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More About Berkeley

A previous blog, titled “Berkeley As America’s Cultural Capital,” aroused enough interest to inspire me to continue writing about Berkeley. So this is a miscellany of thoughts of an old and confirmed Berkeley person. I gave up a lot of other things--curatorships and directorships, a University Professorship at Harvard--to stay at Berkeley for most of my life, and have never regretted it. Even while my present project, the video-lectures, keeps me in Vancouver most of the time, I mean to retire to Berkeley before too long and live out my remaining days there.

I still have a house in the north Berkeley flatlands, located within easy walk (back when I was an easy walker) of the small neighborhood that includes the most famous restaurant in the U.S., Chez Panisse--I frequent, not the restaurant itself, but the Café upstairs --as well as Peet’s Coffee (which underlies and inspired, I am told, the Starbucks chain), the Cheese Board, which not only sells great cheeses and pastries but makes, every day, pizzas that people stand in long lines to buy; and lots of others. Alice Waters, when she named her restaurant, needed to be confident, as she could in Berkeley, that enough people would know who Panisse was for that name to catch on; she later opened a Café Fanny and another (something Marius?). And if this is cultural snobbery, why not.

I have long meant to write an essay on “Berkeley grunge”--a special kind of cultivated messiness and disorder in which Berkeley people take pride. I remember reading newspaper columnists in San Francisco fulminating against this idea that Berkeley grunge somehow trumps their kind of elegance. I assume, and hope, that they still do.

And then there are the Berkeley barricades. Years ago, commuters from outside Berkeley would find ways to speed through our residential streets, avoiding the proper thoroughfares with their stoplights and traffic but endangering the locals and their children on these should-be-quiet streets. So Berkeley set up, at a few strategically-located entrances to these streets, the infamous Berkeley barricades: iron-and-concrete posts set in bases, movable if fire-trucks need to get through but not otherwise, with chains extending to the sides blocking passage. The immediate responses from the outside motorists I remember very well--the newspapers were full of them for a while: they were going to bring dynamite and blow them up; they would bring tractors or bulldozers and pull/push them up or down; they would get a law passed in Sacramento forbidding any community to set up such abominations. All in vain: the barricades are there today, motorists are forced to keep mostly to the thorofares. and the residential streets are safe for children, good to live on.

Best of all, for me, is the way the University of California and the surrounding community interact and interpenetrate. One of the reasons I didn’t even consider a Stanford professorship, after spending a day there considering it (before Michael Sullivan was hired), was the insular character of its campus: not much interaction between the university and the city around it. (So it was in Michael’s time, at least, as he told me.) In Berkeley, by contrast--well, I really needn’t continue. Just imagine coming out of Sather Gate, making your way to Telegraph Avenue across Sproul Plaza--where, in my years of teaching, various performers and political groups would be out doing their things every day--I remember, for one, the East Bay Sharks, a Brechtian street-theater commune that performed regularly just outside the Gate.

And don’t get me started on restaurants. The city I live in now, Vancouver, is another that is outstanding for these, and San Francisco has its share; but the pleasures of eating in Berkeley, if you know where to go, are special.

Another theme on which I could write at length, although not with authority, is Berkeley architecture--the comfortably neo-romantic houses of our best architect, Bernard Maybeck, with their large living rooms with walk-in fireplaces (the Great Hall in the Faculty Club, where I performed many times with colleagues, is his work), and his pupil Julia Morgan, responsible for such notables as the Women’s Gym, Women’s (now Berkeley) City Club (with great swimming pool)--and, far to the south, Hearst Castle (no, it doesn’t look like the one in Citizen Kane.) And, apart from these, the whole Berkeley brown-shingle tradition, fine even when no names are attached. I lived for years in one--Duffey’s Boarding House--just south of Dwight Way on Benvenue (and thus close to Maybeck’s Christian Science Church.) Berkeley houses are painted a variety of colors, some that would be virtually banned in other communities, and feature unkempt but comfortable-looking gardens.

And, a blessing for me and my students during my years of teaching there: the proximity of the seashore, which allows day-trips to Marin County and the incomparable Point Reyes National Seashore. Inverness was, and I hope still is, virtually a Berkeley weekend-and-summer community. Trips to Marin County, overnights at the Tomales Bay house belonging to one of my students (Sheila Keppel), the great walk from McClure’s Beach northward atop the ridge between the Pacific Ocean and Tomales Bay (which my students called the Long March)--all these were integral parts of our academic program and our community, and of my life. With all respect to East Coast beaches (from which one watches the sun rise, not set!), nothing there that I know is really comparable. Perhaps more than any other factor, this underlay my determination to resist all temptations from that other institution (the Berkeley of the East, it would like to be) and other Big Guns on the East Coast. It is to Berkeley that I shall return in time and, I trust, live out my last days.

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