About Berkeley

I lived in Berkeley from 1994-1999. I have visited a few times in the interim. The city is both the same and different. Obviously the streets did not move, and most of the buildings are still there. Even more surprisingly, many businesses did not change over this period, though some have. The old five-and-dime store (a Newberry’s, part of the roll-up of five-and-dimes that included a number of local chains across the US) in Berkeley, which closed soon after I moved there was replaced by a Half-price Books. Some one-story retail buildings have been replaced by five story apartment buildings with ground-floor retail. The most successful of these appears to be the Trader Joe’s at University and MLK.

Trader Joe's
Trader Joe’s

But if Berkeley is locationally so desirable (and in many ways it is, the weather, the University, the amenities – all optimized for child-less singles in their twenties, of which there are many in the United States who do not live in places as nice as Berkeley), why have there not been more of these 5-story buildings been built upgrading the commercial streets. What is capping supply? Is it the cost of building in Berkeley due to regulation? The fear of rent control? Neighborhood opposition? Or an actual limit to demand? I am not familiar enough with the current state of politics in Berkeley to know for sure, but it sure seems like Berkeley could support far more people in an economically productive way. When I lived there the housing stock was aging and not well-maintained, a product undoubtedly of rent control. I have a friend living in the same unit as in 1994, all that time under rent control. He complains about the landlord of course, but his rent is really, really cheap, and one suspects his landlord has ordered a hit.

Even with the perfect-seeming weather in Berkeley (that is, it is winter, and I don’t need a coat, therefore it is perfect), people always find a way to complain. The problem is the drought. The mountains are not getting snow, so pretty soon, the San Francisco area won’t be getting water, and everyone will die of thirst. Well, perhaps that is an exaggeration. Pretty soon the cost of water will have to rise.

I stayed at this particular Rodeway motel in 2007, and it was good, clean rooms, hot high-pressure water, modernized facilities, large screen TV and free internet, so I went back. It is still well-maintained. Strangely, I think I got exactly the same room.
Someone could write a paper on the bid-rent curve for hotel rooms on University Avenue in Berkeley as one gets steadily farther from the Campanile on campus.

The Cheesesteak Shop
The Cheesesteak Shop

People of course have their favorite things. Still the best cheesesteaks in the US are to be had at thePhiladelphia Cheesesteak Shop on University Avenue, they taste the same as they did 15 years ago (though the sweet peppers should be chopped more finely and better interspersed). They honored my stamped (frequent cheesesteak eater) card, which I filled out when I left Berkeley but never had a chance to redeem (15 years ago). It is sort of amazing I still had it, but there it was, with my pile of passports, transit cards for other cities, and other things in my travel drawer, emptied from my wallet in a fit of optimization a few years ago.

I wish someone would open a Minnesota franchise. The cheesesteaks of the upper Midwest are fine food, but they are not truly Philadelphia style cheesesteaks, as interpreted by the excellent cooks of Berkeley. (No, this is not part of the slow food movement out there).

The Berkeley of the 1960s is gone, now packaged up as an historic memory with associated tie-died trinkets to give the place a past, just like Northfield with its Jesse James days. There is of course much cognitive dissonance, left-wing sentiment, a naive idealism about human nature, and a tendency to favor politically correct slogans in the community, particularly from the old-timers. It appears to me, 15 years on (even more so than when I was a graduate student, a time that did not resemble the ’60s either) that the students today are trying it on as they might a costume, rather than as a truly internalized belief in their own self-importance and without the drive to change the world as their grandparents might have felt.

Maybe it is because their grandparents won and there is nothing worth getting worked up over. Maybe it is just a post-modern hedonistic fatalism associated with the end of empire that no longer believes in the narratives about right and wrong. Or maybe I am projecting, and everyone else really has a righteous passion and I just can’t see it.

The culture feels more materialistic. While buildings were not fully occupied, business generally seemed to be doing better in Berkeley than it has in a long time. I think there is some Palo Alto Envy, and there does seem to be a more vibrant start-up culture emerging in the city. I provide two examples. The transportation start-up Via Analytics, (I talked with some of their employees/graduate students)  is doing very interesting work on improving transit fleet synchronization.  SpoonRocket  delivers hot fresh meals for $6 from their kitchen/distribution center on University Avenue, via a fleet of specially equipped cars. It looks like a nice service, and is certainly cost-effective for the time-starved graduate student /entrepreneur class. I can’t imagine it is profitable. But they both suggest that Information Technology will permeate the transportation and logistics sector, and change not only how we do things, but what we do.

3 thoughts on “About Berkeley”

  1. Overall I have a very similar impression of Cambridge. I lived there for 14 years in school and after. My daughter now lives four short blocks from where I lived in grad school. On the one hand, Central Square still has many of the same stores 40 years later. On the other hand, many areas that were industrial or empty urban renewal lots are now midrise mixed use. Closer to the redeveloped area, a restaurant where I went regularly for the 99 cent macaroni special after it opened in a long-vacant storefront now has a $115 tasting menu.

    I think the answer to your question is zoning. Remember that Berkeley is the city that pioneered the exclusion of apartments from residential zones. Cambridge built apartments in the residential area along Harvard St. in the 60s and then downzoned.

  2. I lived in Berkeley (or close by in North Oakland) over much the same period, and also went back recently. Living in Los Angeles now, I felt some of the same sense that you did about the relative lack of people (I guess a lot of places would feel that way compared to the second biggest city in the country!). But really, even comparing Downtown Berkeley to Downtown Palo Alto, much less anywhere in the central area of San Francisco, Berkeley feels like a ghost town. All the more bizarre considering that there are 30,000+ students studying a few blocks away. I suspect it’s probably a combination of NIMBYism, rent control, and the fact that there hasn’t ever been a really significant economy (i.e. job center) in the inner East Bay in general in the post-war period, notwithstanding the nascent tech scene that you described.

  3. I haven’t been back to Berkeley in two years but regarding the one-story commercial buildings, that is also a plague all over the Boston region, and it is very difficult to replace or add floors to them because of moronic zoning and general NIMBYism. One building near me got 2 floors added, but otherwise the buildings look the same as they did in photographs from the 1920s, with plenty of decay, and some knocked down for parking lots.

    If someone managed to overcome the ridiculous NIMBY attitude found in places like Berkeley, more power to them.

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