Monday, August 21, 2006

Could I Live Here?

I have been far from home. As I like to say, I never get to go on vacation, but I have a daughter who goes to really cool places, and I get to go visit. We just got back from what is - or at least was - one of the great places.

When I travel, I always play the “Could I Live Here?” game. I wrote about the relocations that may occur as the Boomers retire (Boomers on the Move), and that’s one way to look at new places. But, since I don’t see myself as ever actually retired, I tend to look at places as a potential home for living, working people; not just as playgrounds for golden-agers who collect Social Security and pension checks.

In this age of globalization, this thinking need not be limited to the United States, but I don’t see myself as an ex-pat anytime soon. But, if I find myself in, say, Israel, Canada, Aruba, Britain, St. Martin, New Jersey, or some other foreign land, I play the same game.

Then, there are the current hot places to live. These can be identified as the fastest growing cities or counties and include places like Las Vegas and Scottsdale. They seem to be characterized by warm winters and seemingly vast room for expansion. I can never get excited about the thought of living in these places because of the blazing hot summers and the cookie-cutter sameness that seems inevitable when explosive growth occurs.

Another thing I like to think about is: where have the truly great places to live been, how did they get that way, and where will the next great places be? These places include the big, famous metropolitan areas like New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. These places have long and rich histories, diverse economies and great variety in communities within their respective metropolitan areas. I imagine the excitement of the New York cafes and clubs of the 1950’s or the campuses and coffee houses of San Francisco in the 1960’s. Perhaps others will look back fondly at Silicon Valley in the 1980’s. There were – and I hope there always will be – places where history, current events, creativity and genius came together to create special places and times. Naturally, I probably wouldn’t recognize such a place in the making if I stumbled upon it, but I like to think they are still being created.

I just spent a week in Berkeley, California. I don’t know much about the specific facts of its history, but I know enough to recognize Berkeley as one of the special places in America’s collective consciousness. It’s the site of the original University of California, the home of some of the early research leading to the development of the atom bomb, and the location of some of the most dramatic anti-war protests of the 1960’s. Nowadays, it is fondly referred to as “Bezerkeley” and “The Peoples Republic of Berkeley.” One of the guidebooks calls one of the areas near campus a “theme park without a theme.”

Berkeley is still a special place and likely will be for some time to come, but no place is immune to the pressures of American society in the 21st Century. The shopping areas around campus seem refreshingly free of big-chain stores and restaurants. Most establishments appear pretty unique and locally owned. Strong Asian and Indian influences lend an international feel. On the lookout for Hippies and their influence, I was pleased to see lots of internet cafes, organic and vegan eateries, and grocery stores with tremendous selections of vegetarian and organic foods. Signs of the counter-culture were also evident on cars (many of them hybrids) with bumper stickers saying things like “Fermez La Bush,” “Pace,” “Support Our Troops – Bring Them Home,” and “Powered By Biodiesel – No War Required.”

Much of my time there was spent in the residential neighborhood in the hills inland and to the east of campus. This is still a very interesting area, but must have been great fun thirty or forty years ago. The first and most striking characteristic is the topography. These hills are steep and the streets wind up them like twisting goat paths with steep curves and switchbacks. The homes are perched precariously on these hillsides, for the most part only eight feet apart, taking advantage of the four-foot minimum side-lot set-back. The engineering that must go into some of these structures is amazing, especially the carports and garages which are often located over the residence. One must wonder, however, what might happen when the next big quake hits. A fundamental difference between homes separates those above the street from those below. Downhill homes usually have parking and entries at or near the main living level, while uphill homes usually present long climbs up stairs to get to the house.

It was great fun walking around the neighborhood in the quiet of the morning with a pre-breakfast cup of coffee taking in the sights. Every home is unique and they are built on a human scale. From the street, they look small, even tiny by today’s standards, but because most have multiple levels stacked on the hills, they may be larger than they appear. They are built and decorated with great creativity and individuality. Stucco and – very appropriately for the California coast – redwood are common exterior finishes. Many yards have hedges and fences. Many entries have very artistic gates with wood carvings or rusty steel or copper panels set in wood frames. Gateways and yards have pergolas and trellises festooned with vines and showing an Asian influence. There are lots of retaining walls and exterior stairways. At every opportunity, decks and patios are situated to take advantage of the wonderful views to Oakland, San Francisco Bay and the city beyond.

Another remarkable feature of this neighborhood is the plant life. Every yard presents a cacophony of growing things. An old photo from the 1920’s shows largely bare hills. Now, huge redwoods, cedars, live oaks, pines, sweet gums and eucalyptus dwarf the small houses. Yards with mown lawns stand out as oddballs. Most yards are planted with all manner of ornamentals, foreign and domestic. The same climate that allows giant redwoods to grow allows oranges, lemons, loquats, oleanders, Japanese maples, big leaf maples, magnolias and hollies to thrive. Any soil not supporting a tree or shrub is covered with perennial flowers or mulch. These are low-maintenances landscapes, prompted in part by the steep terrain and, I imagine, the laid-back attitude of the locals. Even though the houses a very close to each other, the fences, gates and greenery lend a sense of privacy, almost to the point of being isolationist.

