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New to Berkeley


Berkeley looks nothing like this.

Berkeley’s great. Here are a few things that stand out about it.

1. It’s extremely walkable. Because everyone is walking around at all hours, that also means you’re able to walk around it and enjoy it more until later in the day; it’s safer, because the foot traffic is constant. I’ve gone out at midnight and seen other people on the streets, and felt like there was no danger at all.

2. I feel like I’ve figured out the basics, and am just adding new items to my ‘go-to’ list for a rainy day at this point. I can get to Berkeley Bowl, a great natural foods store, office supply stores like Staples, and a hundred+ restaurants, small groceries and convenience stores. That pretty much covers it; if I wanted to fill up a house I could take the BART to El Cerrito Plaza and stock up there, but that’s unnecessary. Not having a bike is really only a minor inconvenience, since it just means I have to add a few minutes to my trip.

3. Berkeley resembles Austin in a lot of ways; or at least, when people talk about what Austin is like, they’re usually describing a place like Berkeley. In that sense Berkeley feels more like Austin than Austin does. There’s a lot of movement here, of organizations starting and forming, coop-like groups coming out of the woodwork and obscure semi-religious groups that don’t make much sense to an outsider.

4. They call Berkeley ‘Cal’ here. It’s on all the apparel, on bottles and bags and so on, and when things like dorms advertise themselves, they put Cal prominently at the top. Most students for instance don’t wear ‘University of California at Berkeley’ shirts, but go for ‘Cal’ instead.

5. I’d heard before that Berkeley has completely lost its independent left-wing streak and is now an unaffiliated Big State U, but that’s an exaggeration. There’s no protests or demonstrations on the street, so in that sense, that’s accurate. However, there are lots of independent bookstores and shops that you would expect in a sort of vaguely left-wing area, and things like recycling are taken pretty seriously here. It’s not in-your-face liberal, but it’s there if you look for it.

6. The street people are literally everywhere. People used to complain about the street people in Austin, near the University, who occupied a 10-block area or so, tops. Here, they’re part of the scenery. If there’s a silver lining to this, it’s that there are so many street people that, as individuals, there’s very little aggressive panhandling. However, there are still confrontations and sort of sticky situations, especially between restaurant owners and the people who sit outside their doors and drive away the customers. People seem used to it though, and don’t fear them.

7. I’ve heard this is a foodie paradise from people who live here, and while I thought that was local boasting, the food is very good. Cheap food is good, moderately priced food is really good, and the expensive food is presumably excellent (not like I would know, that’s out of my price range).  It seems like the rising tide that lifts all boats, because it’s pretty reliable that any restaurant will serve you a good meal with fresh ingredients, no matter where you go. There’s also many farmer’s markets.

8. There’s a pronounced Asian influence here. A large number of the students at Cal are Asian, so there’s that. There are also many Thai and Indian/Pakistani/Afghan places scattered around. There’s also lots of Buddhist bookstores and centers, and yoga places too. There was a Himalayan Festival last week that sold Tibetan goods (there’s a few stores here selling good from Tibet) and had a nice grass-roots character.

9. Spatially, there’s Berkeley, which is defined by UC-Berkeley (and all the stores that exist in a ring around it); Oakland, the gritty, working-class neighbor slash suburb (there’s many weekly press ads for ‘Oaksterdam,’ the marijuana-growing greenhouse industry supplier); San Francisco, a ginormous tarball of everything that’s overwhelming; and then the BART stops I never get to, like Fremont, Daly City, and Martinez. I don’t know anything about them.

10. The UC-Berkeley campus has a bell tower, Sather Tower, which I sometimes use to orient myself, old buildings (they resemble UT’s) and a huge, huge amount of landscaping, more than I’ve ever seen on any other campus. There are many large, sprawling trees that take up the space between buildings, in staggered layers.  There’s almost no ‘large grassy lawn’ spaces that define the universities I’ve attended.

11. Sadly, for a native plants person, there’s few native plants left in California. Even though people think of California as an ecological paradise, there may be more native plants in Houston, per square foot, than there are here. Here everything is Lolium and other invasive grasses that didn’t originate in California; even way out in the Sierra Foothill Research Station, 2 hours away, it’s the same situation. I thought native plants had a tough time of it in Houston, but from what I’ve seen, it’s annihilation here.

12. If Berkeley is a comfy small town, San Francisco is a theme park. The train to Bart takes about an hour each way, including walking time, and costs $6 in ticket money, an amount that quickly rockets up once you enter San Francisco. I’ve probably never been in a city that has such a constant tourist presence; you can go down to the water and basically enter the never-ending tourist district, and find dozens of street entertainers with obscure niches (guy who pretends to be a plant, etc.) who still seem to do okay. I imagined San Francisco would have a sort of Latin character but it doesn’t, really; even things like Mexican restaurants feel like a novelty here.


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