Advocacy Planning and Making Coffee in Berkeley
September 18, 2016
By Michael A. Calvert
No one was behind the counter at the Berkeley City Planning Department at 7:45 am on Monday, my first day. I stepped into the next room and prepared to announce my presence with a loud “Hello?” when I almost ran into a casually dressed woman with an empty coffee pot in each hand. We froze in place, inches apart. She spoke first, “You must be Michael, the intern from Cornell.”
“Yes, I’m Michael, but I’m from Ohio State,” I replied as I moved back.
“Then Walter is the intern from Cornell. Sorry. I’m Molly O’Brien. I’ve got to make coffee,” she said moving toward a small room nearby with a two-tiered coffeemaker on the counter. The boss likes a steaming cup of coffee as soon as he sits down at his desk.
I followed her and asked when everyone came in. She laughed and said the office opened at 8, but people drift in during the next half hour. As she poured water into the machine, she said, “I’m on the front counter so I have to be here in case a citizen shows up at 8. Then I make up excuses for whoever they want to see. I say they’re at breakfast meetings.” With her open, freckled face without a trace of make-up, she would be credible.
As the coffeemaker moaned and sputtered, I asked how long she’d worked for the city and was surprised when she said, “Twelve years, began in 1954 as receptionist and now I’m the Zoning Administrator.” She tossed her hair back as she spoke, revealing flecks of gray and small creases at her eyes as she smiled.
With coffee in hand, Molly led me to a cubicle in the back of the office, and showed me where to get tablets, pens, pencils and drafting supplies. I sharpened pencils and carefully aligned them next to my yellow tablet. John Grey came to my desk, introduced himself as Deputy Director, and took me to a room where the Planning Commission met around an antique, oval table surrounded by high-backed, well-cushioned chairs.
He rolled two chairs to a map of the city that covered an entire wall and motioned for me join him, but he stood by the map and used a pointer to give me an overview of the city like a general briefing lieutenants about a battlefield. He began with city hall and the park across the street, Telegraph Avenue and downtown, the Sproul Plaza on the UC campus where students demonstrated for free speech and cause du jour, especially in the Spring, and the curvy streets of the Berkeley Hills neighborhood overlooking San Francisco Bay.
“Here’s West Berkeley, better known as ‘The Flats.’ It’s a neighborhood of small bungalows on narrow lots. It’s like the Oakland’s ‘Flats,’ the home of the Black Panthers. Mostly Black renters, a few elderly white homeowners, and some students jammed into houses. A few businesses are still open on San Pablo Avenue. The Planning Commission has promised the residents a Neighborhood Improvement Plan by the end of this year. Does this stir your interest?”
“Yes. sir. As an undergrad sociology major I read studies of neighborhoods in Boston and Chicago. Sounds interesting,” I replied like I did in class when I sure of the correct answer. Those were Italian and Polish neighborhoods, but I didn’t mention that.
“Good. I want you to gather data and prepare maps illustrating existing conditions. Molly will give you some blank maps of West Berkeley. First, you need to review the Master Plan, Zoning Ordinance, and Six-Year Capital Improvements Program. Used to be a Five-Year Plan, but that sounded like the Soviets,” he said with a smirk.
As I walked past Molly’s perch on a stool behind the counter with an armful of planning books, she said, “Walter from Cornell, has arrived. I’ll introduce you.”
Walter, a pudgy fellow in a three-piece suit, gave me a limp handshake and a wan smile. “I am going to assist Mr. Barnes in the initial conceptualization of the new 20-year master plan, Berkeley in the Year 1987.” He didn’t ask about my assignment.
I returned to my desk and the dense prose of the official reports. I found it helpful to fortify myself with repeated trips to get coffee to avoid nodding off on my first day. The resulting trips to the rest room also kept yawning to a minimum.
The reports rarely mentioned West Berkeley, but I located it on maps of transportation arterials, housing conditions, retail business, and industry. Molly delivered an aerial photo and maps of the neighborhood showing structures, zoning, utilities, and land use. I poured over the aerial photo that extended into the bay, the university, and Berkeley Hills with long winding driveways, sprawling houses, and swimming pools. Just before five o’clock, my co-workers began to stir and by the time the bells rang out from the campus clocktower, I had exchanged quick good-byes with Molly, John, Walter, and the other dozen or so people I met that day.
