy that I walk to and from BART stations. I wonder how many people have missed their trains while trying to figure out exactly who can park here and when?

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