The writing on the wall says it all. Photo: John C. Osborn.

John Osborn moved from northern California to Berkeley in the late winter of 2010 and has been surprised by what he’s found: the wonders of BART, the diversity of people, the good food. John has been reporting on the issues of Humboldt County for years and will now be reporting on Berkeley issues for Berkeleyside. He will also be writing about his impressions of our city. Here he shares some impressions of our city:

West Berkeley is not an industrial wasteland; it is beautiful. But you know the cliché: beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

The robust and thriving industrial lifeblood of America has undergone a profound change. What was once the enviable industrial base of the world, employing untold numbers of blue-collar workers with middle class wages and benefits, has since succumbed to the great race for the bottom — a consequence of unleashing our national companies into the global marketplace.

But fear not. This doesn’t herald the death of manufacturing as some are quick to tell you. There is still a spirit of resilience that permeates particular areas, including here in West Berkeley.

I spent the past month talking with artisans and small manufacturers deeply rooted in the district, spent untold sunsets snapping pictures of the landscape, and sat through hours of public testimony about the proposed zoning changes for a series of articles and a slide show about the West Berkeley plan.

What I see and hear is not death: there is history; there is livelihood; there is a reason to be cautious moving forward, but there is also a reason to evolve and grow.

The city has been exploring the possibility of changing zoning restrictions on the types of uses that have been in place for almost two decades in West Berkeley. Hearings have whittled down hundreds of concerns from workers, residents, city officials, and property owners into what some consider a compromise proposal, a plan to catalyze a high-tech industry without completely sacrificing the livelihood of those who call the district their work and/or home.  Some, however, regard the plan as execution warrant of sorts — an invitation that will bring in a deluge of high-tech companies, residential expansion, and tall office buildings, which will increase rents and push out small businesses.

When I published my photo essay on the district, I was criticized for focusing on the “negative” (i.e. the dilapidation and decay throughout the district). But you know what, I think it’s beautiful; it caught my eye because it represents the raw industrial essence still coursing through the district, and I think it attracts the interest of others because it represents a wounded beast fighting to survive.

Industry is gritty, dirty, and tactile. If you want fresh and clean, go to the Fourth Street shopping area, which represents the district’s retail base. Visit the new Fourth and University residential towers for new, but pricey, housing opportunities. Heck, if you really want a sight to satisfy the eye, go to Aquatic Park at sunset. But don’t think for a minute that the rough structures, the empty lots, the railroad is anyway indicative of the death of manufacturing overall.

This reminds me of journalism. Everyone and their mentor has an opinion on the future of my industry. I keep hearing that it’s not just a wounded beast, it’s a patient with terminal cancer, clutching on desperately to some miracle cure while ignoring the death throes chiming from the Internet. A dying field. Why bother? The end is nigh! Long live the Huffington Post…cough.

But you know what, my industry is not dying, even if there have been mass layoffs and the shuttering of many newspapers. It’s evolving, and there will always be a demand for quality media that the information free-for-all on the Internet cannot completely satisfy.

Manufacturing is not dying either; it has a nasty gash perhaps, but it’s not in the grave. No, we don’t see the scale of manufacturing that existed prior to the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization, the technological automation, and the “freeing” of markets. What we see, especially in Berkeley, are niche manufacturers who fill a need that is not going to go away anytime soon.

Take Adam and Chittenden Scientific Glass. No amount of automation and robotics will replace a glassblower’s care and attention to the crafting of specific plexi-glass products. The business has international penetration for its products, a substantial number of clients in West Berkeley alone, and it provides a number of high-paying jobs. As long as those niches fill a demand, those manufacturers are not going anywhere… unless other factors influence their business future.

Back in Arcata where I’m from, we have a community of niche manufacturers and light industry that has done much to keep the city from plunging deeply into the red with its budget. Arcata is actually expanding the land available for light industrial use in order to attract talent and entrepreneurship from Humboldt State University, and to help stabilize the volatile retail sector. There is even a push by young technology folk to attract R&D there, since Arcata, like Berkeley, has what affluent techies want: beauty, food, and good beer. Seriously.

Safeguarding what cultural and industrial resources the city has is not protectionism; it is the cultivation of a strong, diverse community: a community where R&D start-ups, movie technicians, and E-Bay traders all have a place.

It’s a strange calculation when jobs and livelihoods are at stake verses the promises of a high-tech revolution. But I would hate to see the passion I saw in the artisans and manufacturers while working on my essay be extinguished because they were told they aren’t part of the future plan, and forces beyond them acted accordingly.

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