Berserkeley Works

"Berserkeley," that famous play on Berkeley, Calif.'s name, calls to mind the city's widely held image. The media feast on tales about kooky characters such as the "Naked Guy" who organized a mass "nude-in" to protest social repression, or the homeless man who converted a city councilman's office into his nocturnal abode. A measure on last fall's ballot that threatened six-month jail terms for café owners who served coffee that wasn't "organic, shade-grown or fair-trade certified" prompted one columnist to muse that it was "odd how life can resemble a 'South Park' episode." And what other community would pick April Fools' Day to commemorate the sesquicentennial anniversary of its founding?

But these tales of the city don't tell the whole story. Berkeley originated many ideas that were initially dismissed as oddball but are now seen as hallmarks of progressive policy: divestiture from apartheid-era South Africa and voluntary public-school desegregation, as well as bans on Styrofoam "to go" cups and smoking in public places. It was also one of the first cities to implement curbside recycling. And at a time when many cities and local governments are facing budget shortfalls, Berkeley is actually running a small surplus; it's a model of how government ought to work.

Berkeley elected the country's first socialist mayor, in 1911, and its public services would gladden any social democrat's heart. It has long been the epicenter of the disability-rights movement, and more than 30 years ago it pioneered curb cuts. More than a thousand children attend city-run summer camps, which are subsidized for poor families. A mini-grant program run by the parks department funds neighborhood initiatives. About 18 percent of the population takes public transportation to work -- four times the national and state averages -- which is one reason the American Federation for the Blind recently named Berkeley one of the best places in the country to live. Libraries stay open weekends and most nights (people use them, too!). There's even a tool-lending library -- another Berkeley innovation -- for do-it-yourselfers.

The city's architectural preservation, meanwhile, has won international awards, and no place in the world has done as good a job on earthquake preparedness. Almost every public building has been retrofitted and is being supplied with emergency caches of food. And mainly because of sizeable city tax incentives, nearly 60 percent of all homes have been retrofitted as well.

Five years ago, when a health survey turned up alarmingly high rates of low-birth-weight babies, especially among African Americans, Berkeley did more than fret. Health officials, together with the University of California's School of Public Health and a local hospital, targeted help for the poorest neighborhoods -- everything from delivering more prenatal care to providing breast-feeding peer counselors. Meanwhile, a door-to-door canvass brought the message into the community. Since 1999 there has been a 40 percent decrease in low-birth-weight babies, and the disparity between black and white infants has been reduced from 4-to-1 to 3-to-1. Though Berkeley officials rightly say that's not good enough, it's still a stunning accomplishment. To celebrate Berkeley style, 1,136 women came together in a mass breast feeding last summer, breaking the Guinness world record.

What's most surprising, the city has done all this while keeping the books in balance. It raises more money per capita than its neighbors, with a hefty real-estate parcel tax that's exempt from the tax-limiting Proposition 13, and it manages its revenue intelligently. During the current fiscal crisis, Oakland and San Francisco have had to lay off a number of workers. But because of smart planning, including a hiring freeze and substantial reductions in capital expenditures, Berkeley will turn a small surplus this year -- money that will prudently be added to the city's contingency fund, 6 percent of the general fund.

As might be imagined, the level of civic engagement is high, and so is the decibel level. Hundreds of people turn out to debate how a traffic light is timed. Anyone can lodge a complaint about the installation of a hot tub, and take it all the way to the city council. But such steroidal democracy doesn't keep the city from being run effectively. From the news accounts, who'd imagine that Moody's, the bond-rating company, has given Berkeley one of the top ratings in California?

Those who run Moody's aren't likely to sympathize with the "politically correct coffee" initiative. Then again, neither were Berkeley voters, 70 percent of whom voted against it. You're not likely to have read that story, though. It makes Berkeley seem, well, less Berserkeley.

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