You’ll find souvenirs stamped with the city flag all over Chicago. Bars and restaurants love to fly its blue stripes and six-pointed red stars, and more than a few residents get it tattooed on their bodies.
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Oakland’s city flag, a green oak tree on a canary yellow background, isn’t quite as iconic. But it still inspires T-shirts and has earned a spot on jerseys worn by the Roots, the local soccer club.
Now some think it’s time for Berkeley to have a flag of its own.
Councilmember Ben Bartlett has launched an effort to hold a citywide contest to design an official Berkeley flag and establish other civic symbols — a city song and motto — that he hopes inspire local pride and “build community spirit” in the wake of a pandemic defined by isolation.
“This would be a good shot in the arm for people to enjoy themselves and come together around some creative and meaningful endeavors,” Bartlett said. “My hope is to tap into our collective imagination as a city, and give people an opportunity to contribute to our community.”
Plenty of musicians have penned songs paying tribute to Berkeley over the years.
Some were locals — Lil’ B rapped about “walking Telegraph on Friday night” in a song dedicated to the city, while the 924 Gilman denizens Tilt closed out a 1994 album with an ode to the waterfront titled “Berkeley Pier.” Others seized on the outsize reputation of the city and university it’s synonymous with; John Denver crooned in 1973 about his infatuation with a “Berkeley Woman” who had “a dulcimer in her lap / a feather in her hair,” and four decades later Frank Ocean described a model’s “brain like Berkeley.”
But Bartlett imagines the new civic anthem to be an original composition. His inspiration came from the City Song Project, a 2020 initiative from the U.S. Conference of Mayors where musicians created songs for their towns while stuck at home during the early days of the pandemic.
As for mottos, Berkeley could draw inspiration from Oakland’s “love life,” which the city adopted to honor a 16-year-old, Lo’Eshe Lacy, who was killed in a 1997 shooting, or San Francisco’s “Oro en paz, fierro en guerra,” which translates to “gold in peace, iron in war.” Berkeley will likely take a pass on the motto for the city that an anonymous artist engraved on medallions placed near the Oakland border several years ago: “Welcome to Berkeley, now stop doing that.”
Bartlett envisions a process for creating and choosing the symbols that taps into Berkeley’s particularly high concentration of musicians and artists.
Performing arts venues, libraries, community centers and other local facilities could exhibit the submissions, he suggested, and residents could play an active role in picking the winners. The proposal has been referred to the Civic Arts Commission; it does not currently include any funding for the winning submissions.
The process of adopting new civic symbols could be a fraught one, however.
In a 2015 TED Talk titled “Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed,” the podcast host Roman Mars made the case that local governments have often wound up choosing forgettable flags that spark little pride and are rarely flown outside of city hall. While Chicago sets the gold standard, Mars contends the flawed flag of San Francisco — a depiction of an ascendant phoenix that critics say is cluttered with features like the city’s motto and name — is far more typical.
“A great city flag is something that represents a city to its people, and its people to the world at large,” Mars says in the talk, which has racked up nearly 5 million views on YouTube. “By having bad flags we don’t use, we cede that territory to sports teams and chambers of commerce and tourism boards.”
While it doesn’t have a flag, Berkeley arguably already has an iconic civic symbol in the city’s logo, four faces in profile representing diversity taken from the artist Romare Bearden’s 1973 mural “Berkeley — The City and its People.” It’s often paired with the distinctive font ITC Rennie Mackintosh, which may as well be Berkeley’s official typeface given how frequently it appears whenever the city wants to use lettering with a sense of occasion.
Versions of the logo appear on signs welcoming people to Berkeley, atop city government letterhead, on garbage bins and plenty of other places around town and beyond — the four faces are on the new sign outside the rebuilt Tuolumne Camp, letting visitors know they’re entering a piece of Berkeley in the Sierra Nevada. Meanwhile Bearden’s mural, which was once displayed in the City Council chambers at Old City Hall, has been in storage for years as the building awaits seismic retrofits.
Bartlett said he likes the Bearden logo, though he added, “I don’t think its use right now creates the presence that a flag would create.
“It’s quite possible that an artist could take that symbol and ramp it up to a flag” he said.
Share your ideas for Berkeley’s flag, song and motto
A councilmember wants to hold a contest to pick the city’s civic symbols — but first, we want to hear from you!