The Decline of Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue

by Randy Shaw, 2013-02-05

Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue is known throughout the world. Yet its iconic status belies its current condition as a virtual ghost town. Cody’s Bookstore closed in 2006 and the building remains vacant. A fire across the street has left a large hole where the popular Café Intermezzo once prospered. Across the street from this hole is the longstanding vacant site of the former Berkeley Inn, which burned down in 1990. Its owner, Ken Sarachan, (who also owns Blondie’s Pizza and Rasputin Records), has held the site hostage while seeking to avoid paying city liens on the property. The colorful sidewalk sellers of handmade crafts are gone most of the time, and the area only regains its traditional activity when fans go to and from Cal football games. The demise of Telegraph is a tragedy because it was avoidable; it was caused as much by city government neglect as by larger social, demographic and other economic forces.

If you have not seen Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue in recent years, you would be shocked to see how deserted it has become. I checked out the scene midday on Super Bowl Sunday and you would have thought it was Christmas, Thanksgiving or another holiday when stores were closed and students away from campus.

But the Elmwood and North Shattuck commercial districts were bustling, and I’m sure Fourth Street was as well. Downtown Berkeley also had a lot of people out and about this past weekend, and the Solano shopping district always has people sitting out drinking coffee or walking the street.

No wonder that Michael Chabon’s bestselling novel, Telegraph Avenue, focuses on the Oakland rather than the Berkeley part of the street. Even though set in a period well before Berkeley Telegraph’s demise, Berkeley resident Chabon wrote the book as Oakland’s Telegraph was becoming the hipster center that its Berkeley counterpart once served. From the popular Temescal District at 51st and Telegraph to the hip New Parkway Theater off of 24th, Oakland’s Telegraph has already replaced Berkeley’s as the happening place.

Larger Forces of Decline

To be clear, larger forces undermined Berkeley Telegraph’s longtime formula for success. The decline of book and record stores weakened Telegraph’s role as a Bay Area-wide destination site. The development of the privately-owned Fourth Street created an ideal shopping environment that Telegraph could not match. The fire at the Café Intermezzo site, rising student tuition and the resulting decline in their disposable income, and property owner’s preference for higher paying chain store tenants over independent businesses that would make the area feel unique all played a part in the street’s decline.

But what’s remarkable to me is how little Berkeley city government has done to help create a better future for Telegraph.

Mayor Tom Bates may be the most pro-development leader in the city’s history. He and the Council majority he controls have pushed for upzoning downtown Berkeley, West Berkeley (a plan overturned by voters last November), Gilman Street and anywhere else a developer wants to invest.

Contrary to outdated popular mythology about Berkeley, it is far more private developer driven than Oakland or San Francisco. But since no developers have come to Mayor Bates with plans for new 8-12-story buildings on Telegraph, he and the Council have focused attention elsewhere.

Telegraph has been de-prioritized despite its still strong role in generating taxes for the Berkeley economy. And despite Bates being a proud Cal Alum who would seem to care about the main shopping street adjacent to campus.

Re-Visioning Telegraph

Like San Francisco’s Market Street, which lacked a new economic function from the time its theaters closed to the recent arrival of high-tech, Telegraph needs a new vision. Nearly everyone agrees, but city leadership has yet to implement one.

One oddity of Telegraph is its lack of nighttime entertainment venues despite being surrounded by thousands of young people seeking such activities. It is also missing a single destination restaurant that would get people to come into the area from Oakland and other parts of Berkeley.

Activities are tolerated on Telegraph that would never be accepted in Elmwood or Solano, discouraging prospective business owners from opening. These activities, which include the playing of loud amplified Christian music on the sidewalk and what's commonly known as "problem street behavior" by troubled individuals, also discourage people from coming to the area, which in turn has led even the craftspeople whose tables once made Telegraph special to find other places to earn a living.

City government has tried one strategy after another for reviving downtown Berkeley, and some progress has been made. But Telegraph gets nowhere near the attention, and has stagnated.

Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue may be the only retail section in the Bay Area that has gotten significantly worse in the past decade. And if we judge Berkeley officials by their actions rather than words, they do not seem to care.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron