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Tamara Keith: Telegraph Avenue's Decline

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While Everyone Was Fighting Over Telegraph Avenue's Punks, Something Worse Moved In

By Tamara Keith, Public Affairs
Posted February 10, 1999

Photo: Tamara Keith

Tamara Keith

For the past six months, the City of Berkeley's biggest issue has been the homeless kids who sleep and panhandle on Telegraph. Several business owners (a majority of whom sell books) spent most of the month of September noisily and repeatedly complaining that the young punk rock panhandlers were bad for business. They said profits fell as much as 10 percent in 1998 because of the kids, who were apparently doing some pretty obnoxious and illegal things right out in the open.

Last fall the city council approved several very un-Berkeley measures to deal with the problem. It increased police presence, banned lying down on Telegraph and made it illegal for more than two dogs to congregate there. This, of course, caused a major uproar. Many local part-time activists, dormant since the latest People's Park riot, sprang into action. Concerned citizens and parents contributed their heated opinions and the local press put the whole issue under a microscope.

Now, months later, it looks like the dust has settled. Those who got most riled up over the issue are still angry, but they were probably not the happiest people to start out with anyway. Far fewer homeless kids congregate on Telegraph -- because they all moved to Shattuck to avoid the police. Concerned parents still avoid the head shop-lined avenue for Sunday family outings, but that's nothing new. And after a good holiday shopping season, business seems to be booming on Telegraph once again (though this probably has more to do with the end of El NiŅo than the migration of homeless youth).

At first glance it would seem that Telegraph is back to its good old grungy peace-loving self again. With one big difference. While everyone was busy fighting over the fate of a few dozen homeless kids, something much worse moved in: corporate America. Snuggled next to some of the avenue's great fixtures are stores with ratings on Dow Jones.

Stores with stockholders just don't jive with my idea of what Telegraph is all about. Sure there is a place for the corporate shopping experience, but it shouldn't be Berkeley. That's why we have suburbs with big fancy shopping malls. What has made Berkeley unique for all these years (other than its wacky people) is its eccentric stores.

The Telegraph economy relies heavily on conjured images of the '60s in the minds of those who probably weren't even alive at the time. If the avenue gets many more of these mall-style retail establishments, there won't be much left to draw shoppers away from one-stop shopping centers. Though most may not want to admit it, the homeless kids who beg passersby for cash and beer are a priceless part of the ambience.

Telegraph businesses can only hope that their customers are so distracted by the homeless kids lying on the ground that they won't notice the huge signs advertising such establishments as Hot Topic, Jamba Juice, Bath and Body Works and Mr. Rags.


February 10 - 16, 1999 (Volume 27, Number 22)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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