For some time, I wanted to write a post about walking all the way across Berkeley. Essentially, the walk would be a cross section, starting at the Bay , winding through our flatland neighborhoods, and then on up to the campus and the hills. And I finally got around to it….now…in this surreal time in which we find ourselves.
So this post will likely serve as a bit of a time capsule, capturing this moment in time, maybe the moment when everything changed? Whatever the case, its a great walk through my current hometown. I chronicled 12 stops along the way, 12 distinct places and spaces, actually a compendium of several walks sewn together . In one shot , it is about 5-1/2 miles in all:
1. The Bay
The journey begins at San Francisco Bay. The Berkeley Waterfront is a hodgepodge of uses, but it represents at one end of Berkeley a vast expanse of space. There is no understating the import, now more than ever, of being able to get to a place with a broad expanse in front of you. A place to stand, mask-free, and breathe in crisp sea air will do nicely. Unfortunately, many others have the same idea, and it ends up being a bit congested during “rush hours” .
It’s exciting to come summer evenings, and watch the drama of the sun and fog wrestle for control of the night. The fog usually wins, eventually obscuring San Francisco in the distance.
2. The Freeway
Just inland from the bay, one ascends a pedestrian bridge over the freeway to continue into Berkeley proper. And on these “in-between lands”, on land that seemingly doesn’t belong to any jurisdiction, a homeless village has been in place for the last several years. These are seen throughout the Bay Area in unclaimed spaces; the San Francisco Tenderloin, downtown Oakland, San Jose. It is bracing to see. One could fill many pages on this subject, and that is not the point of this post. Just want to say standing here, one feels society’s failure- this simply shouldn’t exist. It breaks my heart. I wish there were simple architectural solutions to this problem , but there are not . It clearly runs much deeper than a roof over your head. I think the roof is the simple part.
3. The Parking Lot
Over the freeway, one enters an industrial area. These are the old manufacturing areas of waterfront Berkeley, now mostly offices. The empty parking lots have been places for some to exercise in the mornings. For me, it has been part of a morning walk, not in quest of parking lot yoga, but strong coffee. I like walking here because you typically have the place to yourself. On brooding foggy mornings, the plant in the distance, Berkeley Asphalt, periodically hisses at me. I like that.
4. Fourth Street
As is often the case in the Bay Area, mere steps from a homeless encampment are places where one can buy 200 dollar hair care products and the like. Fourth Street , seen here, is a couple of blocks from the encampment and the industrial areas. Anchored by an Apple Store, it is normally a beehive of activity- Aveda, Lululemon, Sur La Table. But on this day, fresh off of the first weekend of Black Lives Matter protests, and the attendant looting, it was all boarded up. While other shopping areas were hit hard in the East Bay, Fourth Street survived the night, thanks to a phalanx of police guarding it. So, on this day , it seemed less to offer a sharp contrast to the encampment, than to complement it .
5. Neighborhood Shopping
Heading east to San Pablo Ave., we reach our modest little neighborhood commercial district. Worlds away from the “glamour” of Fourth Street, this couple of blocks provides essentials to the neighborhood, food, take-out meals, booze. While East Bay residents have flocked to higher profile groceries, (and remarkably are willing to wait 45 minutes to enter a grocery to buy rare purple Peruvian carrots), we have relied on our trusty little Mi Tierra Mercado for nearly all our needs. Short lines, and all we need at half the price. Across the street, the neighborhood bar has resorted to take away bottle service and to-go cocktails, and looks like they will make it. A few other small businesses in the neighborhood have not been so lucky.
Our cleaners have been desperate for business, so I recently wore several dress shirts (with gym shorts) for some on-line meetings so I could bring them some shirts.
6. The Neighborhood Park
A couple blocks to the east, quite close to home is a delightful neighborhood park. Strawberry Creek Park is one of the neighborhood’s Living Rooms , and has never gotten more use as these past few months. Its large lawn has provided ample room for spaced get togethers, dogs and people getting some much needed socializing . But the best part for me is its namesake creek, which runs down from the hills and roughly traces this walk’s course. It daylights here, and it is a magnificent little stretch of wild in the city. A great place to come early in the morning, or at dusk, and perhaps have a few minutes of quiet meditation.
