The iconic strip feels poised for an upsurge—but one that keeps its funky flavor. A glimpse of two people’s shot at love in middle age.
Over the years Telegraph Avenue has been called many things. In the ’60s, it was a “hippie-runaway-narcotics-activist enclave” and “a battlefield populated by only cops and kids.” In 1970 bookstore owner Fred Cody suggested the name “Paranoia Avenue.”
More kindly it’s been called the “birthplace of the Free Speech Movement,” “the center for civic life in Berkeley, with people flocking there at weekends for lively handicrafts markets,” and the place where the latte was invented.
By the early 1990s, though, the stretch of Telegraph south of UC Berkeley was called “a grungy youth ghetto” by the owner of the popular restaurant and bar Larry Blake’s, who wished it wasn’t so.
USA Today, with less at stake on the avenue, took an even harsher tone, calling the strip “hell at night.”
“As the sun goes down, plywood goes up on the storefronts all along Telegraph Avenue,” the paper reported. “Tourists scurry to their cars. A homeless girl makes sure she’s armed—with the leg bone of a pony.”
By the end of the ’90s Telegraph was called “a war zone” by Andy Ross, eight years before he closed his beloved bookstore, Cody’s. The name-calling continues today, even by the street’s boosters. Just last year Craig Becker, owner of the strip’s most iconic business, Caffe Mediterraneum, described Telegraph after midnight as “kind of a dark, creepy place.”
But a worse comment was to come, from San Francisco author-activist-editor Randy Shaw. “A virtual ghost town,” he called the avenue.
A ghost town, huh? How then to explain a recent Saturday that saw the avenue’s handicraft vendors setting up around 10 a.m., lines round half a block at Cream for ice cream sandwiches, and diners filling most of Joshu-Ya’s pleasant courtyard for sushi and tapas at lunch?
Throughout the day folks filled the street, young people mostly, but moms and daughters and middle-agers, too, peaking at about 7:30 p.m., but busy in spots for hours later—especially in line at Cream.
In fact, Telegraph Avenue today seems poised for one of its periodic upsurges. In May, rebuilding began on the Sequoia Building, lost to fire three years ago with 42 apartments and two of the street’s most popular gathering spots, Raleigh’s tavern and Intermezzo Café. Both will reopen, and nearby merchants and vendors expect greatly increased foot traffic and sales as a result.
Ken Sarachan, longtime owner of the avenue’s two most blighted properties, kitty-corner from each other, the long-boarded up Cody’s bookstore and the site of the former Berkeley Inn, has said he will revive both soon. City officials believe him, having inked a deal for the Berkeley Inn site that involves forgiving a lien on the property. Sarachan did not respond to a request for comments.
At the old Cody’s, Sarachan plans to open the Mad Monk Center for Anachronistic Media, a combination retail shop and entertainment venue. Telegraph has been hurting for entertainment since Larry Blake’s closed three years ago, though its replacement, Pappy’s Grill, is putting on comedy shows.
Several other properties along the avenue, including the Telegraph Commons building, have been spiffed up, with modern storefronts that successfully hark back to the strip’s early 20th-century architectural vibe.
A new, multi-use building is planned for the former Center for Independent Living spot. There’s even a mini-fashion district evolving around Telegraph and Dwight Way, suggesting a bit of San Francisco’s hip Hayes Valley.
Vendors and merchants point to the success of the Telegraph Business Improvement District’s cleanups and roving, orange-shirted ambassadors. New planters and hanging plants are in the works for the avenue as well.
Both the city and university have embarked on yet another concentrated attempt to reinvigorate the avenue, with the city’s “one-year focused effort led by the planning department,” according to the city’s economic development manager Michael Caplan. The university effort is led by Cal’s first-ever “vice chancellor for real estate,” Robert Lalanne.
But don’t worry. Telegraph is not losing its funky flavor.
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Today, as the city embarks on yet another optimistic attempt to rescue Telegraph, it’s useful to ponder—what is it about this funky, beloved, hated, and sometimes ignored avenue that has required it to be saved every five or six years for the past half century?
Should we just give up and pave it over—as has been suggested several times, starting with a plan for urban renewal in the early 1960s and by several suggestions in later years to turn it into a pedestrian mall?
Is the avenue, after all these years of downs and downs and occasional ups, finally dying? Or is there something special about Telegraph, something resembling a phoenix, or a zombie, that simply cannot be killed?
Let’s start in the mid-1960s, before hippies and radicals and riots and People’s Park. The Telegraph strip, while very much a college hangout, with bookstores and cafes and Pauline Kael’s Cinema Guild art house, was a full-service shopping street.
“There are sorority girls, fraternity boys, physicists, bus drivers, secretaries, beatniks, construction workers, and many from suburbia who find the international flavor in the district to their taste,” the Berkeley Daily Gazette reported in 1965. “A juicy hamburger? A pizza? French escargot? Perhaps a rattlesnake sandwich?” the paper queried, suggesting the avenue’s culinary range.
