The Surreality of the Actual
In that famous revelatory moment in O’Neill’s play about self-seduction and self-cockolding, Harry cries out, “What have ya done to the booze, Hickey? It’s got no kick to it.” And what have they done to our town? Where is the impressionist history that will trace our loss back to that never-never land known as berkeley (with a small b). Where is that famous artist who painted a psycho-history of machinic beasts to tell us, with his “paranoid method,” what we should have known all along, that something was being taken away.
There is a plan afoot, a plan to "normalize" berkeley, to take it back into Berkeley (with a capital B). Hatched during the mid-1970s, the plan belched and coughed like an old V-8 engine firing on 6 cylinders, until the mid-90s, when it reached cruising speed, and swept away those chanting leftovers who kept shouting “Yuppies out of berkeley” along Telegraph Ave.
A psycho-history would need all our voices to tell it. But just cast an eye over that endless flat plane of memory. The sign-posts still stand – the free speech movement, the beat generation, the Vietnam Day Committee with its massive weekly demonstrations on lower Sproul Plaza, the Panthers, the People’s Park people, community radio, the free schools, the free clinics, the free legal services. It was when we threw our arms around each other, and made a cosmic equation between history and family. It was when the little-b stood for "beacon," flashing at other cities across the nation who were all doing the same kinds of thing their own way. Back then, there was art to everything – the politics, the counter-culture, the protests against corporate control – and an open city of endless talk, when words actually built structures that people could live by.
But it upset the elite. Secretly agreeing with Samuel Huntington, the elite too decided there was “too much democracy", a sentiment Huntington expressed in his speech to the Trilateral Commission in 1975. They made a plan.
Today, the plan has come to the point of threateneing to close Alta Bates Hospital. To close that hospital would be a slash at the body of civil society, an open wound, producing emergencies that will possibly die in traffic jams. Today, the nurses (the CNA) are playing "panther," stepping up en masse to defend us against this travesty. The nurses … ??!!! They had a rally on the fall equinox – to save how many people? from dying in ambulances? The Panthers had once attempted to defend us all against our own complexion-oriented violations of democratic principles.
So what is the plan? It is nothing less than a plan to make the city "normal" again, a plan to get all the militants, the activists, the radicals with all their -isms, the counter-culture dreamers, and especially the black people, out of town. Time to get rid of that "beacon" crap, with its inventiveness and its community.
The plan began with the MTC taking over ABAG. Indeed, ABAG was the turning-point. It had been originally invented by the counter-culture, the radicals, to coordinate their varous activities aimed at democratizing politics throughout the bay area. When ABAG started thinking about real public transportation, a network of small free buses serving the people by carrying them wherever they needed to go, the corporate establishment freaked, and stepped in, flashing state-priority badges. Nowadays, ABAG is the power behind the gentrification of these cities, ordaining massive market rate rent that it takes six-figure salaries to afford. We all know the other details because we live them: surreal bus schedules, a subway system that runs five lines on a two lane tunnel under the bay, the demise of low-cost graceries, and massive dislocation of long time residents, exiled to Martinez, to Modesto, and beyond. On top of which, we get the apologists and their silly little chant of “supplyanddemand (hic), supplyanddemand.”
The story goes that the "normalization" plan got interrupted a couple of times (I’m not mentioning any names). Once was when a black mayor was elected who kept the small-b in place, and through many activist organizations helped activate it in other cities. It was an interlude of democratizers, the “people’s republic,” and the end of the Vietnam War. People hugged, smiled, and beat back the attempt to take over People’s Park. But they lost their first battle with the passage of the Costa-Hawkins Act, which banned rent control. Instead of housing being a human right, Costa-Hawkins affirmed that rent gouging was the real human right.
In other words, that act held, in so many words, that though the majority of a city’s people were renters (as is the case in Berkeley), its city council would not be able represent or defend that majority. It was the opening shot in a process that went (past tense) from pro-democracy to no democracy. Today, there are efforts to try to find a loophole in Costa-Hawkins. Richmond (the Richmond Progressive Alliance), Oakland, some other cities are engaged in such a search. But not Berkeley (with a big-B). It has “normalization” on its mind.
The first step in the original plan was to close down places that catered to group events, areas where families could get together and people could hang out. Iceland was one. The art theater on Blake and Shattuck was another. The “free school” was closed, and Vista expanded to proper bureaucratic operations. The University was a third casualty, transmogrified from free education and open libraries to an ID-governed enterprise that reduced students to raw material, education to debt, and learning to career-orientation. But mostly, families were left with few places to go, essentially condemning them to staying home, working two or more jobs.
Next, a housing crisis was created. The fact that it was a planned crisis was not stated, but it was implicit in the fact that it was broadcast. In exaggerated tones, Plan Bay Area was given trumpets and fanfare, whose small print was an unrefusable invitation to land speculators. “Come one, come all, get your piece of the pie now.” The "liberated" landlords put their greed in overdrive, and made the bay area the most expensive place in the US to live.
