Berkeley Still a City on a Hill


Berkeley in the summertime is never a bad deal, especially for thin-of-hair/thick-of-waist flower children (like me) that saw through kaleidoscope glasses a groovier shining city on a hill than old John Winthrop had in mind.

From rebellious Midwestern teens who could barely find the place on a map, to brand-name East Coast intelligentsia who were parsing the unfolding events for Marxist overtones, the city’s very name evoked hope. No wonder all these years later the patchouli people who make pilgrimage to the city half expect to see the ghost of Huey P. Newton exhorting the Black Panther faithful to rise up and be counted.

Thankfully, a goodly part of Berkeley’s soul remains; perhaps most importantly the secular antinomianism and creative urge that characterized the Berkeley of memory. But that memory should not be overly selective, for Berkeley neither was nor is the utopia of imagination.

The city is famously home to one of the largest per capita populations of homeless persons in the nation, leaving its policymakers to address related ongoing moral, economic, legal and political issues. To bring these challenges into greater focus, consider that for years successive administrations have wrestled with both the community and their own consciences over the widespread panhandling that has come to be part of Berkeley’s modern reality and identity.

Seeking to balance personal freedom with commerce, moral obligation with self-responsibility, city officials have passed strict laws, some enforced and many unenforceable. But to the city’s collective credit (fits, starts and dissenters noted) there is continuing commitment to creative as well as best-practice measures if not solutions.

Over the last two decades public and nonprofit resources have been targeted toward casual agents related to both the lack of secure shelter and panhandling: loss of income; domestic abuse; mental and/or physical illness; war-related PTSD; substance abuse/addiction; divorce; natural disasters; medical bills.

Last month Berkeley’s City Council kept alive a creative proposal to convert a large downtown parking lot into a multi-service center for the unsheltered.

Environmentally green in construction and maintenance, if actualized the project would provide both permanent and temporary housing along with basic support services such medical/dental care.

What’s noteworthy for the rest of us is not Berkeley’s latest plan, but it’s latest example of planfulness – the city’s apparent awareness that some issues that test a community’s compassion may never be resolved, be they crime, racism, homophobia or in this case lack of shelter. And that the compassionate city is the one that keeps trying.

I can’t prove that whole cities have something approaching a shared DNA. But if that’s so then Berkeley may once again serve as a flawed but worthy example of what can happen when a community refuses to give up on itself.

Or as one Council member put it, “Yes, all of these ideas are impossible in the ‘real world,’ but this is Berkeley and we can do it.”

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Tarpon Springs, Fla. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2013

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