“Andre Godet, speaking for the merchants in the area, sees a bright future for the district,” the paper said, pointing to the major problems then confronting Telegraph—potential urban renewal and a lack of parking soon to be relieved by a new garage.
It did not turn out to be that simple. Urban renewal was dropped, but by early 1966 the police were acknowledging a scourge—rampant marijuana sales.
Ah, but it was still an old-fashioned town. When Nicholas Quennell walked into the Forum cafe draped in “shoulder-length golden brown hair,” owner Frank Albanese chucked him out. Following street protests, Albanese dropped his no-long-hair policy a week later.
By 1968 hippies owned the avenue, demanding and getting frequent avenue closures for street dances. While businesses were doing well near campus (as they do today), further down the avenue, the hippies had taken hold.
The mayor was talking about turning Telegraph into a mall in part to eliminate hippies—a call that has been repeated many times since, often with similar motivation.
By the fall of 1968, following riots, the city was beefing up “saturation” police patrols (as it has many times since) to deal with “Telegraph Avenue’s bizarre elements.”
The city adopted another tactic that it’s pulled out of its hat repeatedly and successfully since. “Once-slovenly Telegraph Avenue has been cleaned and polished and merchants and ‘street people’ are thanking each other,” the Berkeley Gazette wrote.
1969 saw the worst of Telegraph’s Troubles, as they were dubbed, during the Third World Liberation Strike and the battle over the university’s closure of People’s Park, when one young man was blinded and another shot dead by officers of the law while watching the battle from the roof of the Telegraph Repertory Cinema.
“Remember that quiet, neighborhood business district south of the University of California campus?” Larry Spears asked readers in the Oakland Tribune in 1970. “It’s gone. It’s gone because this country is in the midst of a cultural conflict and economic crisis, and in both these senses, Berkeley is in the middle of the country.”
He described a street of empty storefronts, where a fear of riots kept customers away, and where old-time merchants, even women’s fashion retailer Andre Godet, were moving away.
But the avenue hobbled along and by 1972, the battle was between store owners and the craft vendors, who had recently been legalized, creating an “amoeba-like proliferation” that made walking down the street difficult. Ove Wittstock of Layton’s Shoes, a force on the avenue for decades, helped negotiate a truce.
Nightlife perked up on the avenue in August 1976 after a ban on hard liquor sales near campus was dropped. Larry Blake, whose eponymous restaurant had been on Telegraph since 1940, poured the first drink.
By 1983, though, crime was again hurting business. “Once it gets dark people don’t go on Telegraph Avenue,” longtime property owner Maynard Munger said after the popular La Bottega café closed.
But a worse menace scared merchants that year, one that has never really gone away: cookies.
“With the Cookie Bear to the north, Baker Street to the west, David’s Cookies to the east and now Cookies by Christy to the south, you can walk from Telegraph and Bancroft toward any point on the compass and pass within a few steps of a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie,” Charles Burress reported in the Chronicle.
“Today much of Telegraph Avenue looks like a ghetto for sugar freaks,” Karen Matthews wrote in The Berkeley Monthly [now The East Bay Monthly].
Chain stores were opening, provoking protests about the avenue’s loss of character, and closing, provoking moans about the bad business climate.
The city stepped in, declaring a moratorium on rent increases and evictions and in changes of use. The city also adopted rent arbitration, which proved useful.
Telegraph was in one of its periodic booms, but it was snuffed out by a wave of “rat packs,” mostly street kids who gathered around Durant and Telegraph avenues, menacing people just by their presence and sometimes by their actions. The city banned nighttime parking in the vicinity, cracked down on cruising, and the kids migrated elsewhere.
The mid-1990s saw another business upsurge on the avenue—the last, it seems, until the one that’s expected to get underway soon. The Beau Sky Hotel opened on Durant, Henry’s pub was doing well, and in the East Bay Express writer Alfredo Botello was praising Telegraph as a textbook case for New Urbanism: “Telegraph Avenue draws its vitality from the scattershot variety of its denizens, which sometimes makes for grating hostility, but more often is the catalyst for engaging street theater.”
Will Telegraph ever lose its street theater? In its quest for cleanliness and a good business climate, will it go the way of Walnut Creek?
“Honestly I don’t think so,” says longtime street vendor Janet Klein, “because Telegraph has so much history. It has the history of People’s Park. It has the history of the vendors that has been going on all these years, which in a way is a mild form of protest, a protest against the malls. We’ll never see [street people] all gone. But it can improve
“There’s a reason they are here. Berkeley in its heart of hearts helps people out.”
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The first street person bedded down Saturday night at 8:10 in the doorway of Lhasa Karnak Herb Co., a purveyor of essential oils, books on “Magical Aromatherapy,” and more, that’s been on the avenue since 1970, one of several shops there that functions as a time machine.
Fat Slice pizza was doing good business well after 9, with young, mostly Hispanic and African-American kids lined up for a slice and 16-ounce energy drink for $5.99. Truly a different, more ethnically varied and working-class crowd than you’d find in trendier shopping districts like, say, Berkeley’s Fourth Street.
