On most trips to northern California we spend our urban-wandering time in San Francisco itself, which always offers a combination of seeing cool new things and visiting old favorite neighborhoods and places. But in the last weeks of our trip, we realized that we had no real ambition to tackle the big city in our usual manner. As Jonathan Franzen had just written in an article in the New Yorker, about a trip to Antarctica: “As in the Magic Mountain, the early days of the expedition were long and memorable, the later ones more of an accelerating blur.”
Just as we did in a few other places on this trip (such as New York), we shortchanged familiar places to which we could return fairly easily, and focussed on less accessible places to which we’d probably not return for a while. So we spent a few days in the city for specific reasons – seeing friends and a couple of museums, but no wandering up Russian Hill or cable car rides. But as we planned our last days before returning to Eugene, we decided we should stockpile a few more urban experiences. Incredibly, I realized that I probably hadn’t been to Oakland or Berkeley in 20 years, and so we headed off to the East Bay with Dan as our guide one Sunday morning.
Oakland was a shock. I remember heading to meetings at the DOE offices in downtown Oakland in the mid-80s, and all of us wondering why they had been stuck in the backwater of Oakland. In the mid-90s I spent time looking at housing and neighborhoods there, but the downtown still seemed deserted and bereft. Now, it is bustling, even on a weekend. Like many other good cities which had a late 20th century period of disinvestment and decline, there wasn’t much economic impetus to destroy the older buildings (once the mania of urban renewal had passed), and so the great old stock remains, ready for renovation and reuse in the urban revival of the 21st century.
I recognize my complete ignorance of the forces at play here – in a city where issues of gentrification and displacement are especially acute – and I apologize to my many friends in the area who could say more insightful things about what is going on. (One of the joys of blogging about a place like Biloxi is that no one else I know has ever been there, and so no one argues with me.) But just from the perspective of the built fabric, it was a pleasure to see a fine old city on the rebound, and a city which feels more like a normal mid-sized American city, in contrast to the sometimes precious and overly-touristed parts of San Francisco.
We moved on to Berkeley, which doesn’t seem to have physically changed much at all. I had forgotten that it too is a real city, not just a big college town, with a thriving commercial center as well as beautiful residential areas,
Greta’s favorite part of the city (besides the beignets at Angeline’s) was the Daiso store, a Japanese discount store (which Dan couldn’t believe we were wasting time on) where she acquired a pile of good notebooks (at $1.50 per), and lots of excellent and cheap plastic trinkets. We have since learned that these stores also exist in Seattle, so we’re planning our next trip there.
On the edge of the campus is the new home of BAMPFA, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives, a renovation/addition to the 1930s printing plant, by Diller Scofidio Renfro. It is tres hip, but after seeing their art building at Stamford, we were fatigued with swoopy, gestural, probably dysfunctional buildings, so we skipped it.
We wandered around the campus for a while, which I found less engaging than I had in the past. Probably because it was overcast and a Sunday, it all seemed rather drab and dead. In some ways the buildings reminded us of UT Austin – there was less uniformity in building style, but not much change in scale or materials – at some point they must have mandated that all new buildings should be of light masonry or concrete.
The campus planning was too much to comprehend in a short visit – the original plans, by Olmsted and John Galen Howard, were later compromised by the typical slew of terrible 60s buildings, but recent campus planning has been sensitively done. But I was dragging a tired kid around, and I sensed she was nearing her limit on architecture for the year.
We had a true Berkeley moment in the student union, where a Filipino student association event was going on. The bathrooms around the corner had these temporary signs posted, which confused the hell out of everyone who read them. People hesitated, then picked a door, in a post-heteronormative version of The Lady or the Tiger. Men who walked into one room mainly full of women immediately backed out and went into the next room. Women who walked into a room to find men standing at urinals exited quickly, and many of them were so nonplussed that they gave up on going to the bathroom altogether.
and drove through the area rebuilt after the 1991 firestorm, which destroyed almost 3000 houses and killed 25 people. It has not been rebuilt with any great architectural style, and beyond the human suffering, it’s sad that everything is now so uniform.
On a different day we had driven with Dan to one of his favorite places, the Lick Observatory on top of Mt. Hamilton, built in the 1880s east of San Jose. There are a few giant telescopes here from different eras,
This knocking around in East Bay focussed us on the character of the region, rather than just on San Francisco. The interface between suburbia and open space in the Bay Area has always seemed extraordinary to me. You can be in a quite dense city or suburb, and within minutes you’re out in the landscape; this applies equally on the Peninsula, East Bay, and Marin County. I remember looking down on the region flying out one night – a huge, dark empty space in the middle (the Bay), surrounded on all sides by brightly lit cities, which abruptly come to end, surrounded by another dark zone (the hills and mountains).
The physical geography is interesting enough, but when you add in that there are four really different, big cities on the Bay, plus many diverse smaller ones, you realize that there isn’t another metropolitan area remotely like it anywhere else in the country; there’s a density of different and interesting places here that is unmatched.
Most American cities and regions feel finite to me – with a little time, you can pretty much get to see all there is. While there are many metro regions which are so big that you probably will never literally get to see all of them, you just don’t want to – they’re big, but there’s not much variety (Phoenix, Atlanta, Houston, etc.) Then there are the smaller, interesting places that are comprehensible (Portland, Pittsburgh, Albuquerque, etc.). New York always felt infinite to me – I knew that no matter how long I lived there, I could never truly say that I knew all of it. The Bay Area is another one of those. The diversity of the landscape, the cities, the people, the food – it’s complex and beautiful, and it’s obvious why everyone wants to live here, despite its obvious shortcomings of insane traffic and high cost. Samuel Johnson’s quote about London applies to the Bay Area too.