Consider Durant

Appreciating Durant Avenue as an icon of student life and city spirit

Joyce Cam/File

The title “UC Berkeley” signifies a menagerie of grand and majestic iconography. The words foster images of Campaniles bigger than Stanfords’ tower, a famous patina-green gate as well as students lining the steps of Sproul Hall and protesting their way down Telegraph. While all of these locations and landmarks serve as reminders of UC Berkeley’s academic (and activist) legacy, they don’t cover every element of campus culture. To get a full picture of life at our beloved UC, I think taking a stroll down Durant Avenue, the bustling street running parallel to campus, is a necessity.

Durant Avenue may not immediately come to mind when the words “UC Berkeley” are read off an acceptance letter but I feel the few blocks which make up the avenue have a noteworthy culture all their own. Lying perpendicular both physically and metaphorically to the legacy of its concrete cousin, Telegraph, which has its own .org, the atmosphere unique to Durant can be overlooked. That is a shame, because the intersection of campus, city and students which meets on Durant lends a unique wonder that you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

Certain defining elements of the street are establishments which one could find in any city, ones that a really cool uncle may call “hip” or “happening.” There’s art — Durant’s own artist and activist Tony B. Conscious has been selling his signature “fly dye” pieces on the corner of Durant and Telegraph, Monday through Friday, for longer than most of us have been attending classes. There’s great food — local restaurant Henry’s, for one, recently revamped their menu with an assist from Oakland’s Kronnerburger connaisseur, chef Chris Kronner. Since then, celebrity chef Matty Matheson of Vice’s “Munchies” also stopped by for a cookout.

Lying perpendicular both physically and metaphorically to the legacy of its concrete cousin, Telegraph, which has its own .org, the atmosphere unique to Durant can be overlooked.

And there are more humble establishments such as Top Dog, a mighty little brick building with a griddle, an anarchist’s attitude and a cult following that has been serving up quality sausages on Durant since 1966. Recent claims to fame include the mango habanero sausage and entanglements with a white supremacist ex-employee.

The street’s cuisine and snack shops even comes up in magazines. Food publication Eater lists two Durant establishments, Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks and Famous Bao, as part of their “The Essential Chinese Restaurants in the East Bay” compilation.

Durant’s myriad of art stands and eateries, though mostly run by city residents, are also heavily trafficked by students roaming off campus. The avenue ’s aura, facilitated by people and spaces, is consequently built through the interactions between the city and students. These moments of mingling and mixture on Durant build a rhythm, creating a song closer to the tune of student life than even the noon concerts at our really big bell tower. And by better reflecting students’ day-in, day-out life on campus, I feel Durant Avenue achieves a place amongst other campus icons.

Considering Durant’s proximity to both campus and not one, but two residence halls, Unit 1 and Unit 3, the street acts as a paved funnel, ferrying students on their way to campus to grab food, go out over the weekends or to just get home. For years and years, the avenue has hosted students as they shuffle over its cracked sidewalks, talk over bobas, talk to one another about however they’ve spent their evening or make the inevitable inebriated trek to Artichoke’s.

It is a space which has both Hotel Durant, a storied institution since 1928 most recently purchased and refurbished by the Graduate Hotel company and a Taco Bell Cantina within a block of one another. The latter is one of the first Taco Bell’s to serve alcohol in the East Bay. The street, inhabiting these polarities, acts as a great structural metaphor for that vague feeling of academic disappointment — UC Berkeley often pushes students to strive for the wooden paneled, gold trimmed, classically collegiate representation of success. There is pressure to become an immaculate student with a burgeoning startup and a 4.0 GPA as presentable as the historic Hotel Durant. But often it is an unachievable standard, more an ideal than an actual goal, and students can be made to feel let down. Made to feel like they’ve ended up in the line at Taco Bell after promising they wouldn’t go back again, ordering a Crunchwrap Supreme and trying to forget about their plate full of deadlines.

These moments of mingling and mixture on Durant build a rhythm, creating a song closer to the tune of student life than even the noon concerts…

But beyond opportunities for overwritten metaphors, Durant allows a culture specific to student rituals.

There are rituals of language such as a universally accepted term for a slice of Artichoke’s pizza. One grabs a “choke” or “chokes” after a long night out partying, “Moffiting” or otherwise. That and the contested problematic nickname for “Durant Food Court” make up the street’s own lexicon, ready to induct freshman speakers into the cultural loop.

There are coming-of-age rituals: trying to get through the doors at Tap Haus, getting a fishbowl at Kip’s on a 21st birthday, or for those of us who remember, “beat the clock” happy hour at Cafe Durant, to name a few. And while lots of Durant’s happenings revolve around the consumption of alcohol (as is characteristic of most college stereotypes), there are also many that do not. They are moments and small beats of the college experience so fast and intimate they can be hard to pin down when they are happening, but always important when reflected upon.

For me, one of these moments was a dead sprint down the street in the pouring rain, a mad dash sparked by a day’s worth of cramming without many breaks for snacking. After being stuck for a day and three hours in the sweaty armpit of the Unit 1 basement, my roommate and I became desperate to escape for fresh air and food. We decided we had to have Top Dog, but it was closing in minutes.

So we took off at a full sprint in Bay Area showers after midnight down the wrong way in the center of a one-way street — only to reach the doors of our desire and find them closed. And then we fell over with laughter. We were soaked in our sneakers, delirious from hunger and cackling on a public sidewalk. It was dangerous and dumb. But it was also Durant, and it never could’ve happened anywhere else.

Berkeley has some truly breathtaking structures. Our big tower is pretty, our big stadium gets full and our big gate is ever so wonderful to take an obligatory graduation picture in front of, but none of them have the same “je n’ai street quoi” as the avenue after Bancroft. Sometime soon, you might be approached by an incoming student, visiting family member or just an interested tourist asking, “What should I see while I’m in Berkeley?” Before you answer, I implore you, consider Durant.

Contact AJ Newcomb at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ajnewcombDC.