If you were to tell me 20 plus years ago that I would be living in Berkeley California, I would have looked at you with incredulous eyes. At that time I was a young man just fresh out of the military and starting a life in Atlanta, Georgia. The closest destination from South Carolina where good schools, a vocal LGBT community and a vibrant City life existed.
I often joke during political affairs that Atlanta was the city “too busy to hate” but it sure gave it a big try. This is my way of expressing the challenges minorities faced on a daily basis in a Democratic party voting city surrounded by a majority of Republican voters in the outskirts. It was always said that you would be fine within the “perimeter” but once you left, it was an “all bets are off” reality.
When my partner, now of 22 years, asked me whether we should move away from the south, I was very hesitant. I was the general manager of a Michelin rated restaurant and he was a senior partner in a multinational engineering firm. We had come to the realization that even though we were at the pinnacle of our careers, something else was missing.
We were not able to fully express our commitment to each other in public as a family in a safe manner and there were no visible indications that life in the South would improve for us as members of the LGBT community. So we sold the house we built and left for uncertainty and what we hoped was a brighter future.
My knowledge of Berkeley was limited to the birth of the free speech movement, People’s park, UC Berkeley, Domestic partnerships and Tilden Park. As most recently moved to the Bay Area folks do, we concentrated in looking at San Francisco as a final destination to live and buy a home. The reality of the housing costs at the beginnings of the housing bubble in 2003 made us expand our search to Berkeley.
I remember it like it was yesterday: a sunny, cool day in October. We had come to Berkeley for lunch at Saul’s to satisfy my addiction for great pastrami on rye. We walked around the neighborhood and as we waited for our table, we engaged a couple that had been living in Berkeley for over 30 years at the time. I asked them what made Berkeley special and they said, very simple: the people. That answer has come back to me over and over as we have realized that not only is Berkeley the place we needed to call home, but also the place we needed to be whole.
After lunch, and based on the recommendation of our real state agent, we drove past the tunnel, down Solano Street and then up Marin Avenue. As we turned the circle fountain with the bears and up Marin towards Grizzly peak and Tilden, we got our first glimpse and stirrings of what is now a decade plus love affair with this great city. The sun slowly filtered through the trees as they lined up the road and the leaves were turning reminding us of the fall foliage of the Northeast. As we neared Grizzly peak and turned left we saw signs posted for open houses and on a whim we decided to stop and look. This was our second look at the neighborhoods, folks walking their dogs and where we interacted again with long time residents. Everyone knows that if you want to run into your neighbors on a weekend you either have to be at the Monterey Market, Point Isabel or an open house. The easy smiles, the “you are going love it here” and easy interactions gave us the final assurance that this was the place.
After several tries we were able to move into a very modest mid-century home overlooking Tilden park. To say that serenity and calmness surrounds us would be to minimize the amount of solstice and comfort the North Berkeley Hills have given us over the years.
After solidifying our careers in the Bay Area, we turned to continuing to explore this great City with outings to Tilden Park hiking trails; a lazy afternoon at Lake Anza, Rose Garden, Botanical Garden, Pier to nowhere, the Redwood Regional Forest or at the myriad of restaurants and activities Berkeley offers its residents on a daily basis.
We have seen how the gourmet ghetto has continued to flourish; we have reveled in the energy and coming together the Solano Street Stroll offers and the safety and community closeness of the Sunday Streets Berkeley. We have made it a point of going out in Berkeley at least twice a month to support local businesses, enjoy and see the changes to the city and meet other locals and visitors. That is where Berkeley truly shines. Whether you live here, go to school at UC Berkeley, are visiting for business or for the season, there is always an easy welcome and a place for all. The vibrancy of the downtown and satellite neighborhoods reflects it.
You can see the great diversity of our communities in the faces of our neighbors, strolling couples, children and friends. Whether you are downtown, the Ashby corridor, Telegraph Avenue, 4th street shops, Solano Street, Monterey neighborhood, Shattuck Avenue or MLK our diversity is tangible, strong and what makes Berkeley a true melting pot of our society.
That, in a nutshell, defines what was missing in Atlanta. That feeling of “what makes us different is what makes us great”. We relish our political, cultural, ethnic and economic diversity. We are a city of laborers, professionals, artists, community organizers, retirees, political activists and students. And that is the second reason for the love affair. Berkeley can be defined as a microcosm of opportunity, social discourse and political engagement welcoming to all. That was very visible during the community outreach and outpouring of support during the Irish student’s balcony tragedy.
How do you repay a community and city that welcomed you and gave you the sense of community, belonging, safety and wholeness? You decide to get involved in the community via commissions, political and social organizations and affect positive change at a personal level within the City.
A lot is always said about the need to cut down the number of commissions in Berkeley due to expenses and perceived redundancies, but where else in the Bay Area are there easily accessible civil and socially engaged commissions available to any and all residents whose only interest is just to participate, serve and have their voices heard? Sure there are plenty of other cities that offer such opportunities but in Berkeley it is not only about voices being heard but about making a difference for the benefit of all.
And that is the third reason why we continue to live this love affair with Berkeley. The energy found in the voices, the passion behind the shared ideals and the commitment of its resident to engage in the process is what truly makes Berkeley exceptional.
Berkeley has given us not only a place to call home and be ourselves but also a place to have our voices be heard. Sure our Berkeley City Council meetings are long, interactive and passionate in nature, but that is exactly what Democracy is, a messy experiment that requires the clash of ideals, engaged discourse and equal opportunity of expression.
My partner was appointed By Councilman Anderson to the Public works commission where he served for almost two years and became its Chair before obligations at work became too much for him to continue. I have now served for the last 8 years as a member of the Police review Commission as an appointee of Mayor Bates and a past member of the Berkeley Commission on Labor as an appointee of Councilman Capitelli.
This service allowed me to also be appointed to the first ever Police Review Commission for BART, as a member of the Executive Board for the East Bay Stonewall Democratic Club and as an Associate Delegate for the Central committee representing AD15. The City of Berkeley with its commissions has allowed me to participate in the political process at the City, State and County level.
As we get older and start looking 10, 15, 20 years ahead, one thing is for certain. The decision made a decade plus ago endures. The love affair with this great city and that feeling of safety, belonging and community endures. If we had to do it all again, nothing would change. We can only continue to look for ways to engage, serve and be part of the growth of this exceptional community we call the City of Berkeley. That will always endure.