Replay 4/12/08: Berkeley/Oakland Reflections: Downtown

4 Sep

I spent the day in downtown Berkeley today, and it really got me thinking about the hurdles downtown Oakland has to overcome before it becomes a more vibrant and contiguous neighborhood.

Though there’s plenty I don’t like about Berkeley, downtown Berkeley has transformed into a bustling area, filled with people and plenty to do. Today, I got my haircut, picked up a prescription, grabbed some raw food to eat in the park, perused herbs and plants at the farmers market and bought some kiwis on my way out, browsed through DVDs, tried to find my way around the new Cody’s, and finally snagged a cold, caffeinated drink. There were dozens of people on every block, walking, talking, sitting on benches, and there were two separate jazz bands entertaining the crowds.

Somehow, I’m guessing my day would not have been quite so lively or varied if I had been walking through downtown Oakland.

So on my way home, I tried to figure out what it is that downtown Berkeley has that the DTO doesn’t. And ultimately I realized that the DTO has no main artery. Sure, there are some vibrant sub-neighborhoods (Old Oakland, Chinatown) and ones that are on their way (SOBO, Uptown), but to me they all feel somewhat disconnected.

You might wonder, aren’t they all connected by Broadway? Well, sure, physically, Broadway runs through nearly all of the neighborhoods in the DTO and a good portion of AC Transit lines run down or cross Broadway at some point. Driving down Broadway is pretty simple, but people driving doesn’t make for a vibrant neighborhood (or good business). It’s easy to ride the bus or BART to the DTO, but riding the bus within the DTO from neighborhood to neighborhood rarely makes sense. Walking seems to be a great way to get around, but when I do this, I tend to walk from destination to destination, without lingering in between. I think a reason for this is that Broadway (and many other main streets in the DTO) lacks the critical mass of shopping, restaurants and services to entice one to linger, walking slowly down the street and deciding on a whim to stop in somewhere.

In stark comparison, downtown Berkeley is connected by the main arteries of Shattuck and University. Shattuck takes you all the way through downtown, up into the Gourmet Ghetto in north Berkeley and down to at Dwight Way into south Berkeley. Throughout this area it is filled with places to visit, and, naturally, tons of people. University is not filled in so densely, but it’s not too difficult to walk from UC Berkeley all the way to west Berkeley without getting bored.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m well aware of the parts of Broadway that are vibrant (just north of Jack London, the City Center, and hopefully soon, Uptown), but again, there’s no continuity. Besides that, even in those areas that have more businesses, many of these areas shut down on the weekends and in the evening. A couple weeks ago, after eating dinner at Ichiro in downtown, I tried to go to the Walgreens (at 8:30pm) and was frustrated to find out that it was closed. If even a large, chain store shuts down so early, how can the neighborhood remain vibrant (or even just safe to walk in) in the evening?

I do think that things are generally getting better in the DTO. The new condo and apartment buildings that are being built retail space included on the ground floor, plans are being made for further density in at least certain parts of the DTO (though this plan needs to be improved, and hopefully will), and the Fox Theater reopening in a year or two will hopefully serve as a complementary anchor to the expanding arts district.

I also realize that the DTO will never be the same as downtown Berkeley, nor would I want it to be. Downtown Berkeley is right next to UC Berkeley, so there’s a built in amount of foot traffic and tourism. Berkeley’s also much geographically smaller than Oakland so it’s downtown is more easily accessible to other neighborhoods.

Still, I do look forward to a time when I want to spend a day or evening wandering through the DTO and am able to do so without getting bored or feeling unsafe.


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