Remembering Dmitri Belser, disability rights advocate and restorer of historic homes

He was instrumental in helping get the Ed Roberts Campus built.

Dmitri Belser, who was instrumental in helping get the Ed Roberts Campus built and who twice served as its president, died April 22, three months after being diagnosed with cancer. He was 63.

Belser is one of the few people in Berkeley who can rightfully claim that he stopped traffic — legally. He and his husband, Tom White, renovated 10 historic, 100-plus-year houses over the last few decades and, on at least two occasions, moved them from one part of Berkeley to another, bringing traffic to a halt. The sight of houses on wheels navigating busy city streets always drew hundreds of spectators.

Because of their efforts, Belser and White rescued several historic properties from destruction, including the Cheney Cottage, built in 1902; the 1881 Delaney House, a 116-year-old, brown-shingle house on Walnut Street that had to be moved to make room for a new apartment complex; a 1916 structure on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way that was once used as the campaign headquarters for Robert Scheer, the Ramparts editor who ran for Congress; and the historic Kenney Cottage, which has been numbered and dismantled, waiting to be reassembled on a new lot. Belser and White also renovated several early 20th-century houses that did not have to be moved.

They documented their adventures on the website of their business, Rockhead and Quarry LLC (named after the company where cartoon character Fred Flintstone worked) and the 62nd Street blog.

Belser, who was legally blind, also served as the executive director of the Center for Accessible Technology for more than 20 years.

Belser was born in Boston in 1958. His father, Jess Belser, grew up in New York City and used the GI Bill to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He majored in metallurgy and went on to work at the Watertown Arsenal, where the rockets for NASA’s early manned space missions were cast, and at numerous other corporations in Illinois, Maryland and New York. His mother, Charlotte Belser, was also from New York City and was a homemaker and planning commissioner in Westport, CT, where the family eventually settled.

Belser attended Hampshire College, and it was there, in 1979, that he met fellow student White, who was “slinging hash at a taco joint,” White said. “He introduced himself by kissing me over the lunch counter in his typically forward way of getting things done.”

Belser told White he was fixing up a 1963 Volkswagen van, which he planned to drive to California that summer, and asked if White would like to come. “He was very persuasive,” said White.

Belser loved to restore cars, and during his life he fixed up a 1939 and 1950 DeSoto, a 1957 Volkswagen Beetle, a 1967 Volkswagen convertible, as well as the van. Belser, who described himself as “hard of seeing,” because of his macular degeneration, loved to drive and crossed the country twice. He gave up driving about 15 years ago as his eyesight got worse.

man standing outside old brown shingle home
Dmitri Belser standing outside the 116-year-old house he rescued in 2017. Credit: Facebook

Belser and White moved to San Francisco and, eventually, bought a 1912 row house in Bernal Heights. They fixed it up, the first of many such endeavors.

In March 1985, the couple adopted their first child, Talia, in an open adoption, a relatively rare arrangement at the time. They had been going to adoption agencies prior to that but were told “there were certain moral requirements” that could not be overlooked, a barely coded message that same-sex couples were not considered eligible to raise families.

But a mutual friend brought Belser and White together with Talia’s birth mother, and they all remain friends. In 1989, Belser and White adopted 5-month-old Sabastian, also through open adoption.

The couple was married three times. They had a civil union in Vermont in 2001; were married in Vancouver, Canada, in 2005; and married at the Alameda County courthouse in Oakland in 2008.

Belser and White moved to South Berkeley in 1988, where they fixed up their first house.

Belser worked as a sign language interpreter at San Francisco State University in the late 1970s and he later became the coordinator of deaf student services for the university’s Deaf and Disabled Service Center. After working as a manager with Pacific Bell’s Deaf and Disabled Service Center, in 2001 he became the executive director of the Center for Accessible Technology, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that ensures people with disabilities can access assistive technology to be as independent as possible.

Belser’s diminishing vision shaped how he approached the world, he told Eve Kushner of The Monthly in 2009.

“I’m used to who I am and the kind of vision I have,” he said. “[Without vision difficulties] I wouldn’t be me. The experience I’ve had being an outsider, living a different kind of life, has helped make me the person I am now. What I’ve gotten from having vision loss is, I think, bigger than what I’ve lost by it.”

Belser was also instrumental in getting the Ed Roberts Campus, a multi-tenant nonprofit center, built in South Berkeley. For decades, agencies that served people who used wheelchairs or had disabilities were scattered around the city, making it difficult to access services. After Roberts, a quadriplegic who was the first person with severe disabilities to attend UC Berkeley, died in 1995, the city of Berkeley decided to honor the man instrumental in creating the independent living movement. Berkeley, BART and seven agencies serving the disabled banded together to conceive of the Ed Roberts Campus across the street from the Ashby BART station. But it took 17 years to make the vision a reality and the campus finally opened in 2012, in part because of Belser’s efforts. As president of the Ed Roberts Campus from 2005 to 2012 (and again from 2015 to early 2018), he was the face of the project and served as a cheerleader for it in the community, according to Eric Smith, the current director. Belser’s charisma and ability to bring groups with differing opinions together were critical to the center getting built, said Smith.

“He was a unique individual,” said Smith, who worked with Belser at different organizations for more than 20 years. “He knew everybody in Berkeley. He was 6-foot-4 and very charismatic and had an amazing capacity to connect with people. A lot of people considered him one of their best friends. He was a real schmoozer.”

The Ed Roberts Center posted a tribute to Belser on its website:

“Dmitri was instrumental in so many aspects of getting the ERC developed and constructed that it’s hard to imagine being in the building and not seeing him speeding through the hallways. He was President of the ERC board during its most formative years and Executive Director of the Center for Accessible Technology since 1999. Among his many talents, Dmitri had a rare ability for making lasting connections with everyone he encountered. He will be forgotten by none of us and missed by all.”

Belser was also active in civic affairs. He served on the Landmarks Preservation Commission, was the chair of the Commission of Disabilities and worked with the Berkeley Public Library to improve the design of the Tarea Hall Pittman/South Berkeley Library.

On April 20, two days before he died, the Berkeley City Council issued a proclamation honoring Belser to “express our sincere appreciation for his many contributions to the city and its residents.”

Belser is survived by his husband, Tom White; daughter, Talia, 36; son, Sabastian, 31, mother, Charlotte Belser; sisters, Stephanie and Ann Belser; brother, Mark Belser; and by three nephews and one niece. Interment will be at Fernwood Natural Green Burial Grounds in Mill Valley.

Dmitri understood the urgent need for affordable permanent supportive housing for people living with mental illness in our community and was a beloved member of the East Bay Supportive Housing Collaborative (EBSHC), a project of the Center for Accessible Technology. Charitable gifts in his memory should be donated to CforAT, with “EBSHC” noted on the check’s memo line. Contributions can be mailed to EBSHC c/o Center for Accessible Technology, 3075 Adeline St. Suite 220, Berkeley, CA, 94703.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Cityside. Email: frances@citysidejournalism.org.