Down the avenue, Pasta Bene serves decent pastas for $8. Restaurants are one segment of the Telegraph economy that is not hurting, Caplan says—not surprising given the market and the prices.
Ruth Bird, a jeweler who’s been vending on the avenue since 1971, before the city made it legal for handcrafters to sell their own wares there, had a so-so Saturday. “Better than yesterday, but yesterday I only made $2. Today, I made less than $100,” she said. “It varies from one day to the next.”
Asked about Telegraph Avenue and its current woes, her answer echoed that of several vendors and merchants on the street.
“It goes up, and it goes down,” Bird said. “I wish people wouldn’t be so negative about it. I get people from all over the world. People love shopping in Berkeley. They don’t see this in Marin County.”
Two out-of-towners were at the Berkeley Hat Co., one of several specialty stores on Telegraph that attract folks from far and wide. Co-owner Carol Dougherty was helping Ruth McHugh, who hails from the college town of Chico, buy a frilly brimmed hat to wear at the Belmont Stakes.
“It’s hard to find a hat store like this,” McHugh said as her granddaughter Keara Higgins tried on a few chapeaux as well. McHugh enjoyed the avenue. “Quaint,” she said. “It’s cute. It’s like Chico.”
She may have missed the guy who stalked across Telegraph amid the vendors, screaming and waving his arms. The vendors know him and say he’s fine when he’s taking his pills but bad for business when he’s not.
“If they could limit it, you know,” said jeweler Lee Six, “it” being disruptions caused by mentally ill people who are part of the sizeable street population.
“Doc is great,” Six said, meaning David “Doc” Sammon, a sculptor, jeweler, longtime vendor, and peacemaker. “Whenever there’s a problem here, he’s the first one standing; he goes to talk to them; he follows them; he calls the police.”
Six is one of the few, maybe the only, street vendors who also has operated a store on the avenue. She and her husband, Russ Chapman, own Studio Six, a watch shop.
A surprising number of vendors have been on the avenue for 30 or more years, and many shop owners are longtimers, too.
“When you are out in the street, you really feel the heartbeat of the avenue,” says Janet Klein, a jeweler who’s been feeling that heartbeat for 33 years and who organizes the Telegraph Avenue Holiday Street Fair and Sundays on Telegraph during the summer.
In recent years, it hasn’t been the healthiest heartbeat.
Dave Fogarty, who’s been crunching Telegraph’s numbers for 17 years as economic development project coordinator for the city, says retail sales in the Telegraph district, which includes the cross street Bancroft Avenue, are down about 50 percent from 1990, when adjusted for inflation. Crime and drug dealing on the avenue are not a particular problem these days, city officials say.
Many students don’t like going to the avenue, finding little to attract them, he says. They prefer the big box chain stores in Emeryville—or the DIY-style shops and upscale pizzerias in Temescal, on the Oakland stretch of Telegraph.
Yes, it has come to that—a once-moribund strip of Oakland emerging as hipper than Berkeley.
The reason for Telegraph’s decline in Berkeley, Fogarty said in an interview, “is not People’s Park; it’s not street people. Those are factors.”
Fogarty and Caplan instead blame “structural changes due to the economy,” “demographics,” “the nature of retail,” and “property owners issues, longtime owners,” among other factors.
Fogarty cited competition from the Internet and chain stores. Students and young people used to flock to Telegraph to buy LPs, CDs, and books. No longer. The avenue still has great bookstores, including Moe’s, with its famous four floors of books. Amoeba and Rasputin’s remain immense and impressive recorded music emporia—but the long lines waiting for cashiers are a thing of the past.
No new anchor business has replaced records and books.
For an anchor, Fogarty and Caplan are rooting for largish clothing stores and a “small, efficient grocery,” which could go into one of the new buildings planned or dreamed about for the avenue. They’d also love to see stores selling housewares for the student market.
They suggest that some rethinking by merchants might help as well.
“Current undergrads who were born after 1985 are not going to be interested in the detritus of the ’60s, the counter culture,” Caplan said. “A lot of businesses are still clinging to that image.”
Carol Dougherty of Berkeley Hat Co. agrees that changes are needed along the avenue. “This is a world-class university,” she says, “and this should be a world class street.”
Telegraph Avenue Resources
Bil Paul’s photos of Telegraph Avenue in the 1960s can be seen at SixtiesPix.com. A book of his photos of that era titled The Tri-X Chronicles is available for purchase. Send $7 (this includes postage within the Unites States) to Bil Paul, 1300 Pembroke Way, Dixon, CA 95620.
Signed copies of the original printing of Nacio Jan Brown’s Rag Theater – The 2400 Block of Telegraph Avenue, 1969-1973 are available through Amazon.com. A much-expanded version of the project, including recollections by people who where on the scene, is at RagTheater.com.
Dave Weinstein is the author of It Came from Berkeley: How Berkeley Changed the World.