First of all, understand that I am the poster child for pedestrians. If pedestrians had posters, my face would be all over them. I went to high school in Los Angeles and didn’t learn to drive until I was 31 — and then only reluctantly, and only well enough to pass my test, snatch my license from the clammy hands of the DMV attendant, and promptly drive my parents’ seaworthy GM into a small bottlebrush tree. (I still dispute that the tree was entirely blameless, but that’s a different topic.)

So it is with no sense of antipathy towards pedestrians that I take one look at the City of Berkeley’s traffic policy and say “YOU’VE GOT TO BE F-ING KIDDING ME!!!!!” So here’s the deal: Pedestrians are free to scoot about in and around cars, buses and other traffic, in a fashion utterly unconcerned with the color of traffic lights, the placement of crosswalks, street corners, etc. …and it is entirely the responsibility of drivers to be on the lookout for these squirrelly little people and not to run into them.

Call me crazy, but there’s nothing “pedestrian friendly” about that. And I love a pedestrian-friendly city. I seek out pedestrian-friendly cities. New York City is a pedestrian friendly city. Hong Kong is fairly pedestrian friendly. Tokyo — very pedestrian friendly. From what I can see, Berkeley has pretty much declared open season on pedestrians. And the truly crazy thing is that the pedestrians themselves seem to go along with the craziness: leaping out in front of traffic with nary a sideways glance, as if to say “go ahead, smear me to the pavement. I’ll see you in court!”

Before our little day trip to Berkeley, I had been fairly certain that this was where we were going to live. Get a nice house up in the hills, just within walking distance of Gourmet Ghetto. Hang out at the university, maybe take some classes… Guy was into it too, and had even started looking up menus for the restaurants there and seeing who delivered. But on the drive back to Suzanne and Shay-Shay’s, the reality started to dawn on me. This was no East-Bay paradise with sweeping vistas, Japanese-pine-lined streeets and stimulating conversation over seasonally prepared gourmet nosh. This was Crazy Town!

It wasn’t just the pedestrian thing. That was just a wake-up call. I tried to explain to Guy what it was like living in an ideologically hell-bent community. I explained about Santa Cruz, and how nearly everyone there was a socialist of some stripe, and how none of them were interested in having their views challenged or in having to defend them. Then I told him that Berkeley was Santa Cruz times a thousand.

“But wasn’t Santa Cruz fun?” He asked. “Weren’t you really engaged in all that?” Well yes, I was. And yes, it was a lot of fun being a thorn in the side of the righteous wrong. But that was twenty years ago. If I were still spending my time that way today I would feel like I hadn’t progressed at all in life.

And oddly, that is precisely how I felt about the city of Berkeley after our day-long excursion there: that it was stuck in the past, had not changed at all in these past twenty years — probably more. It wasn’t anything I could put my finger on, it was more the “vibe” of the place. A sense of the energy there. And it just seemed that the energy was… well, not very energetic. Resistant, maybe. Resistant to change, to growth, to what was going on in the outside world. Odd, for a bunch of people who overwhelmingly use the word “progressive” to describe their outlook on life.

It was such a stark contrast to the energy of Silicon Valley only an hour or so away — an epicenter of vibrant creativity. And it must be strange to have devoted one’s entire life to “revolution”, and then to watch passively as the real revolution happens just next door, at the hands of snot-nosed punks making magic with ones and zeros, becoming overnight millionaires, and quite literally changing the face of the world. Meanwhile, Berkeley declares itself a nuclear-free zone, closes off and more of its streets to motorized traffic, and then spends its evenings in pot-infused cafes listening to Bob Dylan.

I told a friend who had spent time in Berkeley about my reaction and she nodded. “They’re against growth,” she said, “yet they envy what everyone else has.” “It’s almost depressing,” said another friend who had gone to school there. And she’s right. I think living there would drag me down. Being surrounded by people who resist growth, development, prosperity.

I had expected to like Berkeley. I had anticipated annoyance with the overwhelming socialist bent of the place and the constant drumbeat of the self-righteous pimping of causes. But I somehow had in my mind that even if this didn’t mean a culture of vibrant debate, at least there was the good food, the natural beauty, the interest in health, alternative healing, spirituality… but I didn’t get a sense of any of that. Instead, I felt I was in a place that had dug in its heels while the rest of the world sped along into exciting new terrain. I didn’t feel angry or even irritated. I just kind of felt sorry for the place.

Originally published on On the Banks, September 4, 2007