Michael Chabon is one of the charismatic megafaunas that characterize Berkeley’s broader ecosystem of enraptured citizens, who can still be found roaming the local landscape despite a housing crisis of epic proportions. Pick up your binoculars and you can find them without much trouble: imagining revolutions as they wander the aisles of Berkeley Bowl, balancing groundbreaking careers with chronic neuroses, and grazing on the shrubbery of brilliant ideas that have been fertilized by the droppings of Berkeleyans past.
Like many of you, I often find some of these creatures browsing on my front yard, thanks to that quintessential Berkeley hummingbird feeder, the Little Free Library. I love our Little Free Library, which in proper Berkeley fashion was built by a team of 11-year-old girls at a women-led cooperative construction skills summer camp in a residential backyard on Parker Street. Recent donations to our Free Library from our neighbors have included a book on female orgasms, a book called Accidents in North American Mountaineering 2009, and a few containers of Play-Doh.
God help the politicians and bureaucrats who try to make a town like this actually run. It must be like trying to conduct an orchestra made up of musicians who all built their own instruments, each using a custom design that they have personally developed over years of careful experimentation, each of which makes a beautiful and unique sound, unlike any instrument you’d find at the store.
As Chabon writes, at this point Berkeley is one of probably less than 10 cities left in America “with the ingrained perversity to hold onto its idea of itself.” But the skyrocketing cost of housing means that the unique breed of people who make Berkeley Berkeley increasingly can’t afford to live here. Without meaningful action, Homo Berkeleyans will soon be on the endangered species list.
To date, we have gone about this effort by going back to one of our community’s great traditions: turning on each other. Local debate on the housing crisis has turned into a fight of “NIMBYs” vs. “YIMBYs”, preservationists vs. housing activists, and in many cases the older generation vs. the young. Efforts by local advocates to address the crisis with state legislation have been called a “declaration of war against our neighborhoods” by our mayor. We may be headed into a post-apocalyptic future with Baby Boomer homeowners digging trenches in the front yards of their Berkeley brown-shingles, fashioning makeshift weapons out of broken Wavy Gravy albums, homegrown zucchinis and old patchouli oil canisters, fending off an army of high tech Millennial would-be-neighbors armed to the teeth with Twitter accounts, avocado toast, and expressions of ironic disdain.
Intergenerational conflict is another long-standing Berkeley tradition, going back to the days of “don’t trust anyone over 30.”As Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” famously observed in the cartoon that was used to promote the first Earth Day in 1970, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”
But if you watch these battles play out during public comment periods at the Planning Commission and the Zoning Adjustments Board, you can see a glint of hope in the shared civic passion of both “sides.” What binds us together is our shared love of a place that is defined not by its beautiful structures, but by its beautiful souls. What makes Berkeley Berkeley isn’t the neighborhood character, it’s the neighborhood characters. Perhaps this is the common bond on which a path forward can be built.
But we have to build it ourselves. The bureaucrats and politicians aren’t going to save us. We can’t browbeat real estate developers into building the leftist multiracial vegan cooperative housing we so desperately need. If what makes Berkeley great is its people, then we will have to be the ones who roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of building enough places for our people to live, and keep Berkeley alive into a future that really, really needs it.
Like all living things, Berkeley can be killed in different ways. If we try to preserve it under glass, it will suffocate. If we try to mass produce it, eventually it’ll become a pale facsimile of itself. How do we house our growing population without losing our souls?
One answer can be found in another long-standing local tradition: grassroots real estate development. Nonprofits like the South Berkeley Neighborhood Development Corporation, or more recently the Ed Roberts Campus, have shown us how our community can self-organize around our shared values to build the world we want to live in if we’re willing to put in the work. Maybe it’s time for another “back to the land” movement, where we put our own sweat and toil into this place that we love, to grow organic, hyperlocal places for the next generation of Berkeleyans to call home.