Tuesday, February 1, 2011

You Really Can't go Home Again

                                            You Really Can’t go Home Again.

     Recently, I  had to attend a family gathering in the Los Angeles area.  Since my wife had never been to California, I thought it would be nice to drive up the coast highway to San Francisco where I had spent many good years during the sixties.  Also, as an alumnus of U.C. Berkeley, I was anxious to revisit the campus and town where I had spent so many happy hours.  The following, are my impressions of the places I revisited on the trip.


     About ten years ago, I was watching a show on PBS about U.C. Berkeley.  During the show, the narrator mentioned that Berkeley was now the nineteenth rated public university in the U.S. NINETEENTH!!!!!! Doesn’t even begin to express my reaction. How does a university go from being far and away number one in the country to number nineteen?  (Okay, actually it was a three way tie between Berkeley, Stanford, and Harvard; but no true Berkeleyite would  ever concede the point.)
                          Don’t tell it on the streets of Ashkelon
                          Don’t tell it on the streets of Gath
                          For lo, the mighty have fallen!
     So how does a university go from number one to number nineteen in such a relatively short period of time?  Unfortunately, I found out.
     Not wanting to hassle with traffic and parking, we took the BART train over to Berkeley.  The campus started a few blocks north of the train station. 
     We started walking  north on campus past the woods and streams where I went when I was on my first acid trip, and everything looked pretty much the same.  We made our way to the plaza behind the student union and it was totally deserted.  This was the place where such local notables as Eldridge Cleaver stirred up the troops with such pithy sayings as, “If Reagan had his way, he’d put a speed limit on f---ing”.  Oddly enough, there were no street performers, no kids playing guitars, nothing. Just empty space.
     So we continued up the stairs to Sproul  plaza and again, nothing but empty space.  No booths set up distributing literature against the war, against capitalism, against Bush etc. The only booth in the area was manned by two campus policemen who were giving out free bicycle licenses.
     So we continued through Sather Gate so I could point out the spot where I was standing  when I looked up and saw the helicopter spraying the campus with tear gas.  There I saw some columns with posters on them advertising things like, “ Young Republicans for Jesus” , and “The Christian Crusade to Euthanize the Poor and Unsightly”.  I think there was one ad for a “Young Socialist’s League”.
    After pointing out the spot where I was sitting when the national guardsman advanced on me with a fixed bayonet, we took  a walk down Telegraph Avenue, the heart and soul of the campus community.
                         So what did you see my blue eyed son?
                         What did you see my darling young one?
                          I saw a store that sold high-heeled shoes to young women,
                          I saw a feeble  old hippie who looked out of place
                          I saw a sign proclaiming a drug free zone
                          And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard rain ain’t gonna fall
     Needless to say that all the things that made Berkeley such a special place to be are gone.  The Telegraph Repertory Cinema , the little cafes, the headshops, etc. We went into a bookstore and while we were there I had to pay a visit to the men’s room.  On the wall was a blackboard and chalk. I left the following message, “When did U.C. Berkeley receive its lobotomy?”
        Afterwards, we made our way to where People’s Park was.  It was my understanding that the University had built apartments on the location, so I was quite surprised to see this rather nice little park there. As we strolled through the park, I explained to my wife how the local rabble-rousers got the whole thing started.  The university, not wanting to lose the land due to adverse possession, then tried to reason with the unreasonable, so they put a fence around it.  This led to a good, old-fashioned riot (in which I personally did  not participate).  As we were leaving the park, a rather wizened looking  old hippie who was sitting on a bench looked up at me and said, “hey man, thanks for the nostalgia trip”.
     On the way back to the city, I kept thinking about the story of “Ishi”, the last California Indian.  It must be incredibly pathetic and lonely to be the last of your kind.  I kept thinking about the three or four old hippies who were still hanging around Berkeley. It was clear that they had nothing else to do or anywhere else to be, so they hung around a place that at least had some pleasant memories even though all the things that had gone into creating those memories are now long gone.
     To close, let me paraphrase Jimi Hendrix.
      “It will never be called Berserkeley again”

                             San Francisco, the city that priced itself out of existence.

     The most striking thing about San Francisco is that it has now become some kind of international Mecca for tourists.  In a matter of hours, I heard people speaking French, German, Italian, Swedish, and people with British and Irish accents.  The rest  of  the crowd  appeared to be American tourists.  I would have been hard pressed to identify a native.
     North Beach which used to be the entertainment hub of the city, now has exactly three clubs left.  The City Lights bookstore is still there, but it is a now a world-famous tourist attraction.  All the little jazz clubs are now long gone and have been replaced by Italian restaurants.  The little diners, and other places to hang out like “Mike’s Pool Hall” are also long gone.  Even the topless joints are gone.
     Fisherman’s wharf is even more touristy than ever.  A lot of famous places like DiMaggio’s are gone.  Not much left but a few restaurants and stores selling tourist stuff.
     One night, I asked the desk clerk at our hotel if any of the restaurants in Chinatown were significantly better than any of the others.  He told me that all the really good Chinese restaurants had moved out of Chinatown and into the suburbs.  He said the rents in San Francisco had gotten so high, that no privately owned business could afford them.
As a result, a lot of the landmark restaurants had closed down.  I had noticed that all the small delis, sandwich shops, and doughnut shops had been replaced by espresso bars.
     In short, San Francisco has been Disneyfied and turned into a tourist haven.  The cable cars which were once considered cheap transportation are now some kind of amusement park ride with prices to match, $3.00 a head.  (Much like Times Square in New York)  Personally, I found it ironic that San Francisco has become this big tourist attraction now that just about all the things that made the city such a unique and interesting place are gone.


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