How to create a nice neighborhood

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Whilst Chapter 7 contains a short and impressionist presentation of Stuart Street in South Berkeley, I think this cosy little place deserves a closer overview, with a bit more personal history and also an explanation, why it is so well maintained. We are witnessing here a bit of American city life in miniature!

I have to confess that I have a special feeling for this one little street in the world, or rather, a short stretch of the street four blocks long. It is located in Berkeley in Northern California and its name is Stuart Street.

I met this little green enclave for the first time in 1976. My wife and I rented an apartment there from Mr. and Mrs. Fujimoto, a nice Japanese family. The very first morning after moving in, I ventured out into the street with my trusted Pentax Spotmatic. It was a clear morning, with blue skies and dewy growth, and I was immediately enchanted by this green marvel of a street. Slowly promenading upwards, I admired the little gardens adorning the front of each building, as well as the alley of trees providing welcome shade for the walker.

Suddenly I stopped, taken aback by the view of a flower I had never seen before. It gleamed red, alit by a ray of sun having found its way through the leafy greens and looking to me like a glorious dish-brush, with red bristles surrounding a golden yellow flower stem. “Click”, said the camera (in those days they didn’t yet say “Clapunck”) and the slide in question is still resting quietly in my cupboard of old slides back home. From time to time at the University of Stockholm where I then worked, I gave slide shows from my early trip to Berkeley, and that picture always received an astonished “Aah!” from the audience.

Stuart Street 5

I did not take many pictures of Stuart Street in those days – I think I have only about five in my cupboard at home – but that red flower, aptly named Bottlebrush, got me hooked on that street. When I came back to stay there once again in 2010, I immediately rushed out to take some more pictures and the results have been put on record in my book Fiat Lux!

Stuart Street 5b

The surprising fact about Stuart Street is that it appears to remain in a bubble of contented stability. I cannot see that any of the lovely little houses on these four blocks have been torn down and replaced with more modern or more ugly structures. All the buildings remain essentially as they were more than 35 years ago when I first took the picture of the bottle-brush.

Stuart Street Flower 9

A time traveller, suddenly transported forward from the seventies, would not feel that he had travelled into the future at all! How can this be? Why haven’t at least some houses and properties been remade into ugly modern apartment buildings?

As I understand it, we have two explanations for that. Firstly, the city zoning ordinances promote the preservation of the present structures by drawing a sharp distinction between residential and commercial city areas. As long as an area remains classified as a residential area, it is not easy to convert buildings without consent from the Berkeley City Council.

Stuart Street Flower 10

But the second explanation is more important. The residents on Stuart Street, at least those on the first block upward from the apartment I am now again renting, are famous for having formed, some twenty years back, a close-knitted association (called SNAP, Stuart Street Neighbours Actively Prepared) that works actively for the upkeep of a good neighbourhood.

One of the pioneers of this association, Mr. Karl Reeh, who lives there, was so kind as to invite me over for tea and tell me the background story of this venture. The prime cause for starting the co-operation was the serious earthquake that shook Berkeley and Oakland in 1989. Within a year, the second block upwards from my apartment began to organize itself in the above-mentioned association in order to prepare the residents for the next big quake.

Stuart Street Flower 11

Although fear of future quakes has abated since, other natural catastrophes, such as the big Berkeley and Oakland Hills Firestorm of 1991 that destroyed more than 3000 residences, kept neighbourhood vigilance alive. Subsequently, the neighbourhood co-operation acquired broader goals, and this nucleus of neighbour gatherings enlarged into a bigger venture with links to the city government. Nowadays, there is a net of such city-sponsored associations all over Berkeley. Stuart Street forms part of the Le Comte Neighborhood Association, with Karl Reeh as coordinator.

With this very active representation of resident interests vis-à-vis the City Council, I hope that the best part of South Berkeley living, as demonstrated by the manifold of small houses along Stuart Street, each adorned with its individually configured garden (the variation is surprising!), will survive the curse of modernity and be as pleasant to behold for future generations as it was and is to me during my recurring visits.

Stuart Street 6

Stuart Street Flower 8