Looking beyond the buildings

Urban Animal

One night last spring, I went hiking with a housemate whom I disliked but who had brought whiskey along. On the way to the Big C, I told him I was living off of coffee, sleeping in class and wearing dirty clothes. For both of us, at some point the days ceased to be different from one another. Every day, we felt like we were struggling to keep up with schoolwork and maintain a healthy social life. From the Berkeley Hills, the view of the Bay with all its city lights reminded me of an Arcade Fire lyric: “Like a river, the city always shines.”

That said, no matter how bad things get, I’ll always know I have a good life compared to my friends who never made it out of Southern California. Life in the suburbs of the Inland Empire is grand until you realize there is nothing to do, which usually happens around age 15. The neighborhoods where you were allowed to run free as a kid darkens and idles every day after 8 p.m. Visiting areas with wildlife usually requires some form of trespassing. You have to drive everywhere.

On the same track, Arcade Fire also sings: “I wonder if we weren’t so small that we could ever get away from the sprawl.” The interlocking, slate gray cities of the Inland Empire become repetitive and exhausted once you grow up. As evidence of this condition, most of my friends who moved away for college have decided not to return to the Inland Empire after graduation. Portland, Santa Barbara, Providence: these cities have so much more to offer than the suburbs where most of the jobs available pay minimum wage and the nightlife consists of going to the mall or hanging out at a fast-food restaurant.

In spite of how lame it is to spend your Friday night at a Jack-in-the-Box, you can’t really complain about living in America. So in order to get the American public interested in urban challenges, planners usually present startling figures, such as 50 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050. The reason fear tactics are so effective is that they engage society abstractly. They suggest we need to accommodate the future masses, or we’ll face utter chaos. While this tactic is useful at times (the Interstate Highway System was built as an evacuation network in the event of a nuclear strike), it should not be the sole approach to urban planning.

Planners also need to be visionary.

For those not working in the field, it may be surprising that urbanism can be both visionary and deeply personal. One way city life has been portrayed recently is through testimony.

One example is the work of novelist Vikram Chandra. Drawing on his interviews with a mob boss to create the main character of his epic tale set in Mumbai, “Sacred Games” (which AMC is making into a miniseries), Chandra turns the city itself into the protagonist, weaving individual stories and traumas into a single narrative fabric. Personal testimony calls for the portrayal of the sacrifices, double motives, institutional frameworks and moral challenges that individuals face in cities in the 21st century.

My column, Urban Animal, will approach city life through personal experience and relevant research. I will focus on Berkeley and Oakland while occasionally drawing upon other cities, such as Copenhagen and Siena, where I studied abroad. Some weeks I’ll scope out where free stuff can be found, and others I’ll explore why the creeks of the East Bay are buried underground. I plan to address urban renewal and gentrification, as well as the thornier aspects of what it means to live in a city.

The target of every column, though, is to get at the variety of pleasures and challenges of urban living.

Urban life is relevant to all of us at UC Berkeley because many of us live in the city. But it is also relevant in that many academic disciplines — from philosophy to physics — affect our locality on geopolitical and socioeconomic levels. Whether actively or passively, we build a city continually and together. Being in a community means we must recognize one another’s needs.

For more permanent residents, it provides the intimacy and spaciousness of a suburb, as well as the public transportation network and downtown of a big city. For students, however, rent and tuition are almost beyond our reach. Most of us will barely be able to afford housing once we graduate, even if we work 40 hours a week.

Thankfully, our campus is endowed with certain unique qualities. For instance, nature is a walk away. A quick getaway in the night allows us collect our thoughts and to visualize ourselves as part of the city rather than as caught in the midst of it. And whether it’s a panoramic view from the Big C or catching BART, thinking about the pressures of where we are and where we’re going shouldn’t be something we shy away from. It’s how we find common ground.


Josh Escobar writes the Monday column on the intersection of student and urban life. You can contact him at [email protected].