Don, one of my roommates, worked at Proctor & Gamble’s office in El Cerrito north of Berkeley and gave me a ride to and from work. He always allowed twenty minutes for the frequent congestion at the approach to the Bay Bridge. On Tuesday, there was only a brief delay at the bridge so I asked him to drive through West Berkeley on the way to city hall. One-story frame houses with porches. Some neat and tidy with flowers in front, probably older homeowners; others with peeling paint and scruffy yards, likely landlords’ houses. Several corner stores appeared to be closed, but operators might be barricaded inside selling cigarettes and liquor from behind bulletproof glass. A burned-out house awaiting a bulldozer and some vacant lots with knee-high weeds. One lot had a stripped car on cement blocks surrounded by high weeds. The few people we saw were all Black. Don told me not to ask him to drive through West Berkeley again.
The regular bi-weekly neighborhood meeting was on Thursday. John assigned me to color maps showing land use, zoning, and non-conforming uses and be prepared to present them at the meeting after he discussed the overall process for developing a neighborhood plan. With Molly’s guidance, I produced the maps and mounted them. Then she said, “If you cover them with transparent plastic, you can use a grease pen to circle a building or a block when a resident complains about it. The residents like that. I’ve got different color pens.”
After I loaded the maps and easels into John’s car, he said, “Two things to remember: One, don’t volunteer that you’re an intern. No one’ll ask, but if someone does, don’t deny it. Two, don’t make any promises. Nod a lot, be sympathetic, say you understand over and over, and assure them you’ll relay their concerns to City Hall, but you can’t make commitments. For that matter, neither can I. Got it?”
“I understand, I really understand,” I said in a deep voice while nodding vigorously.
He glanced over, said “Smart ass,” and chuckled—much to my relief.
The meeting was in the basement of the New Hope Baptist Church at 5:30 pm. A day care operated by volunteers from the congregation. Slides and climbing equipment for the toddlers were against the back wall and about forty chairs faced a long folding table. After I figured out how to set up the easels, John called me over to meet Mrs. Preston and Mrs. Brown, the Chair and Vice-Chair of the West Berkeley Neighborhood Association. These old women were dressed for church, smart hats and demure dresses. Mrs. Preston held her kid gloves and Mrs. Brown had a stick pin in her lapel. About thirty people were waiting expectantly for the meeting to get underway.
Mrs. Preston began by asking Father O’Toole, a young Catholic priest and the only other white person beside John and me, to lead us in the Lord’s prayer. Then she obtained approval by voice vote to dispense with the review of minutes and hear the gentlemen from the city.
John rose and spoke about the Neighborhood Plan as a guide to improvements and a vision to pursue over the coming years. Implementation would depend on future city, state, and federal funding and action by the City Council, but he touted a plan as the first step in making West Berkeley one of the best neighborhoods in the East Bay.
John introduced me as the staff person who would work with them to develop their plan and submit it to the Planning Commission for approval as part of the official Master Plan. I affirmed John’s reference to “their plan” and quickly reviewed the maps. Mrs. Preston thanked us graciously and asked for questions.
Mr. Douglas, one of the few men present, a straw hat in his lap, asked about the house at the end of his block that burned in the spring. John stood with his pen and tablet and wrote down the address, and I wrote FIRE and circled the word with a red grease pen on my plastic-covered map. John said something about insurance adjusters, but assured the group that he would look into it.
Mrs. Brown rose and said, “Something should be done about Sam’s, the liquor store in the middle of the neighborhood. Young men and teenagers, even some young girls, hang out on the sidewalk until late at night. It’s not good for the young people in our neighborhood.” John wrote on his pad, nodded, and promised to check for any record of selling to minors. I wrote “problem liquor store” on my map. More questions and similar responses followed.
In the car, John said “I think you can handle these meetings. I’ll come to some of the meetings, but it’s your project. Just document everything and keep me informed.”
