Exploring the Quirky in Berkeley

By Brandon Yu

For Tom Dalzell, a small scratch on the elbow in 2011 prompted a whirlwind of events, one that would take him on a sinuous journey through nearly every street of Berkeley.

The author and labor law activist found his life teetering in the balance after a minor wound became mortally septic. Days later, Dalzell exited the hospital with a reinvigoration for life itself. “I came out very determined to live life very differently,” he says. “One of things I chose to do, as a manifestation of my appreciation of Berkeley, was to walk every block of every street.”

Dalzell began wandering all throughout Berkeley’s pathways, taking in the sights of his adopted city (he was born in Pennsylvania). Particularly, Dalzell admired the many physical eccentricities—artworks, objects, architecture—that distinguished practically any Berkeley street, and hence the city itself, as visibly “quirky.”

Soon he began documenting his discoveries for his still regularly updated blog, appropriately titled Quirky Berkeley. The blog now hovers around 500 total entries, a comprehensive ode to Berkeley’s inexplicable spirit as embodied by its vast array of whimsical physical constructions, among them Michael Parayno’s vast collection of homemade rustic birdhouses, backyard African mud huts, and murals of every kind.

In August 2016, Dalzell transformed his site into a delightfully rendered book of the same name. The colorful, pocket-sized Quirky Berkeleypublished by Berkeley-based Heyday Books, features a handful of pieces and places Dalzell has covered in the blog, from his personal favorite, Bruce Dodd’s refurbished orange juice stand in the shape of a giant orange, to Eugene Tssui’s stone-gray “fish house,” which, Dalzell clarifies, is actually a tardigrade, a water-dwelling micro-animal.

It may have taken a brush with death to prompt this exhaustive mission of Dalzell’s, but it’s hardly out of character. The 65-year-old has already lived an exceptional life. For example, he moonlights as a world-renowned slang expert, having written several books on the particular vernacular of subcultures, including 1920s flappers and the troops who served in the Vietnam War.

Dalzell, now a major union leader representing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, also worked tirelessly alongside Cesar Chavez as a labor lawyer for the United Farm Workers movement in the 1970s. He first visited Berkeley on a weekend trip when he was 18 and spending a summer working for the movement.

Dalzell has jumped around in seemingly disparate fields, but he sees it all as a part of a general philosophy.

“Either through participating in the union, through language, or material culture, it is all a manifestation of what it is to be a human being, alive and engaged in life,” he says.

That engagement with life seems to be shared by the people behind the quirk of Berkeley.

Each chapter of Dalzell’s book is separated by individual artists and the fantastical work they’ve created or curated. This method of categorization is essential to Dalzell’s view of the reality of Berkeley.

“It is not a stereotype of tie-dye and ‘Berzerkeley,’ or ‘People’s Republic of Berkeley’ at all,” Dalzell says. “These are people who are genuine and nonconformist — individual and creative people who either collect or create, and present [their work] as a gift to the street.”

This generous presentation, each artifact and artwork an offering, is part of a collective, community weirdness, rather than any specific agenda. For featured artists like Doug Heine, a sculptor and the first artist featured in Dalzell’s book, the art on display is often created simply out of a primal hankering to create leave a mark.

“A nice thing about Berkeley is that as crazy or goofy as I think I am, at some point, I can walk out my gate and find ten people that are goofier than I am,” says Heine. “It gives you a sense of freedom that I’m not hurting anybody, and I can make an airplane that’s crashing out of my roof.”

Heine worked in various roles at UC Berkeley, particularly in the astrophysics department and the art department. But these days he focuses on his artwork, much of which is on display in front of his house, including one piece that looms rather largely: Heine’s house noticeably has a gigantic airplane tail construction jutting out of its roof.

Heine, like many of those about whom Dalzell writes, is from an earlier generation, when Berkeley was capable of sustaining artists of quirk and little means.

“They tend to be people who are [now] in their 60s or early 70s who came to Berkeley young and struggling and full of creativity,” Dalzell says. “They found a life in Berkeley where they could have work in the margins.”

But the landscape has changed, both Dalzell and Heine agree. Berkeley is far from exempt when it comes to the changes sweeping across the Bay Area that have suffocated affordable living. Though the spirit of Heine’s generation remains, the cultivation of a new generation of artists, simply trying to create and survive, can feel altogether unfeasible.

Noting the “sea of grey hair” occupying the majority of Quirky Berkeley’s features, the 81-year old Heine is less than optimistic about the future of Berkeley’s creative identity.

“It’s about youth,” he says. “You got to have young blood, and if young blood can’t afford it, then the young blood will go elsewhere. The old guys are going to die out.”

Dalzell has more hope, noting that it is perhaps UC Berkeley, where youth and freedom always abounds, that can buoy the artistry amid the rapid shifts. “The university and the community of the university—that’s the constant in terms of the novelty and the thinking and the creativity,” Dalzell says. “While the hills have gotten more professional and the flats are getting gentrified, the university is still there infusing.”

Even while Berkeley undergoes transformations, Dalzell says he loves the city more than ever. After countless streets walked, Dalzell has closed in on the last ten or so blocks, a finale he’s admittedly delaying out of reluctance for the end.

But even so, Quirky Berkeley is never at a shortage of material. Word of mouth provides new discoveries, and re-walking streets still present delightfully fresh, head-tilting work previously unseen. The quirk will never seem to die, and for that, Dalzell will keep walking.

“I was driving on Franklin Street yesterday, in between Delaware and Rose, and I saw a big skunk on a roof. And I swear it wasn’t there when I walked that block,” Dalzell recalls.

“New things come, old things go away, but there’s always new.” 

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