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Saturday, July 04, 2009

Independence day in our towns

As Frank Capra taught us in movies like Its a Wonderful Life (1946), and Mister Smith Goes to Washington (1939), patriotism is as much about places, towns and cities, as it about the nation.  Indeed, if nations are, as Benedict Anderson influentially dubbed them, "imagined communities," than towns are the real nodes from which that imaginary is projected; like Philadelphia and Boston, or Williamsburg, in 1776, or San Francisco in 1934 (July 5th marks the 75th anniversary of that city's famous general strike, read Carl Nolte's reporting on it in the SF Chron). 

So here is an independence day shout out to my chosen hometown Berkeley, California; and a happy independence day wish to all of you in your  towns all over this nation.

I moved here in 1977 to be a student at the University of California, and stayed for three degrees until 1989 or so, and then moved back as a faculty member there in 2003.  It is an easy life to love or satirize.  This morning Chris and I got on our bicycles and rode 2.5 miles down mostly well painted and traffic calmed "bicycle boulevards" to the downtown Berkeley farmer's market, one of three that operate on different days and places in Berkeley that are organized by Berkeley's Ecology Center. After locking them up (yes bicycle theft is a reality) on conveniently provided, bicycle dedicated, sidewalk lock up bars, we wandered among scores of fellow residents on one long block of closed off Center street (beautifully  back dropped by Berkeley's victorian city hall).  Dozens of booths sell locally grown produce, artisan foods, and some crafts.  We bought   organic nectarines, a medley of squash, and tomatoes, all grown on regional organic farms that appear to be providing real jobs to people willing to work very hard and become very skilled. 

Local food, seasonally purchased and eaten, is one idea that thanks to Alice Waters can be credited to Berkeley.  Yes she helped Michelle Obama start the new White House garden, but more than a decade ago she got the Berkeley public school into organic farming and food production for school lunches and snacks.  The originall "edible school garden" is at Martin Luther King Middle School (where my daughter just finished 6th grade). 

We are not simply a foody  ghetto however.  The city includes every kind of economic activity and much unemployment and homelessness.  The 20th century mix of industrialism near the waterfront and academic research on the hill, continues to produce jobs of all kinds, including manufacturing (although our retail sector downtown and near campus seems dismal for reasons that confound me).  The city's commitment to social justice (it was the first school district in the country to voluntarily desegregate and its schools remain  integrated without racial classification through the use of broad spatially drawn districts) does not spare it the routine tragedies of America's racialized class system.  A shooting between drug market participants in section of town with a lot of visible poverty caused Rosa Parks Elementary school, where my son was a 3rd grader, to be locked down for several hours last April. 

Berkeley's reputation nationally is laggingly based on the events of the 1960s (just as Chicago, my original home town, was Al Capone to many of the Europeans I met during my first visit in 1978).  Everyone remembers the Free Speech Movement, and People's Park, but Berkeley is also the birthplace of police reform in the 1920s (August Vollmer) and the disability rights movement in the 1970s which led to a remaking of streets, side walks, and buildings to make them accessible to wheelchairs, and also baby strollers, and bicycles (Center for Independent Living).

It is easy to see us as simply left or liberal.  Yes, Berkeley in November looked like Who-ville at Christmas, only draped in Obama blue rather than Christmas red  (I don't think you could have found a McCain sign in town, unless it was a bumper sticker on a car driving along the freeway).  This reputation began when Governor Reagan sent in the state guard in to put down the People's Park uprising in May 1969 and made a successful national career running against Berkeley as a place and an idea. 

Yet so many of the innovative ideas produced here about food and lifestyle generally have huge, well, capitalistic economic implications and can produce a new small business and agricultural middle class if taken national (for one delicious example, consider the Cheese Board, one of the most successful employee owned business models in the world).  It has a superbly trained police force (August Vollmer would be proud).  When I returned from our June vacation to find that our Honda Civic had been stolen, the Berkeley police recovered it an unbelievable 8 hours after I reported it stolen (we may have been lucky but they were looking).  Berkeley enjoys lovely libraries where my kids can study after school, and stunning parks.  The parks help exemplify a spirit of independence and responsible risk taking that any conservative would appreciate.  Our favorite, the Adventure Playground, invites kids to check-out tools and materials to build onto scores of creative structures that have evolved through serial construction, or start their own (they have to work first by finding nails, splinters or other hazardous waste). 

Thanks to a willingness to pass property taxes on ourselves, its very successful restaurants which pay a lot of taxes, and good fiscal management, Berkeley is one of the few cities in California not debating whether to lay off police or fire fighters, and is rated 17 out of 486 California cities by Standard and Poors for bond purposes (see an SFChron article on our strong fiscal situation). 

So, are we left, or just right?

Posted by Jonathan Simon on July 4, 2009 at 09:37 PM | Permalink


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