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Berkeley Fails to House the Poor

by Carol Denney

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Back in September of 2004, a local letter writer to a Berkeley paper puzzled over an answer to the homeless situation. If he had turned a few pages in the same issue of The Daily Planet in which his letter appeared, he would have seen that a site which once housed more than 70 low-income people with come-as-you-are units (no large security deposits, leases, etc.) runs the risk of being replaced with a building housing only 20 people, with possibly one or two "low-income" units for the $35,000-a-year set.

The wonderfully researched front-page article by Richard Brenneman didn't mention one important and relevant fact about the building that once stood at Telegraph and Haste, a fact known only to a few. The 1986 fire which rendered the building unlivable was deliberately set. Friends of mine who lived in the building told the story of one entire wing of the building being told to evacuate just before the fire to reporter after reporter, most of whom would not print the story for fear of being sued. No one was ever prosecuted for the arson.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and the current City Council love the theory that condominium and property owners "contribute to community stability" and have "a long-term interest in the community," neglecting to acknowledge that the rest of us do, too. They neglect to mention that the median income is so distorted by those who never have to think about the minimum wage as to be a useless measure of affordability.

It is a measure of intellectual bankruptcy to ignore this fact, and an obvious recipe for the most vulnerable, and perhaps occasionally ill-tempered, to end up on the street. Berkeley cannot point to its pathetic assortment of inadequate shelter beds and argue that they are meeting the same need as the building which once stood at Haste and Telegraph. The poor are chased from one end of town to the other and repeatedly and punitively ticketed; the people who burned down their homes were never charged.

Our community is understandably bothered by aggressive behavior, name-calling, and maybe begging itself. But the Mayor and the Berkeley City Council, in their aggressive enthusiasm for housing only the wealthy and the upper middle class in the name of "stability" while whining ceaselessly for more taxes, are far more guilty of such behavior than the poor.

Celebrating Poetry in the Arts District

A quarter-sheet flier can cause a lot of fuss

by Carol Denney

Madelyn Mackie, associate production manager of the Berkeley Repertory Theater, and her staff raced up and down Addison Street in Berkeley on Sunday, January 16, ripping the small, quarter-page fliers off the sidewalk where they'd been neatly placed between panels of poetry, offering "because of the event" as her excuse.

A Heyday Books representative, publisher of the poetry book being celebrated at the event, apologized for the theater manager's behavior, clarifying that the manager was not acting on Heyday Books' behalf.

Sherry Smith, former chair of the Berkeley Arts Commission, spent half an hour ripping up another 100 fliers from the streets, stating, "This is my free speech" when questioned. David Snippen, current chair of the Berkeley Arts Commission, apologized for her behavior.

The flier in question stated, "Hey poets and poetry lovers, next time don't pimp poetry for rich people's property values. Art should benefit us all." Or it sometimes ended with, "Art should stay hungry, like the rest of us," with a signature.

Hardly a call to arms, but clearly a gentle criticism of the peculiarly cozy nature of the sidewalk poetry art project and the Downtown Berkeley Association, some of whose members own property on Addison, now much more valuable with its publicly funded enhancement.

Robert Haas, the project's curator, bristled with indignation that anyone would flier the event, and refused to shake the flier writer's hand. Some poets implied that opportunities for poets are so few that if a little graft gets into the mix, it should be ignored.

Perhaps. But other poets welcomed the fliers, expressing interest in the so-called Arts District's curious origin and the issue of funding disparity. Some of them managed to appreciate that no one was protesting poetry, or books, or anyone in particular. A few of us managed to agree that opportunities to participate in and experience the benefit of art projects ought to be equitably shared by everyone.

And someday, one hopes, everyone can agree that a tiny flier of protest, and the unexpected viewpoint it may illustrate, is as precious as poetry.






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