It’s called the Gourmet Ghetto, but the name feels wrong. I get the cleverness behind calling cities’ bourgie food and drink neighborhoods “ghettos,” but it feels rather tasteless to co-opt the term for commercial benefit — especially in ostensibly liberal Berkeley. Exploring your new home town can be an emotionally dangerous endeavor: Places I know only from maps and Wikipedia are invariably colored by expectations and pre-conceived notions, which are put to the test when I finally find myself there. Discovering even a whiff of an upscale, class-conscious atmosphere in this iconic city feels like having a bit of food lodged between two back teeth.
I’m walking down Shattuck Avenue (up Shattuck Avenue? Does it matter?) during that ambiguous transition from mid to late afternoon. A fashion store set into a façade of brick-patterned gray, with a broad window framed by crisp orange paint, epitomizes the bourgieness of the Gourmet Ghetto. A millennial woman, upper-back tattoo visible from under her exceptionally fashionable attire, changes out more exceptionally fashionable attire on a mannequin. A rustic sidewalk sign out front reminds us in dry-erase ink that we best have a “happy New Year!” An elderly woman pushing a walker laden with a pair of Target bags shuffles by in a pink pussy hat — defiant on this vogue boulevard.
This chic Berkeley offers up another homage to the traditional Berkeley: a mural of farmers picking carrots and the reddest strawberries I’ve ever seen. Next to them, dog-sized bees prepare to land on 10-foot sunflowers like alien spaceships touching down on Earth. The mural coats the side of a bakery. Out front, a woman in a North Face (it’s not a jacket, God damn it, it’s a North Face) arches several times up onto her toes. Maybe she’s impatiently waiting for someone. Maybe she’s trying to strengthen her shins one rep at a time, so she can run long distances again with less pain and revive the glory days.
I pivot onto Cedar Street, one of the first urban arteries here with which I’ve acquainted myself. Sure, it’s rush hour, but I still find it a tad strange that in an environmentally conscious town like this, cars clog certain roads like people in Black Friday checkout lines. But because I’m so used to the hums and rumbles of city life, I hardly hear them (or maybe it’s the prevalence of Priuses and electric cars). The angular, multi-colored canyon walls formed by Cedar’s medley of homes channel the two lines of cars to their destinations. Passing Oxford Street, the canyon seems to thrust east into the hills, which are generously sprinkled with the homes of the wealthy — folks higher than me both in elevation and socio-economic status. Above the Berkeley Hills is a Rorschach of bleary clouds smeared across a similarly plain sky.
Scenic Avenue, appropriately named, is another canyon that forks perpendicularly from this master canyon. The pothole- and fissure-ridden road itself looks like a herd of brontosaurus recently tramped through. But the tree-lined street is framed by another mish-mash of pastel blocks of varying shapes and architectural audacity. There’s a flavor for everyone, which stirs a romantic appreciation in me. Yet, ballooning prices aside, does the hodge-podge of stoops and gardens and fences and window styles actually make it harder for moving Berkeleyites to find a suitable new place to call home? Yes, the neighborhood’s nice, but if the only available choices are a house fronted by a porch with too many steps for older parents to climb, and a garishly colored house that’ll cost thousands to repaint, how does one compromise? It’s so different from the cookie-cutter neighborhoods of my native Santa Clarita — the epitome of middle-class suburbia where even changing the color of your house from white to eggshell requires HOA approval. There’s safety and comfort in that kind of regularity, but also a subtle oppressiveness. My youngish mind interprets it as older adults being too bogged down by the rest of life’s demands to worry anymore about having the home of their dreams. Or maybe it’s just my millennial drive to personalize every element of my life. I follow Scenic as it steepens like a BMX ramp into the sky.
Near the apex, however, Berkeley melts away into the English countryside. A church — complete with a tower and all-brick facades — and a cathedral-like building with skinny Gothic windows sit in lush lawns marked here and there with mounds of ivy. Stately redwoods stand guard. The air up here smells of dewy cold. Speaking of cold, I wish I had my gloves. Being from SoCal, anything below the mid-50s requires such gear. But I think I could get used to this after a while. With a pair of gloves.
A futuristic security camera projecting from a brick backdrop and a sign pointing out the two-hour parking limit remind me that I’m not actually in Oxfordshire. Besides, I’m high enough to spy the Port of Oakland in the distance, little pinpricks of light gradually multiplying to get ahead of the encroaching dusk.
I stroll into the courtyard of the Pacific School of Religion, and holy hell (sorry, blasphemy). The gardening’s impeccable, and the main building — what looked like a Gothic stone church from Scenic — could have been snapped up from the English countryside and plopped down here in twenty-first-century Berkeley. I’d half expect a flurry of young kids — dressed in their matching caps, jackets, shorts, and knee socks — to scamper out of their Latin lessons to strike up a cricket match. I’m standing on the top of Berkeley, but it certainly doesn’t feel like Berkeley: The rule-eschewing spirit of the houses is replaced by quiet traditionalism. It’s not exactly my idea of quintessential Berkeley, but there’s a peaceful stateliness and sense of academia that’s foreign to more recently built suburbs.
Finally, sunset subsumes the last traces of daytime. The sky looks like a Monet painting — if the Frenchman were blindfolded and handed only tubes of hot pink, robin’s egg blue, and a dab of gray. The sun has smudged into a fire blazing out of control beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. I would clamber up onto the wall at the end of the courtyard to gawk at it, but there’s already a couple there making the moment their own. I always know there’ll be another sunset, but each somehow feels special enough to be the last.
This vibrant mass of urbanization has both met and deviated from my expectations, as I suppose any comparatively iconic place would. But because I can imagine myself strolling out from one of those ivy-lined pastel homes, through the chilled air, and up onto that stone ledge for a glimpse of the sun touching down on the Golden Gate, that dissonance is all well and good.