Certainly the climate here is an important part of the region’s character making life here seem easy. Although winters can be foggy and wet, there is no frost, as evidenced by the outdoor plants that exist in New England only as houseplants. This lack of frost allows home and landscape building techniques that would crumble with the freeze-thaw cycles of colder places. The summer heat is moderated by cooling breezes and fog from the nearby Pacific. Most homes don’t have air conditioning and only small space-heaters to remove the occasional chill. It’s always interesting to observe how climate influences the building styles of a region.

I like to imagine what this area must have been like in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s, with the artists, academics, bomb scientists, Nobel laureates and free-thinkers that built this neighborhood. That seems to be changing now. The average home price here is now about a million dollars. There are no sidewalks. The feeling of privacy in the small yards seems extreme with ‘no trespassing’ and security company signs sprouting everywhere. The few new homes seem much larger, fancier and more imposing than their predecessors, and construction starts with scraping the lots clean.

There is a system of old footpath rights-of way that were originally built to encourage walking and community, but in recent years they have become neglected and overgrown. A civic group (Berkeley Path Wanderers Association) is trying to reclaim them, and they are great fun to explore, like secret passageways between private backyards, but I sense that property owners abutting the paths wish they would disappear forever. There are no cafes, coffee shops or newsstands within easy walking distance. Even though bustling downtown Berkeley is only a mile or two away, like so many places today, most people drive to get anywhere.

Travel can be inspiring and rejuvenating. It can launch me on flights of fantasy. I might dream about a life in the new places I visit. I might wish to copy or emulate things I see. These thoughts are fun, but I always try to remind myself that the best – at least the most realistic – response to the stimulation of travel is to take a closer look at home. One shouldn’t obsess about the details of a new place, but rather, look for the spirit of a place. Then, back home, think about what makes home special and then try to be true to that spirit. What is the local architecture? What are the native plants? What are logical responses to the local climate? What is the soul of home, and how can we touch that? The tricky part is maintaining the stimulation and enthusiasm that travel provides and putting them into some tangible action back home before the burdens of mundane reality bleed them away.


At 6:56 PM, Blogger LauraHinNJ said...

Hey - welcome back! Thought you might have fallen off the face of the blogosphere.

I'll forgive you the crack on NJ - this time!

I don't travel enough for my own liking, but do like to think on where I'd like to live *someday*. Couldn't be too hot, or too far from the water, or anywhere near a big city.

For now though, it's the mundane - work, eat, sleep, repeat. ;-(

At 6:27 PM, Blogger robin andrea said...

Welcome home! I was hoping you were on vacation, and hadn't just given up on blogging.

I love your new-eyes description of the Berkeley hills. You've captured the essence and spirit of the place so well, and described it better than I've read anyone do in a long time. My youngest step-daughter was a UC Berkeley student, we visited her a few times a year. A short drive from Santa Cruz.

When Roger and I were considering where to retire, we drove the coast north from Santa Cruz to Port Townsend, WA, over many summers. Each year picking a different place to explore. We thought for a long time that we would live on the Oregon coast, but then we discovered Port Townsend.

We played the "Could I Live Here" game until we arrived in PT, and we knew when we pulled into town that this would be our choice. It has the water, the snow-capped mountains, the small but politically progressive town, the food co-op. We knew what we couldn't live without, and tried to find a place that would meet our needs.

I'm glad you had a chance to look around at a place where protest and dissent got its grassroots start. Berkeley is quite a place.

At 10:45 AM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Thanks yet again to Laura and Robin Andrea for your comments. Naturally, it's nice to see my absence was noticied. While I hope to post about once a week, I have to wait until the inspiration moves me and the opportunity presents itself. Blogger burn-out is a common malady these days (I hope you pop in to the Bums periodically Robin Andrea!), and I want to guard against it. Plus, I don't have all that much worthy of writing about.

Laura: I was wondering if you'd catch my NJ crack! Actually, I have a sister-in-law in Cherry Hill. Calling it a foreign country might be mis-stating things...It's more like a foreign planet!

At 2:14 AM, Blogger Kate said...

Ask what Berkeley was like in the 60s. She was there! (Me too, but only on visits to her.)

At 9:36 PM, Blogger Julie Zickefoose said...

Dear MM,

Bill and I play the same game, everywhere we go. Could you live here? he asks me.Sometimes I say, "Yes, for a month or two in the winter..." For me, it usually comes down to the growing season. It's hard for me to consider living anywhere that's not downright LUSH in the summer.

Your blog is gorgeous and you must save your pieces. You are a graceful and compelling writer.


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