Emeryville: A Retrospective

May 9, 2011
By

COMMENTARY ~~

My favorite phase of the tide of change reshaping the city was the flourishing of artists’ studios and co-ops. Relatively low costs, empty buildings, and a critical mass of creative people lent the town an enviable, almost bohemian air. Peter Voulkos, the great sculptor, dined at Bucci’s, and the walls of a variety of businesses were graced with Emeryville-produced art. The residue of this flourishing still exists despite the rise of rental costs and other challenges. Whatever else happens, I hope Emeryville keeps giving artists breathing room.

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I came to Emeryville in 1979 expecting to stay a few years.  Thirty-one years on, I’m still here.  Not surprisingly, things are different.  The great shift from a blue collar town of foundries and industrial shops to one featuring high-tech fabricating, office buildings, and retail shopping centers was already under way in the later 70’s.  The trend would accelerate.

Politics was undergoing a sea-change, too.  When I arrived, then Chief-of-Police John Lacoste ran the town, some say from his favorite bar stool at the Town House, a hub of live music performances: Zideco, jazz, country and western, rock.  Whether old timers had it right about that bar stool, Lacoste was the man to see if you wanted to rezone, build or get other things done.  In just a few years, that one-man show was gone, and a new, development-oriented city council called the shots.

My favorite phase of the tide of change reshaping the city was the flourishing of artists’ studios and co-ops.  Relatively low costs, empty buildings, and a critical mass of creative people lent the town an enviable, almost bohemian air.  Peter Voulkos, the great sculptor, dined at Bucci’s, and the walls of a variety of businesses were graced with Emeryville-produced art.  The residue of this flourishing still exists despite the rise of rental costs and other challenges.  Whatever else happens, I hope Emeryville keeps giving artists breathing room.

You might think of Emeryville as a metaphor for the United States in terms of economic change.  Both town and nation make less, relatively speaking, than we used to.  Our economies have shifted dramatically from industrial production to financial services, retail, and the like.  Predicting the future is a mug’s game, but the Great Recession we’re living through hints at the challenges both nation and city might face.

Keeping Emeryville vibrant in an era of stagnating real wages for working people, of rising public debts—national, state, and local—, and of what might be long-term underemployment is a daunting task.  I don’t have any easy answers about how to do it.  The best I can suggest to my fellow local citizens is this: pay attention to what’s going on; stay in touch with city staffers and elected officials; think of ways to keep the town livable; and don’t be shy about throwing your ideas for a livable Emeryville into the political pot.

Bill Reuter has lived at Watergate in Emeryville since August 1979.  An Emeritus Professor of History at Cal State, East Bay, Bill specializes in history of American political culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Responses to Emeryville: A Retrospective

  1. Brian Donahue on June 6, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Indeed, people need to pay attention. If the last few decades have taught us nothing, they’ve taught us that if we don’t care about politics, politics won’t care about us ….and down we go.

  2. Michael Webber on August 9, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    Nice read. Very balanced. Participation is VITAL at this stage – the Great Recession has knocked down any margin for error. Why was ECDC (Emeryville Child Development Center), one of the City’s great resources, under siege while Emeryville is spending tons of money annually on an in-house legal services department?

    What about Emory Secondary – can we let the science labs there languish on grounds we will “soon” be building a Center of Community Life? And what happens to our kids in the meantime, while the old campus is closed, how many years of students are going to be shuttled in buses and lose the “Emeryville experience” completely?

    It’s time to re-think stuff. There is no longer so much money to throw around that it can be spent without careful analysis and recourse.

    A good start will be coming up with a rational business license tax. Not an extortionate tax (remember that goose that laid the golden egg?) but a fair contribution at a time when property taxes have plummeted.

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