Cultivating community on Telegraph – Cody’s Books is closing – are the poor to blame?

“…Cody’s Books to close its store on Telegraph Avenue…” When this news got out about the iconic Berkeley bookstore, a shit storm went up not only in major television and print news, but in the casual talks around town. An air of apprehension lurks in the backdrop. For the record, the soon to be 50 year old book store suffered from the unsightly condition of poor people “allowed” to congregate on Telegraph Avenue near the store, but the forces of control have been in a prolonged effort to destroy the counter-culture that exists in Berkeley and on Telegraph Avenue.

Cody’s had earned its reputation in the 60′s by building one of the bridges between the growing youth and resistance movement and the intellectual community. After Andy Ross bought the store from the Cody family in 1977, he did his best to test the bridge between the two worlds by backing anti-homeless ordinances in the early 90′s. Then he started to open branches of the store on ultra affluent West Berkeley Fourth Street. and on Market Street in downtown San Francisco. By now abandoning Telegraph Avenue, he leaves the city to fret over the prospect of chain stores growing and erasing the village atmosphere that span a few short blocks on Telegraph.

To blame failing business on the homeless is simpleminded and thin. There is no shortage of growth in Berkeley, especially in students. Berkeley has been heavily redeveloped lately and if one looks at plans of the University and the Merchant’s Association, more is promised to come. Many are concerned that the Cody’s location will be replaced with a chainstore thus further advancing the mall-culture on Telegraph. Slingshot first noticed that Andy Ross was giving up on the village atmosphere on Telegraph when Cody’s stopped allowing this paper and most other free papers to be left for the public to take.

Context

One would think that the ongoing destruction of Iraq, one of the world’s oldest cultures, would be enough to occupy people’s gossip and concern for our collective future. But conditions there are that way in no small part because for most Americans, Iraq is too distant and abstract to connect blood and struggle. And that’s true as well for places like Gonaives, Kabul, Bogota; what do these places mean to most people but a blank stare? The irony is that Cody’s does a lot in the way of helping make the rest of the world more real to people. How we treat each other abroad may be closely related to how we treat each other at home.

The trajectory of the Bush presidency is a more advanced form of policy introduced during Reagan, that is: covert wars abroad, a gutting of the public sector at home, hyper development, a dumping of anxiety on foreigners and outsiders and a distrust and open snarl to intellectual life. Through-out, we’ve seen a deterioration in the commons; schools and libraries and open spaces are struggling while a proliferation of prisons and private corporations ensues. For twenty years now, the most vulnerable people have been stripped of their safety net and vilified for being poor.

Pincushion

One of the most hated of the outsiders are the homeless. Often despised for lowering property values, blamed for endangering safety and ignored when they assert their human rights. Many are on the street in no small part due to pro-business polices put forth during Reagan and since. So it goes that maneuvers to help business by cutting services would only come back and bite them in the ass years later.

Pat Wright moved to Berkeley in 1966 and himself barely skirting homelessness admits, “Having a business on Telegraph is horrible, I wouldn’t want to start one there. The parking is terrible. The people on the street are scary. It’s impossible there.” Though Pat has a firm foot in the counter-culture spending decades doing work at the punk rock club Gilman St., and KALX college radio station he observes, “The significant change of the past 15 years is you used to have a broader range of street people on the avenue. Now the people there are aggro. You don’t get the other types hanging there you used to..” The surly desperate people are seemingly the only one’s who can afford to spend downtime on the Avenue.

Several factors help with this. For one, college tuition at UC Berkeley which borders Telegraph Avenue has been steadily increasing since Reagan was governor of California and implemented fees. The price of attending has been doubling every couple years since then, ensuring students will spend years paying off loans, or that the people the school attracts are coming from rich families. The fight to bring back affirmative action may heat up soon thereby actually allowing low income people to attend UC, but it will do nothing to make living near campus affordable. As rents and the price of living skyrocketed in the Bay Area, it ensured that the people living in Berkeley would spend most of their time at work and not in the community. This undoubtedly affects who uses the street. So the people that remain on the street are either extremely impoverished or wealthy enough to live in this area and often frustrated with the poor. But when the hammer falls blaming Telegraph’s problems on the kooks and crazies, the real target may be dissent itself.

History Repeating Itself

The process to rid Telegraph of non-conformists started with the Long Range Development Plan in the early 60′s that sought to remove the growing radical element in Berkeley’s South Side. At that time, the key issues were civil rights, free speech, and a murmuring resistance to the war in Vietnam. The university’s attempt backfired when demolition of low-income houses helped create People’s Park. By the late part of the 60′s, the flood gates had been opened and with them, the envelope for social change. Since then the Park and any other liberated space in the vicinity has been in the cross hairs. The efforts to push out undesirables continued with the destruction of the Barrington Hall student cooperative in 1990 and then the Chateau coop just 3 years ago. Both places were student run co-ops that not only had a hand in turning ordinary students into activists, but had close ties to the counter-culture. However, every attempt to clean house of the rodents does not ensure that more won’t move in.

The fact that people are expected to shop in every common space disturbs me. Basing the value of a human on what they’re buying or selling is at the root of what’s wrong with the world. Many people who are homeless and/or destitute don’t want a job, they don’t want bills, they don’t want the system. This same sentiment was one of the motivations for People’s Park — to reestablish a place of non-commercial encounter. I get a little bummed out that the focus of so many young traveling kids on the Avenue is in getting money from passerbys.

Cody’s had at one time been a reason for me to go to Telegraph and check out the scene. Shortly after 911, I remember Bill Ayers of The Weather Underground was reading from his new book and I was interested in his take on the rise of Fascism. Bernadine Dohr was there as well and I felt that embarrassing melting most people get around their favorite rock or movie stars. Recently when Jane Fonda read from her autobiography, Cody’s had implemented a strange new policy — you could only watch if you purchased the book she was promoting. This was my further witness to business taking precedent over intellectual pursuits.

When all is said and done there is a lot of fuss over Cody’s closing when there is so much life being destroyed around us. Last year there were close to $98 million in sales for the short four blocks of Telegraph Avenue. That is considerably more than many countries have to run on, for example East Timore. Could it be that capitalism is insatiable and will never find satisfaction? That’s my guess, and would explain why an Andy Ross would expand to new markets rather than help the village atmosphere of Telegraph. But what is essential to save about Telegraph is the relation it has with every settlement worldwide as a central meeting space for exchange. Today, the emphasis is to refer to the space we gather in as the market, but ultimately the exchange that occurs in such a space cannot be so narrowly labeled.