Call to Action: cyclone vs. sprawl
Early spring can be one of the best seasons in the East Bay. In February, the flowers start blooming everywhere and a thick scent of jasmine and plum blossoms hang over the city. It was just such a day that I decided to take a little bike ride down to the shore of the bay where a new bike path runs along the water. Everything was great — I was biking along feeling the sun warm on my skin, feeling the road roll under my feet.
At the end of the bike path, I got dumped out in Emeryville. Emeryville is a tiny little city right on the water wedged between Berkeley and Oakland. It only has about 20,000 residents and most of it stands in the shadows of Interstate-80, a 10 lane freeway that leads to the Bay Bridge and San Francisco. Emeryville was once a heavy industrial town dependent on access to the main railroad line and the port of Oakland.
Over the past dozen years, as manufacturing in the US has been replaced with retail and service jobs, developers have turned Emeryville into what can only be called an urban nightmare. The factories were torn down and replaced with a massive series of malls, retail outlet stores, parking lots and sprawl. Emeryville embodies everything that is wrong about our “culture” here in the U$A — consumerism on a mass scale, horribly designed and constructed mass produced box architecture and a life style totally out of balance with the earth. Although Emeryville is on one of the most beautiful water fronts in the world — with sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Tamalpais — being in Emeryville you only experience concrete, exhaust, mass produced products and ugliness.
The whole city is totally dependent on auto transportation to the point that attempting to move through sections of Emeryville by foot on bike is dangerous and almost impossible. The parking lots are so vast, you practically need a car to get from your parking space to whichever big boxy store you’re trying to get to. Most of the people who shop at all the stores drive there on the freeway, park, shop, and jump back on the freeway.
As you can tell, I fucking hate Emeryville. Lots of folks call it “E-ville.” I’ve always wondered how a place which resembles the worst aspects of Los Angeles could exist right next to Berkeley and Oakland, which are both beautiful and ecologically aware cities. Emeryville has never met a consumer product, a new paved section of ground, an ugly building, or a car it doesn’t like.
Anyway, so my bike ride ended in Emeryville and since it was a shorter distance home to go through it rather than go back the way I came, I decided to bike the half a mile through Emeryville. “How bad could it be” I asked myself.
Passing under I-80, my first obstacle was the off-ramp. Even though it was just a normal day (not X-mas, etc.), the cars were backed up on the off-ramp onto I-80. I couldn’t see how far, but pretty damn far. As I proceeded through town, the back-up from the freeway extended to every street.
I decided that making left turns on my bike would be suicide, so I was forced to take a ridiculous and circuitous route through town on which I saw almost the whole freeway business district. I realized to my shock and horror that even in the few months since I was last there, tons of new stores have gone up — all of them chains, none of them with any socially redeeming value.
Basically, the whole city was just a girdlocked traffic mess. I felt impressed at the depth of suffering people are willing to endure — trapped in their cars on a hot day, exhaust clogging the air — just to buy some bullshit at Ikea, Trader Joe’s, Barnes & Noble, Ann Taylor, Abercrombie and Fitch, Talbots, Bath & Body, Pottery Barn, Old Navy, Ross, etc.
So here’s my idea — it’s time to protest E-Ville and all the consumerism, car-dependency and environmental irresponsibility it represents. Emeryville’s Achilles heel is transportation. On a good day it barely works. A tiny additional disruption could shut down the whole sorry mess hitting the corporate merchants in the only way they understand.
Once a month, Berkeley has a very polite, diverse and non-confrontational critical mass bike ride. It’s at night. Given its social breadth, it lacks the consensus necessary to put itself in the position of tying up traffic and causing a confrontation. In fact, I don’t want it to — critical mass is a great chance once a month to have a mellow ride, meet new people, be safe, and have fun.
So there should be another critical mass-type ride with a different name (“Bike Justice?” – “Cycle Force?” – “Cyclone of Doom?”), which happens during the day — maybe sometimes on the weekend and sometimes during rush hour (not after rush hour). This new ride would seek out places and situations where the current car-dependent transport system is already broken and overloaded — teetering on the brink of collapse. And by riding legally in those places and at those times, the ride would trigger that collapse.
Such a ride would result in a blockade, except that it would do so by moving legally rather than by stopping. The fact that bikes would be able to move while car traffic ground to a halt would allow the action to proceed (hopefully) without arrest, as well as sending a subtle message about alternatives — you don’t have to live your life in a car, and you’ll only keep moving on a bike.
E-ville is a perfect target for this type of action. It’s only a few minutes ride from Oakland and Berkeley locations, it’s flat, and it’s compact. Since it’s a tiny town, there are usually only 4 or 5 police on duty at any time. And aside from logistics, E-ville deserves to be disrupted. Shutting down E-ville strikes against corporations, consumerism, concentration, environmental degradation, and just plain conformity, boringness, ugliness, and beige. Our lives are more precious than the mediocre shit E-ville has to offer.
If you like this idea, drop by the East Bay Critical Mass bike ride in May or June to talk it over. The ride starts every second Friday of the month at 6 p.m. at the Berkeley BART station (May 14 or June 11). I would love to organize such a ride on Buy Nothing Day, the day after Thanksgiving and traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year.