Often when you ask someone what makes their town great, they’ll tell you its their neighbors, but rarely do you hear it phrased like this:
“It's people who make you excited or irritated. People who tell and show you things you never thought of, every day,” says Berkeley Chamber of Commerce President Polly Armstrong. “It’s a great place to be young and smart and interesting.” She continues, “I’m on the other end in life, so it’s a tiring place,” but she means that in a good way in that the energy of the place never stops and keeps her always occupied.
Berkeley sits a little North of Oakland, Calif., and across the bay from San Francisco. It’s tempting to dismiss Berkeley and its 113,000 residents as hippie-central, but those days are over. Now Berkeley’s downtown is thriving, its startup culture rivals those of larger cities, and people and energy flock to the restaurants and clubs 24-hours a day on foot or via the BART subway.
The watershed moment, according to Armstrong, came in 2010. After years of back-and-forth, the residents of Berkeley voted to allow development of multistory buildings and a redesigned transit hub downtown. The referendum passed with a wide enough margin that supports of modernization have been able to use it as a benchmark to propel further change.
“It was a huge gold star on the fact that the people of Berkeley are ready to say ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’ to the future,” Armstrong says.
Not that it was that bad to start with. It’s got a great climate and natural amenities, more arts per capita than any other city in California, access to public transportation, and of course, the University of California campus, which anchors the community. Costs run high, especially for housing, but are reasonable by northern California standards and are offset somewhat by higher-than-average incomes.
The high costs for land and a strong preference for locally owned shops keeps Berkeley from being over-run with chains and big boxes, so even as it moves forward with development plans, it will maintain much of its unique spirit, which Armstrong sums up as “irritating and magnificent.”