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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Berkeley: A Conversation With Berkeleyside

| June 23, 2011
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Shattuck Avenue. (Photo: Michael Patrick)

In the first installment of a series in which we check in with local news sites and blogs, I talked to journalist Frances Dinkelspiel, who runs the Berkeleyside site with Tracey Taylor and Lance Knobel. We chatted about the city’s financial situation, its outsized influence in the Bay Area and even the country, its thriving food community, and more…

Each audio clip is followed by a written summary….

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Berkeleyside’s Frances Dinkelspiel on Berkeley’s economic situation

Like many municipalities, Berkeley faces a big budget deficit, but it’s been working closely with its public unions, which have foregone cost-of-living increases to help close the gap.

“The city has done better planning than some municipalites,” says Dinkelspiel. Most of its tax revenue, however, comes from small businesses, as the city has eschewed big-box stores, which many consumers have flocked to over Berkeley’s higher-priced boutiques in this struggling economy. Tax revenue has declined significantly in the last couple of years.

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On Berkeley’s business climate

Berkeley has historically had an anti-business reputation, putting in place quotas on restaurants or types of stores in different neighborhoods. This has created a lot of vacancies in some areas like Solano Avenue.

Over the last few years, however, the city has tried to become more business-friendly and is trying to turn itself into more of a high-tech hub.

Many start-ups incubate at UC Berkeley, says Dinkelspiel, but then move to Palo Alto or San Jose to be closer to Silicon Valley. “There’s this big brain-drain from Berkeley. The city and its business community are trying to reverse that right now.”

For example, the city council has long zoned West Berkeley as an industrial area in order to retain manufacturing companies, and that has made it difficult for other businesses to take root there. The council is now reviewing those rules.

One business that the city lost because of zoning restrictions is Cliff Bar, which wanted to include a childcare site that didn’t comply with city regulations at the company’s headquarters. The company instead opened a new facility in Emeryville.

Some are concerned about relaxed zoning laws, however, expressing fears that artists who now reside in those areas will be driven out by higher rents.

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On Berkeley’s Fourth Street shopping area

Fourth Street is the most upscale shopping district in the city and a vibrant part of Berkeley that attracts people from all over the Bay Area. But the economic downturn has forced some businesses like furniture stores to close.

Though it hasn’t officially been announced, Apple will open a store on Fourth Street later this year, Dinkelspiel says.

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On the city’s outsized influence and its “Berserkeley” reputation”

Berkeley, a city with just over 100,000 people, has an outsized impact on the dialogue that goes on in the Bay Area and even the U.S., says Dinkelspiel, who traces the roots of the city’s influence back to the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in the 1960s.

It’s the university that’s largely responsible for the cutting-edge aspect of the city. “A lot of people come to Berkeley from all over country to attend the university and then they decide to stay here…, “Dinkelspiel says. “Those are people who are often very forward thinking, they’re very artistic, they’re very intelligent, they’re very educated, and they create a group of people who are trying things out. They’re pushing boundaries in every way possible.”

Dinkelspiel cites recycling as an “outrageous” idea that took hold in Berkeley long before it was adopted by the mainstream.

Still, Berkeley residents frequently lament the city council’s preoccupation with taking stances on international issues while more mundane problems like fixing potholes remain unsolved. City Council members respond, Dinkelspiel says, that it is their obligation as a government body to express opinions about world issues because such actions can help influence them.

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On some recent setbacks for progressives at the city council

Recent resolutions at the city council to condemn the treatment of Private Bradley Manning and to invite some Guantanamo detainees to live in the city both failed. That’s part of the changing dynamic in Berkeley, Dinkelspiel says. “The progressives had a power bloc in Berkeley for many years but they don’t have it any longer, (and) people at the city council are sensitive to the bashing Berkeley seems to routinely get in the media.”

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On the role of food in Berkeley

Berkeleyites Michael Pollen and Alice Waters are internationally famous food-community figures, but what is really exciting, says Dinkelspiel, are the grassroots cooks and food purveyors who are opening new restaurants, planting community gardens, and bringing food into poor communities in the city. And Berkeley restaurants have even thrived during the economic downturn.

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On Berkeley’s thriving arts scene

Berkeley’s downtown turned into a really vibrant arts area, Dinkelpsiel says, citing Berkeley Rep, Aurora Theatre, and Freight & Savage Coffeehouse. The owners of Slims and The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco are renovating a nearby theater to create a rock and roll venue. “Berkeley is a really dynamic place for the arts and people just don’t connect it with that. It deserves a much greater reputation than it has.”

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On Berkeleyside as a reflection of the city

“One of the most interesting things as a journalist,” Dinkelspiel says, is the back and forth on the Berkeleyside site. “It’s definitely a two-way communication. For every article we write we get lots of comments, sometimes hundreds…. People in Berkeley are very passionate about the issues, and they love to argue about the issues.”

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