In this blog entry I’d like to try and give you some impression of what and where Berkeley is beyond what googlemaps can provide.
Berkeley is in the Bay Area, over the Bay Bridge (the one Dustin Hoffman drives over in The Graduate) San Francisco and adjacent to (and converging with) Oakland. These three cities are linked by bus and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit – ie. the train). For this reason it is exceptionally easy to travel between them. It takes just over half-an-hour to get from Downtown Berkeley (the campus’s nearest BART station) to the city centre of San Francisco, and around 15 minutes to get into Oakland. Although the ticket-buying system can be a little confusing at first, it’s actually not all that complicated (I got a Clipper Card, which makes things a lot easier. It’s very similar to London’s Oyster card system, you basically just top it up with money and use it as traveling credit. It works on most Bay Area public transport.). Getting back late at night also isn’t a problem. Obviously taxis still run, but the bus also runs for most of the night if you don’t mind it taking a bit longer and the average intoxication levels being a little higher.
San Francisco isn’t all that big a city. For this reason it’s actually quite easy to walk around, taking public transport (trams, BART, buses) when you get tired. In fact, I’d thoroughly recommend taking a day or two to do this to get a feel for the city, San Fran is a city in which no two buildings, streets, districts or people are the same, the best way to soak this up is to have a good wander. And yes, in case you’re wondering, people do call it San Fran or SF.
Areas range from touristy (the pier especially – try the Clam Chowder if you go), to seriously ‘sketchy’ (the Tenderloin, the city’s unofficial containment zone: when the police pick up drug-users, prostitutes, homeless people, they release them into the Tenderloin, an area full of really nice ornate buildings, but also some pretty dodgy/crazy people), to commercial (Market St, Union Square, and the Financial (think skyscrapers) zone), residential (but still worth a visit), to thrift-store and mural heaven (the Mission district).The city is renowned as one of the food capitals of the world, and has some pretty cool bars and clubs too (especially in the Mission district/Haight-Ashbury.).
Climb up the hills: there are loads of them but I’d especially recommend Nob Hill (hehe) and going up to Coight Tower, you can get great views of the Bay Area on both (don’t bother queuing to go up Coight tower – tiny dirty windows) and, on Nob Hill, see some pretty cool buildings.
Throughout the Bay Area there are a lot of homeless people of questionable sanity. My roommate last semester told me this was due in part to Ronald Reagan’s cuts to the budgets of Mental Asylums in the 1980s. This resulted in many inmates being unnable to afford to stay there. Although I’m not sure exactly how true this historical explanation is, I can see it being true, especially of the homeless in Berkeley. In the first two weeks of my time in California I stayed in SF, near to Market Street. When I got back from Berkeley orientation days at around 10pm and walked home, the streets were all glittering yellow lights shining off ornate buildings and skyscrapers, empty roads and the occasional hunched figure trudging through the cold, foggy streets. I’d turn into the open, tree-lined square over which City Hall presides and see dozens of homeless people sleeping in lumpy sleeping bags on the grass, shopping trolleys full of belongings and salvaged trash jutting up next to them. I didn’t feel unsafe or anything, it was just interesting to see that kind of thing in the supposedly most advanced country on the planet. But that’s San Francisco: one minute you’re hopping off a beautiful 1930s Italian tram (they bought trams from all over the world) onto the bustling, mural-lined pavements and high street stores of Market, the next you’re walking past the huge sculpture by the Asian Art Museum, up tree-lined boulevards to the gilded golden dome of City Hall while that city’s homeless sleep in the cold space around you. It’s a city of endless stimuli and revealing nuances. Go there now.