7. Recreation Areas
Part of the allure of the park’s accessibility has been the inaccessibility of nearby recreation areas. This has now changed, but for weeks , the hoop was goaltended by a 2×4, and one of my favorite little Berkeley Institutions, the Lawn Bowling Club, had been shuttered’ it’s green lawns inhabited by crows. So it is a comfort to once again see lawn bowlers with broad hats plying their skills on the pristine green carpet of the Lawn Bowling Club. I will commence again to threatening to drag my husband here for Saturday lessons. He doesn’t feel we are yet old enough.
8. The Neighborhood Sidewalk
We are blessed with some magnificent walking streets in Berkeley, many covered with a stately umbrella of oaks. As one heads east towards downtown, there are a multitude of lovely blocks to explore. But during the pandemic, walking on a sidewalk can be an adventure as people decide for themselves their level of compliance with the rules. I follow the guidelines , my mask at the ready, and always on when I approach a passerby.
That said, I encounter extremes at either end. There are those, fully covered, who streak into the middle of traffic to avoid coming within 50 feet of me. (That hurts my feelings). At the other extreme, there is the inevitable person staring at their phone, sans mask, clueless of their surroundings, forcing me into traffic. I am trying not to become that rare Berkeley breed, the one that scolds people in public for doing something wrong. But sometimes it’s hard.
9. Downtown Berkeley
Not surprisingly, downtown Berkeley has been deserted for the last 3 months. For me, this was often a stop on my way home, disembarking at this BART station,, and up to the bustling plaza above, perhaps to pick up a pizza, or meet Juan for dinner . And it will soon again.
The last time I took BART was over 3 months ago, and when I descended on this day, it was empty. But, that eternal monotone BART voice soldiered on, announcing that a 10 car train to Richmond would arrive in 23 minutes. I wonder about the immediate sustainability of public transit. My hope is the public will gradually come back to some degree, part a result of growing confidence, partly once streets become gridlocked with all those transit-avoiding drivers.
10. Civic Center
As we have seen across the country, while the commercial areas are quiet, the parks and civic spaces are not. Also in downtown, MLK Civic Center Park has become a popular destination for protests and marches. On this day, a peaceful heartfelt Black Lives Matters protest by the senior class at Berkeley High gave way to a sit-in across the street at the Police Department Headquarters. If there is one Urban Design lesson to be taken from these last 3 months, it is a reminder how important a coherent hierarchy of open space is in the urban environment- from the pocket park to the grand civic plaza, and everything in between. Such a great day this was.
11. The Campus
The University of California campus is a treasure. It is a verdant hillside campus, set amongst groves of redwoods and grand sloping lawns. It is a place I come to often. The day I did this walk, it was a Saturday right at graduation time. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to be graduating this year, missing out on those once-in-a-lifetime celebrations. And so, like much the last 3 months, there was a do-it-yourself nature to it on the campus, as new graduates posed for pictures with their families. It was sweet.
The enthusiasm and energy one feels on the campus, and from young people in general, is one of the prime sources of optimism I have these days. They will fix things, cause we sure screwed it up pretty good..
12. The Berkeley Hills
Above the campus , the walk ends among the rambling brown shingle homes and cottages that overlook the city below. These narrow streets , paths, and stairs that head up the steep incline, are lined with works from a who’s who of Bay Area Architects.
As one ascends higher, the homes drop away, and you return to the wilds, open hillsides or forests. It occurred to me sitting up here, at hike’s end , that walking in the city below these days, one is conscious with every step of our current state of affairs, one’s thoughts often preoccupied with how to navigate through this time, be it staying employed, staying healthy, or how to keep my glasses from fogging up.
But up here, with a view back out to the Golden Gate, things seemed ordinary. Things seemed as they have always been.