Lessons and leisurely walks through Berkeley’s Uplands

Emily Denny/Staff

Compared to its neighboring cities, Berkeley can feel like the small town of the Bay Area. But even after living here for three, going on four years, I continue to find corners of this place I never knew existed. And just a few days ago, I caught sight of a street sign labeled “The Uplands” on my way back home. So, instead of taking my routine right turn, I decided to take the left.

Impressed by its noble title, I decided to explore this hidden neighborhood I hadn’t yet discovered before. As I wandered up its tree-shaded street, I became more intrigued by the complexities of the neighborhood’s design. Each street corner was connected by a hidden alley, lined with steep steps, leading to another street farther up the hill. These narrow hidden alleys were marked by old Victorian street lights, revealing yet another secret pathway with every block I wandered. Massive homes peeked out from behind ancient trees and their bushy canopies, and friendly neighbors taking morning strolls greeted me. I was fascinated by what felt like a utopia within my own city, and so I wandered farther into Berkeley’s “Uplands.”

The streets were steep. Grand homes decorated every corner of the smoothly paved roads that winded up and up into the never-ending Berkeley Hills. And as I found myself following the curvy sidewalks, the homes became older and bigger. I passed houses that one could easily find lining the streets of an ancient European town or the streets of the Beverly Hills — each designed differently, yet all with front yards groomed to precision. I passed one brick home in particular that was covered in a blanket of ivy, and as I stood admiring this completely green home, my eyes were drawn to its lavishly decorated interior.

I moved on quickly, however, not wanting to worry the owners with my not-so-sneaky glances into their expensive home’s windows. But I was in awe knowing that so much wealth and luxury existed within the walls of these homes. As I wandered through the Uplands, I caught myself daydreaming. Maybe if I pursue a career in academics, my eventual professorship will result in my very own home on this hill. Or maybe I’ll write my second novel within the walls of a home just up the street, taking small breaks between chapters to walk my groomed poodle up and down these hidden alleys.

Soon, however, this daydreaming transformed into utter confusion, and I found myself completely lost. Along with a growing fear that I would never escape, I began to notice certain characteristics of the Uplands that I had somehow entirely missed while drooling over its beauty. Each massive home and its perfectly built walls were lined with iron gates or tall fences and security cameras. Each home had a manicured yard — the kind of yards meant to never be stepped on. And each home’s front window was decorated with a single small white dog, barking at any person who passed by and calling attention to their lack of belonging.

What used to be my leisurely walk through a quiet Berkeley neighborhood quickly became a hysteric run to escape it. I rushed down the sidewalk, decorated with one $100,000 car after another. And as I passed these multimillion-dollar homes and their little fluffy bodyguards, I began to miss my own Berkeley neighborhood. I missed the street vendors. I missed the crowded, smelly streets. I even missed the fearless and overweight squirrels. The Berkeley Uplands are beautiful; they are historic — elegant, even. But they are empty — lacking any of the characteristics that make up the Berkeley I know and the Berkeley I love.

When I neared the bottom of the Uplands, relieved to find a neighborhood I actually recognized, a tree branch caught my arm, leaving a bloody mark across my shoulder. Maybe I was being a little too theatrical, but I took it as a sign to never again return to Berkeley’s Uplands — or at least not until I’m earning six figures and driving a Mercedes.

Contact Emily Denny at [email protected].