Balancing Act

Hip-hop literati: If white dudes can have truck rallies, why can't we have sideshows? And Berkeley's hysterical preservationists are up to their same old stupid tricks.

There are people who want to decriminalize drugs. There are people who want to decriminalize prostitution. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are people out there who want to decriminalize sideshows. One of them is up-and-coming rapper Balance, one of several self-proclaimed Bay Area Mixtape Kings. According to East Bay hip-hop philosophizer and journalist Adisa Banjoko, Balance is recording a track called “Legalize the Sideshows,” a copy of which Banjoko plans to send to sideshow-hater Mayor Jerry Brown, who recently sought to criminalize the simple act of observing the events. Banjoko humbly explains that he prompted Balance to do the track when the topic came up during an interview a few months ago: “I said you should make that shit into a song.”

Last month Banjoko wrote Brown a letter urging the mayor, who is running for attorney general, to get the city to provide sanctioned sideshow venues. Banjoko suggests that the best way to combat illegal sideshows is to co-opt them — providing a place for them, and encouraging corporate sponsorships and music acts to help bolster the event. If white dudes can have monster-truck rallies at the Coliseum, Banjoko reasons, Oakland should be able to let sideshowers do their thing in a safe place. He figures that after a while, people will forgo the street sideshows if they know they can see the same thing without fear of being shot at or arrested. “My point in legalizing the sideshows is to separate the riff-raff from the real car-culture-loving cats — separate them from the psycho looter people,” he says, adding, “The myth is that they are one.”

Banjoko’s idea is similar to one championed for a couple of years now by Councilwoman Desley Brooks, who hasn’t been able to get any love from the mayor to move it forward. Mayoral spokesman Gil Duran says he read Banjoko’s letter and thought it had no new ideas. The mayor doesn’t think the city should fund sanctioned sideshows. “If some entrepreneur wants to step forward and find a way to make the billions of dollars that the sideshow industry will eventually produce, then they are free to do that,” Duran says.

Landmark This!

Let’s say, just hypothetically, there was a National Landmarks Board in charge of naming the country’s bestest historic treasures. And let’s just say for shits and giggles that this landmarks board has to choose whether to landmark the real Statue of Liberty in New York or the fake one on the Las Vegas strip. And, then, after careful thought and consideration, the board landmarks … the replica. Earlier this year, Berkeley’s dysfunctional Landmarks Preservation Commission did essentially the same thing when it bestowed historical significance upon the refurbished version of a Victorian-era building in North Berkeley’s gourmet ghetto.

Northside readers know the building: It’s across the street from the Cheese Board on the southeast corner of Shattuck and Vine, and houses the women’s clothing store Earthly Goods. It’s a neat-looking old building, no doubt, with the trademark Victorian-era peaked roof known as a witch’s hat. But looks are deceiving. “I know it looks old — that’s the idea,” says owner Allen Connolly. When he bought the place in 1977, it was in bad shape, he says. Prior owners seeking to “modernize” the 1895 building had altered it significantly. The original wood siding was covered with stucco, for instance, and the witch’s hat had been removed. Connelly fixed up the place in the late ’70s, remodeling the interior and the front entrance while restoring the witch’s hat. “There’s very little of that original building there,” Connolly says.

Ironically, the preservation commission hasn’t landmarked the Victorian across the street, which Connolly says retains most of its true original features. There’s a simple reason: No one has applied to develop that site. Connolly says that word spread — mistakenly — that he planned to demolish his faux Victorian. He did have construction plans, but for an adjoining structure on the same parcel, a former wine shop facing Shattuck Avenue. Although he insists he never planned to touch the Victorian, those who wanted to “save” the building easily gathered the fifty signatures required to initiate a property for a landmark designation. Landmarks Commissioner Carrie Olson, one of the city’s more hysterical historical preservationists, wrote up the application. At the meeting where the LPC made it a “structure of merit,” not quite a landmark but one that has most of the same protections in Berkeley, Olson waxed nostalgic about having grown up in the neighborhood with all its wonderful old Victorians. “I did this as a labor of love,” she explained. In Berkeley, personal nostalgia is as a good a reason as any other to landmark something.

At least the commission had the courtesy not to landmark the old wine shop and shed in the back, as Connolly had feared, meaning he can still tear those down and rebuild without interference from the preservationists. But his plans have been delayed, and he says he’ll probably miss this year’s building season. The owner is understandably frustrated by the hoopla over a dubious historic resource that never was endangered in the first place. If a faux Victorian can be landmarked, anything can. “Why don’t we make it easy and landmark the whole city?” Connolly says sarcastically.

Not everything in town is a landmark, but Berkeley has more individual landmarks than bigger cities such as Oakland. That’s attributable, in part, to Berkeley’s low standards for what qualifies as a landmark, which makes it easier for antigrowth zealots to abuse the process to monkey-wrench new development. But that could soon change. On July 12, the city council will consider major revisions to Berkeley’s thirty-year-old landmarks ordinance. One key recommendation from the planning commission would make it harder for the LPC to justify landmarking highly altered structures that lack the original architectural “integrity.” The council will also consider reducing protections for so-called structures of merit and making it harder for NIMBYs to use the process as an antidevelopment tool.

Predictably, the hysterical preservationists hate the planning commission’s proposed changes, even though they could have been harsher and, for instance, made the LPC an advisory board like other Bay Area landmarks commissions.

Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association leaders are now threatening to sue the city if the council crosses them. And the LPC, which the city council asked five years ago to recommend changes to the city’s landmark ordinance, wants city leaders to start the process anew and hire a preservation expert to help craft a proposal. The commission’s obvious stalling tactic infuriates Alan Tobey, a pragmatic preservationist who thinks Berkeley’s landmarks law (which he lobbied for three decades ago) needs tweaking. “The extreme [preservationists] have a long history of preventing anything from changing — either in the city or in the law,” he says.

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