Why Is Telegraph Avenue In Berkeley So Uncool?

Mar 27 at 6am

By Lexi Pandell

When I returned home to the East Bay after college, I found that a handful of my go-to spots had closed and the flood of new transplants had discovered some of my favorite places. But the neighborhoods with the strongest memories from my young adulthood remained mostly the same, and some even saw some improvements. That is, except for Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.

While the stretch of Telegraph through downtown Oakland and Temescal has flourished, the section near the Cal campus is a shadow of its former self. The intersection most emblematic of the area’s decline is the oft-cited Haste and Telegraph. Though on one corner sits Amoeba Records, the other three are vacant. Facing Amoeba are the long-shuttered Cody’s Books and a lot of buildings that have stood empty for more than two decades (and which were reportedly infested with rats). On the fourth corner once stood the Sequoia Building, which included the well-loved restaurants Raleigh’s and Cafe Intermezzo as well as nearly 40 apartments. The building caught fire in 2011, was razed because of damage, and the lot has sat empty for the last few years.  

Most Berkeley students spend time in the blocks closer to campus dotted with chain stores – Chipotle, Daiso, Walgreens, and American Apparel, to name a few – that laugh in the face of Telegraph’s counterculture history. Some students find the rest of Telegraph to be unsafe, but mostly they find it uninteresting.

But when did Telegraph, which meant so much to me growing up, become so uncool?

Anyone familiar with Bay Area history knows the street was a symbol of the Free Speech and hippie movements. I talked to Jason Lockwood about his memories of the Avenue. He moved to the Bay Area in 1974 at age five and lived at Blake and Telegraph. Jason recalled seeing people with long hair, beards, and sashes around their waists. The scent of patchouli hung heavy in the air. Punk kids wove through the crowds by the late 1970s. Jason spent his preteens playing games at the now-closed Silverball Arcade, where he said, “One of the members of a local metal band was kind of known for snorting speed off the glass of the pinball machines while playing, kind of like a parlor trick, if you will.”

Emily Johnson and Catherine Ruggles, best friends since high school, hung out on Telegraph in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when it was home to drifters and gutter punks. Emily remembered the café culture, where she could hang out for hours at The Med, talking to poets and Vietnam veterans who spent decades there sipping coffee and smoking loosies (single cigarettes) purchased from Annapurna. Catherine recalled when Blondie’s tossed free, leftover pizza outside at 2 a.m. for whoever was hungry, and where a Grateful Dead show in town meant that the Avenue transformed into a parade of drugs, trading, buying tickets, and making new friends. There was a huge support system for the homeless with free clinics and meals, and a barber that would come around to give the occasional free haircut.

“Telegraph was a place for wanderers to land somewhat comfortably and it seems less so today,” Catherine said. “The maelstrom of grunge, tattoos becoming mainstream, and the ending of hippie tour times spelled an end for that intangible piece of Telegraph's history.”

By the time I arrived on the scene in the early 2000s, Telegraph was quite vanilla compared to its previous iterations. Still, it’s where I could hang out all day eating huge slices of cheap pizza and big, brown bags of naan that cost only a buck. It was where adults turned a blind eye, where I flipped through countless piles of discount CDs, where I got a spontaneous piercing with my best friend after high school graduation, and where I picked up some street smarts. It was where I bought my first hookah from Big Al’s when I turned 18 (which I hid from my parents and which they inevitably found) and where I met Bill Clinton at Cody’s Books before it closed.

Obviously, the Sequoia Building fire and business closures have had a huge impact on Telegraph recently. Emily said that she and her friends were already talking about Telegraph’s decline in 1993. By then, smoking was no longer allowed inside, and by 1995 fewer merchants lined the Avenue on weekends, youth stopped frequenting formerly popular hangouts like People’s Park, and the homeless population seemed denser. “Things started to feel a little bleaker,” Emily said.

Jason also said Telegraph’s downfall happened long before my time, even though it retained some youthfulness from the nearby campus. “I don’t think it has the carnival atmosphere, and there’s not the feeling that ‘the people’ own it,” he said. “That aspect of the civil rights movement, the initial burst of the sexual revolution, and all the other counterculture stuff that was going on all at once may never come together quite like that again.” 

I do think that, as an overprotected kid, I was attracted to the roughness of Telegraph. But I also think that what made Telegraph so special for so many generations, and for me, goes deeper than that.

After George W. Bush took office in 2001 and the war on terror began less than a year later, my liberal Bay Area friends and I felt politically charged and angry, but there wasn’t much any of us could do. We listened to alt-rock and wore a lot of black, and a few of my more overly dramatic friends talked about running away to Canada. On Telegraph, we found (or perhaps imagined we found) kindred spirits in the hippies and alternative folks hanging around from decades before. They had seen war and they recognized our rage, and so they posted signs on their businesses that read “No War for Oil” and sold us cheap bumper stickers that said things like “A village in Texas is missing its idiot.” I know now that, compared to the political action of generations before, ours was a lame way of dealing with our feelings. But it was the best we could do at the time.

Today, change is coming to Telegraph. Renovation plans are in place for Cody’s, the empty lot, and the Sequoia Building. The biggest challenge now will be striking a balance. Most agree that the homeless deter business, but few want them to be completely pushed out – after all, many have been living on Telegraph for years, and are as much a part of the area as any other member of the community. Many of us want new business, but not big-box stores. We want something new, but not too new and fancy. The only thing worse than Telegraph never recovering is it becoming yet another gentrified strip of road.

Much of Telegraph’s magic is stored in the moments of those of us in the Bay Area who were tossed aside or scared or pissed off. In recent years, we’ve taken a lot of our rage from the streets to the Internet, which is a wonderful and democratic thing in so many ways, but it means the loss of the gritty, personal feeling of coming together with a common cause in a place like Telegraph. I don’t think the Avenue will return as a symbol of the Free Speech Movement, or of the punk movement, or even of the strange tumultuous time I experienced. But I do hold out hope that it may once again become a symbol of something great, someday, to some generation. 

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