The stage had been carefully set, however. Only occasional new housing was built during the previous 20 years. If you let housing go for a couple of decades, and then create plans for massive new construction at market rate, poof, you have a housing crisis. Dislocation is the threat made by the mere promise of big hotels, luxury condos in Priority Development Areas, and $4000/month apartments. Before ground is even broken on those projects, those who live by art and wits are priced out and exiled, the early fruit of the normalization process.
Today, people talk about how this just ain’t the same town any more. How did we let them take it away? One way is that too few really believed there was a plan. Many still don’t believe that the massive dislocation of longtime residents from the city is precisely what the plan called for. It all just looks so natural, the unfortunate outcome of economic "progress." Demand goes up, so rent goes up, and taxes go up, and richer people move into town while others succomb to insidious evictions as "isolated" incidents against which the city can’t (won’t) offer any defense. When small stores close because their rents go up, the city blames it on the movement to raise the minimum wage (carefully keeping silent about the Seattle counter-experience).
Do you think that measure R was real? Something to Revitalize downtown? Something the Restore greatness as the “will of the people”? Forgetaboutit. Measure R was the prototypical normalization event.
What’s the third step? We are living through it right now, and stepping over it at most choice locations. The homeless have been instrumentalized to make the un-normalized city unlivable. Any guesses why the homeless population has swelled to three times its size since 2010? Try looking back at the preceding paragraphs, where it talks about cost of living, rising rents, and the economic stresses of landlord harassment. That latter makes family life difficult and abusive. Teenagers leave the house to escape it. And the job situation is lousy.
The homeless are the city’s secret weapon. Everytime they find a place to conjoin in community (such as Liberty City), by which to take care of themselves – be it under an expressway, or in a park, or on the Albany Bulb – they get booted out. All those places where they aren’t bothering anybody, the cops raid them, trash their possessions, and force them into areas where they will be bothering people. Or dying in public like Roberto Benitez (sp) did on Sept. 20 at Addison and San Pablo.
A demand is thus created for the city to please hurry up and get rid of this problem. Not only does it give the city the opportunity to further criminalize the homeless, but it hooks people into a dependence on city government to protect them, thus reducing the chance that people will object to the plan and its developments. And those developments will drive those same people (the residents) out of the city.
You don’t think the city is that conniving? There was a rent-controlled building on upper Durant that a developer wanted to replace with a new building. The fire department got the green light to use it for practice (while some still lived in it), wrecking part of it, and thus rationalizing its demolition. Or think about human waste. For years, the homeless have been asking for public toilets, which the city promised and never produced. So people piss in the street, and residents get upset – which is precisely the point. Yet the city can spend five times as much for police overtime as the toilets would have cost. Its irrationality is the secret rationality of the plan.
During this latest phase, we get what is known as "input." The city sets up offices to take complaints and hear suggestions about neighborhood needs and interests. Even UC did that. They set up a neighborhood Board to gather opinions and suggestions about life in the university neighborhoods. “This is your chance to participate.” The ideas poured in, with zero follow-up.
A city-staffed “Idea Center” was funded in South Berkeley to gather opinions and desires from the neighborhood for the Adeline Plan. The consultancy firm hired to incorporate it all listened too assiduously to the residents, and got fired. At the same time, developers come along with projects inside the plan-zone, and no one tells them to wait to see if their project will harmonize with the plan (still in formation). Since the city doesn’t stop them, it means the input for the plan was already disregarded. There will be no follow-up. At best, it is an insidious scam. What have they done to democracy? it’s got no kick to it.
Lamely hiding their eyes, many people will scoff and say, “there’s no plan.” And you can ask anyone in the city council Machine if there’s a plan, and they will say no. But as an old truckdriver friend of mine used to say, “ If it looks like a plan, and walks like a plan, and quacks like a plan, it ain’t no goddam duck.”
If "Development" is about market rate housing for Big-B Berkeley, neighborhood "Defense" against gentrification is about preserving little-b berkeley – providing housing for the people, especially the homeless and the dislocated (with rent at 30% of income), and organizing the communities to beautify themselves on their own. Forgetaboutit. The developers will promise 10% affordable housing, and then pay mitigation fees instead. The city’s people require 90% affordable, with a 10% sop thrown to those who can afford $4,000 a month.
There are, of course, international aspects. You know what they are if you’ve been paying attention. If the TPP gets passed, we can kiss labor and environmental law goodby. We’ve already lost all democratic power over housing with the Costa-Hawkins Act, and the state’s density bonus. Only that famous artist, whose name is spelled in the first letters of the last four paragraphs, understood how our time melts and drips in golden iconicities off the table, into the abyssal silence undoing our small-b subjectivities, and leaving us to see ourselves from afar.
But didn’t we once throw our arms around each other, and make a cosmic equation between history and family itself?
Steve Martinot is a human rights activist and community organizer living in the Bay Area. He has worked as a machinist and truck driver in New York City and Akron, and taught writing and literature in Boulder and San Francisco. He has organized unions, led a wildcat strike, and edited underground community newspapers. He has seven books published on philosophy and historical analysis. Clock graphic from CafePress.com.