Ambassadors hired by Block by Block are engaged in a month-long cleanup of Telegraph Avenue. Photo: Ted Friedman

The deployment of neon-clad “ambassadors” to paint over graffiti, power-wash streets, and sweep sidewalks along Telegraph Avenue is the latest in a series of attempts to revitalize a business district which has seen better days.

The “Big Splash” effort by Kentucky-based firm Block by Block began March 14, kicking off a year-long, $240,000 ambassador pilot program on Telegraph. Ambassadors have been engaged in a similar revitalization effort in downtown Berkeley since early 2012.

Telegraph Avenue — cherished by some for its political history and quirky institutions, and avoided by others for its large transient population and public drug use — has faced steep declines in sales tax revenue over the past several years. Rat-infested empty lots and graffiti-covered vacant storefronts have not helped the situation.

An ambassador scrapes a post on Telegraph. Photo: Ted Friedman

“The Big Splash downtown was looked upon very fondly,” said Roland Peterson, director of the Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement District (TBID), which hired Block by Block. TBID hoped a “similar result could happen here, and have a positive effect on businesses here, by having a major push to beautify this area,” Peterson said.

During the month-long Big Splash, funded by a $7,500 contribution from Mayor Tom Bates’ discretionary account, ambassador work will total 224 hours per week. Following the intensive cleanup effort, ambassadors’ duties will expand but their combined hours will decrease to 158 per week.

“After the first four weeks — and not before then — ambassadors will be addressing problematic behavior and offering businesses a hotline number to get ahold of ambassadors so they can address low-level municipal code violations,” said Lance Gorée, Downtown Berkeley Association operations manager and head of the ambassador program.

Gorée said Telegraph’s needs don’t differ much from the downtown district’s, but the problems are more visible.

“Telegraph is a much more confined area, so it’s easier to see the negative things,” he said. “An overflowing trashcan stands out on Telegraph much more than it would on Shattuck.”

Doris Moskowitz, owner of Moe’s Books, which has been on the street for 55 years, is optimistic about the impact the cleanup effort will have on her business.

“Sales are down for everybody. I would say it’s the last ten years that it’s gotten markedly less busy,” Moskowitz said. “Bringing in those people to help make it look cleaner, and to help the people who need help, is long overdue.”

Moskowitz said she is hopeful that the ambassadors will be able to assist in addressing unwanted behavior near businesses.

“When there’s somebody intoxicated in front of the store, there’s really very little that a merchant can do,” she said. “I can call the police but I have to get back to work. I think there’s a big need in this neighborhood to bring the services to the people here. Ideally, the ambassadors will have all the numbers at their disposal, so they can call mental health.”

But Aaron Murdock, manager of Lhasa Karnak Herb Company, next door to Moe’s, is skeptical about yet another initiative aimed at significantly altering trends on Telegraph.

“We see the same cycles,” said Murdock, who has worked at Lhasa Karnack for 38 years. “Picking up garbage is good,” but the ambassadors’ effort to address intoxicated people “won’t do a thing,” he said.

Telegraph suffers from myths and misperceptions, said Moskowitz, who took over the bookstore when her father, Moe Moskowitz, died in 1997. She mourns the decline of the vibrant city center.

“It’s the heart of Berkeley,” she said. “This is where the Free Speech Movement happened, the Women’s Movement, the Black Power Movement. It’s the place where the city and the university come together. But as it is, it’s sort of a student ghetto-slash-wasteland.”

For years Moskowitz was angry with the City for what she perceived as neglect of the Telegraph area, but she is grateful for Bates’ recent focus on the district.

Bates has prioritized the Telegraph area in the last year or so, and held a major community “brainstorming” meeting in February 2013.

“Things are underway and it’s going to be great to have more people on the streets, and to have a more active ambassador program,” Bates said.

Sundays on Telegraph 2013. Photo: William Newton
Sundays on Telegraph 2013: Mayor Bates says city will put more funds towards advertising this year’s event . Photo: William Newton
Sundays on Telegraph 2013: Mayor Bates says city will put more funds towards advertising this year’s event . Photo: William Newton

Last summer’s inaugural Sundays on Telegraph program brought vendors, live music, street performers and family-oriented activities to closed sections of the avenue. Bates said this year’s Sundays on Telegraph, which will begin mid-July, will have a larger advertising budget. And, although Telegraph’s Off the Grid food truck market closed this month due to lack of customers, Bates said he has higher hopes for the farmer’s market that will launch this summer on Telegraph and Haste Street.

Bates said several development projects in the area — including the proposed apartment building and retail spaces at the site of the 2011 fire that destroyed Telegraph and Haste’s Sequoia Apartments — have the potential to draw more business.

Also underway is the Lower Sproul Plaza Redevelopment project at the north end of Telegraph, which will replace and renovate several buildings and create a 24-hour student center. Some merchants are hopeful that it will draw more students to their businesses. Others, on the more southern blocks of Telegraph, said they were concerned it would further detract students from leaving campus.

“I think it will still be a major part of student life to go into the business district,” said Jennifer McDougall, UC principal planner. “It’s going to offer options and alternatives.”

Block by Block hosts 67 ambassador programs throughout the country. TBID’s three previous street sweepers were guaranteed interviews with the hiring managers in Berkeley if they were interested in becoming ambassadors, Peterson said. He said one was hired and is now working downtown, and the other two did not apply.

After the year-long pilot has concluded, the City and TBID will decide whether to continue the program on Telegraph, Bates said.

Off The Grid pulls plug on Southside Berkeley market (03.17.14)
Group proposes lighted arch over Telegraph Avenue (11.04.13)
New Sproul, design ideas provide optimism for Telegraph (11.19.12)
Tackling Telegraph Avenue: Is this time different? (03.01.13)
New building proposed for Sequoia site on Telegraph (02.27.13)
New Sproul design ideas provide optimism for Telegraph (11.29.12)
Can Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue get it mojo back? (04.18.12)
Telegraph site owner plans for temporary resurrection (02.06.12)
Imagining a future for Telegraph Avenue without blinders (04.11.12)
Telegraph fire site owner plans for temporary resurrection (02.06.12)
Berkeley’s 95-year-old Sequoia Building is brought down (11.29.11)
Urban think tank: Student visions for blighted Telegraph lot (10.03.11)
City hands ultimatum to Sarachan on vacant Telegraph lot (09.07.11)
The rats of Telegraph Avenue (video) (01.28.11)

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...