I was thrilled. I had no doubt that Mrs. Preston and her neighbors deserved a lot of help from this city with a major university and affluent neighborhoods in the Berkeley Hills. At a planning conference in St. Louis that year I heard presentations about “advocacy planning” and read several articles about planners as advocates for people in neighborhoods. I wanted to be an advocate, not just a cog in the bureaucratic machine of city government, especially if nothing ultimately happened to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood.
In the morning, I was ready to go to work for the people of West Berkeley. I stared at the marked up map and pondered ways to pursue their hopes for the neighborhood. What could be done about the burnt out house and the liquor store? I scribbled ideas on my yellow tablet all morning.
After lunch, I was walking past the front counter as Molly listened intently to a citizen upset about something, raising his voice and waving his arms. Walter, my counterpart from Cornell came up behind Molly, and said, “Excuse me, but there’s no coffee.” She nodded, said OK, and turned back to the frustrated man who continued his diatribe. Walter returned to his office.
I had watched Molly make coffee several mornings. I went to the break room, and soon fresh coffee was streaming into the pot. After a sip to check the taste, I returned to the front as the citizen stepped onto the elevator and waved to Molly with a resigned look. She rolled her eyes, sighed, and said, “He wanted me to do something about his neighbor’s barking dog!. Ugh!”
“I guess you had to let him get it off of his chest. He was almost out of control, but you stayed cool. By the way, I made a pot of coffee.” She thanked me profusely. She apparently told others in the office because several thanked me. I was usually the first to arrive, so I began making coffee every morning.
In the next few bi-weekly meetings, I listened to the concerns of the residents and summarized them in reports to John. I tentatively tossed out some ideas for discussion. Maybe the vacant house could become a pocket park.? The city might want to buy the liquor store and make it a police sub-station? A change in zoning could prevent any additional liquor stores.
Everyone lwanted a pocket park, but nearby residents didn’t want a basketball goal in the park. A woman, who lived next to the proposed park, said, “Listening to the kids bouncing a basketball and banging the backboard in the evening is better than wondering what trouble they’re getting into someplace else.” Others weighed in. “Maybe until ten o’clock? Could the lights on the court be turned off then with a timer? “Not all the lights,” someone pleaded. The meetings ran long.
Sam White, the liquor store owner, had more friends in the neighborhood than expected, but most people wanted his store closed. They suggested he move to one of the empty stores on San Pablo Avenue. Definitely new zoning to prevent any more liquor stores.
At the end of August, a week before I returned to Ohio State, I prepared a draft plan for the neighborhood complete with a plan map. I asked John for an opportunity to review it with him. He agreed and said Mr. Barnes should also see the draft plan.
We met at a small table in Mr. Barnes office. After John summarized my assignment for the summer, I launched into a presentation of the West Berkeley Plan. I outlined the proposed zoning change, development of pocket parks, relocation of Sam’s Liquors, conversion of his store to a police sub-station, and several other specific proposals. I firmly stated that these ideas emerged from the neighborhood planning meetings and I fully endorse the plan. I added that I hoped the department would support implementation.
As soon as I concluded, John said, “I hope you’ve not raised the residents’ expectations too much. The city budget is tight. Councilman Thompson, who represents this side of town, always supports businessmen like Sam White. The Chief may not want a sub-station in West Berkeley, and the Park Director would have to maintain these pocket parks. I don’t know about this plan…”
“I understand. I really do understand your concerns, John, but this is what the residents of West Berkeley want for their neighborhood and I hope the City Planning Department will be an advocate for the neighborhood,” I said evenly.
Mr. Barnes cleared his throat and said, “I think you have been very professional in developing this plan with the residents and not for them. Good work! I’m going to inform Professor Stollman that you did an excellent job for us this summer.”
On my last day in the office, Molly called me to the Planning Commission room where the staff had assembled around a sheet cake decorated as a map of West Berkeley, cookies, and a punch bowl with ice cubes floating in lemonade, surely not spiked. Molly fetched John and Mr. Barnes and said, “I’m going to miss Michael. He’s the only intern that ever made coffee for the office every morning.” She continued with some nice comments. John and Mr. Barnes chimed in. I was composed and prepared to express my appreciation to the staff until Molly cut the cake, gave me the first piece, and planted a kiss on my cheek. I awkwardly stammered my thanks.