Half of politics is talking, and the other half is talking about talking. Unfortunately, discussions about Telegraph Avenue usually fall into the latter category.
Mayor Tom Bates hosted a forum last Thursday concerning the revitalization of Telegraph. According to Berkeleyside, plans have been put forth to construct new projects on the empty lots of Haste Street and Telegraph Avenue; other proposals include improving lighting on the street along with adding Wi-Fi capabilities.
This is usually what much of the talk over rejuvenating Telegraph looks like — “projects, development, buzzword, buzzword, projects.” New storefronts are great. New lighting is even better.
But more often than not, people fail to mention the elephant in the room. I don’t know if it’s because we want to be politically correct or if there seems to be no lasting solution to this issue, but it has to be said: What are we to do with Telegraph’s homeless population?
Ask UC Berkeley students about Telegraph. They’ll tell you the street is “colorful,” “quirky,” “lively” and “cultural”; they’ll also tell you that it’s “dirty,” “grungy,” “sketchy” and, if you missed it the first time, “dirty.” It’s impossible to escape a conversation about Telegraph without someone mentioning “hobos” and “weed.”
Measure S, a failed ballot measure supported strongly by Bates that would have banned sitting on commercial sidewalks such as Telegraph, was an attempt to address just this issue. While the measure was poorly formulated, I can give kudos to the man for at least trying to take action.
The measure was fortunately voted down, and now we’re back to square one, skirting the “homeless problem” with enthusiastic plans for development and excited chatter over amping up night life. But you are never going to have a substantial nightlife on the street if you can’t guarantee student safety by mitigating, or at least reducing, the homeless presence.
The homeless people that populate the street may be there because of circumstances out of their hands, may suffer from mental health issues or may be caught in a cycle of inescapable poverty and depression. You can sympathize and fight for their cause; you can be PC about it and try to avoid it entirely by focusing solely on building, building, building.
At the end of the day, the harsh truth, no filter, is this: You can have all the pretty restaurants and storefronts you want, but as long as much of the student population finds the homeless population “scary” or “annoying,” and I assure you that there are far more students who are disgusted by the “hobos” rather than sympathetic toward them, Telegraph will never attain the vivacity that College or Solano avenues have achieved.
I’m not being insensitive to the homeless population’s plight. I’m not refusing to acknowledge that it’s imperative that the city offer more services to the homeless. I’m simply noting that if your end goal is “revitalization,” a considerable homeless or “drifter” culture and a thriving, modern student-oriented Telegraph cannot coexist.
Do I have facts and research backing up that last statement? No. That’s an intuition derived from two and half years of close observation. You may have a different intuition, and if you do believe that the two can go hand in hand, then tell me this: How do we work toward that happy medium?
Councilmember Jesse Arreguin has put forth the Compassionate Sidewalks Plan, designed to form a committee to examine the causes of homelessness and to improve existing laws and services. This sounds promising, but I fear that once again, this is one of those “Let’s have conversations and hold meetings! Let’s give reports on the status of things! Let’s spew out buzzword after buzzword and try not to offend anyone!” It sounds like a classic recipe for talk turning into talk about talk.
As Councilmember Kriss Worthington noted at last Thursday’s meeting, “I’ve seen most of the people who are in this room at one, two, three or 30 meetings over the course of the last 10 years … having another 30 meetings is not something to be greatly looked forward to and desired.”
Ironically, this column adds to that chorus of voices that are talking and not acting. I’m well aware. I’m one more person joining in on that “discourse” and “conversation,” writing instead of acting. Words can inform and enlighten, but they cannot clean the sidewalk or juice the street.
Everyone agrees that Telegraph has potential. The question over revitalizing Telegraph, then, is not, “How do we go about it?,” or, “What should we do?” or even “When will it finally happen?” Rather, it’s “Why hasn’t it already happened?”
Perhaps it’s because we like to hear the sound of our own voices a little too much.