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A Walk on the Eccentric Side: Walking tours peruse the ins and outs of Berkeley

November 8, 2013
by Danielle Lim

Their faces concealed under paper-bag masks, three protesters chant “Down with Emergency! Free India Now!”—an anachronistic reference to a 19-month period in the 1970s when India was essentially a police state. But this Berkeley demonstration is not being staged by a band of confused time travelers.

It is instead a recreation of a real event from the rich history of the Cal campus—and a key stop on the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour.

The tour is among the most recent additions to the wide array of walking tours residents and visitors can take through the nooks and crannies of Berkeley, from a tasty jaunt through the Gourmet Ghetto to an odyssey around the many displays of public art created to disguise the city’s otherwise unsightly utility boxes. Whether the tours focus on history, food, art or architecture, it’s clear that the people who sponsor them, and the participants who take them, have particular passions but fundamentally similar goals: to build community while learning to understand and appreciate the richness of Berkeley.

Take, for example, the Utility Box Project walking tour sponsored by Streets Alive! The route, which is available online, guides you through the utility boxes-turned-works of art peppered throughout downtown—from standard Berkeley fare that encourages home gardening to a whimsical piece by local artist Katie McCann featuring two anthropomorphic birds kissing over a harvest. There’s also a darker installment from Kids of the Bay, which depicts the state of our oceans through the eyes of Berkeley children as over-fished and polluted with plastic bags.

If utility boxes aren’t your thing, the web site of the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association has a long list of self-guided walks. The tours include woody hikes, the legendary People’s Park, and a hilly workout that offers glimpses of artwork poised on the lawns and and walls of homes in south Berkeley. The association also has created a map, available for purchase at local bookstores and outlets, featuring some 136 paths through Berkeley.

For those willing to wake up early on the weekend, both the Berkeley Historical Society and Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association host walking tours in fall and spring. Participants are often repeat tour-takers, and because they are usually older, they can provide first-person accounts of Berkeley in its heyday. “Sometimes people move away and come back fifty years later and take tours of their old neighborhoods. It’s a good way to reminisce and tell stories,” says Buzz Cordero, the society’s walking tour coordinator.

Past tours have included a walk through old transit lines and more recently, an outing in Normandy Village, a storybook-style strip of buildings in North Berkeley that tour guide Bill Roberts described as “long on charm, short on living space.” Other upcoming tours focus on the Halcyon Neighborhood in South Berkeley and on UC Berkeley buildings designed by John Galen Howard.

But if snacking interests you more than architecture, you might find the Edible Excursions tour of the Gourmet Ghetto more suited to your tastes. Tour-goers eat their way through this neighborhood that is sometimes called “the birthplace of California cuisine.” One recent tour gave patrons the opportunity to eat homemade pastrami at Saul’s, savor a slice of pizza from Cheese Board, sip coffee at the original Peet’s, and stand, woefully unfed, at the gates of Chez Panisse

“I don’t go into depth about how these restaurants are local and sustainable because that’s a given with where we live,” says tour guide and North Berkeley resident Eve Mezvinsky. “I try to give people a sense of the neighborhood and let them meet people behind the scenes.”

Although food and architecture tour types are hardly unique to Berkeley, the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour is. Encapsulating a century of South Asian activism on campus and off, its coverage begins with the Ghadar Party’s activism in the early 1900’s and ends with the response of Berkeley High students to increased incidences of verbal and physical abuse towards the South Asian community after September 11. Among the tour’s highlights is the 1986 founding of Trikone, cited as the first LGBTQ support group for South Asians in the world. 

Tour organizers Barnali Ghosh and Anirvan Chatterjee, both avid walking tour attendees, use the medium to create community, rediscover local history, and inspire the next generation of activists from all ethnicities. They aim to breathe theatrical life into history by using journal entries, poems and reenactments. “One of the reasons we started this tour was to get people interested in local history as part of their identity,” says Ghosh. “We [South Asians] don’t see ourselves as organizers…so you hear about different kinds of people, and it is validating to other South Asian activists.”

Ghosh, who has a background in architecture, wants the walking tour to foster community among the tour-takers, who include students, visitors from India, and curious locals. So she and Chatterjee ask tour-takers to publicly share parts of the walk that struck a particular chord with them. “There is power in going to these sites. It is very different from sitting in a dark classroom,” says Ghosh. “I think it’s important to connect people to their surroundings. Once people stand on the site where certain events happened, the perception of where they live changes.”

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