Telegraph Swims Against the Conservative Riptide

BERKELEY -- When Daryle Skaugstad, a defensive lineman, was recruited to play football at UC-Berkeley in 1976, the coaches brought him to town for the usual tour of the campus but made sure he came in the back way.

"They brought me in the Strawberry Canyon route and down into the stadium itself," he said. "From the stadium press box, I saw that beautiful view of San Francisco and the two bridges. Then they took me down into the center of the campus, which is a really beautiful place.

"I never came within 100 yards of anyone who looked even remotely weird... I never saw Telegraph Avenue."

Things have taken a conservative turn at Berkeley, and there is not much left of the weirdness and rebelliousness in and around the UC Campus that marked the 1960s.

But Telegraph Avenue -- the sights, the sounds, the smells -- still stands out like a museum piece, a vestige of a turbulent era that is clinging to the past even as its constituency plunges ahead into the future.

It is Berkeley's Bourbon Street, its Left Bank -- and its Skid Row.

A poster of Ronald Reagan in full cowboy regalia is in the window of a record shop, bearing the caption, "Thanks for the votes, sucker," while only a few blocks away the bestsellers in Cody's Bookstore -- where books on Marxism once were the hot item -- are the get-rich quick bibles and the volumes on how to make it big in real estate.

"This is really where it all began -- the basic changes in our attitude towards ourselves and towards life," restauranteur Larry Blake said not long ago. "This community, in terms of its politics, its social mores, is probably 20 or 30 years ahead of the rest of the United States."

And former student Steve Taylor compared Telegraph Avenue in a recent nostalgic article for a UC alumni magazine to John Steinbeck's Cannery Row -- "a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."

Now, they call it simply "The Avenue."

Telegraph's reputation as a counterculture oasis coincides with the rise of Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964, to be followed in quick succession by the infamous People's Park riots and the violent anti-Vietnam protests of the late 1960s and early 70s -- when Reagan was governor of California.

Enrollment at the university was growing and the hippies, as they were called, also poured in, drawn by the easy tolerance of a university community, the idea of radical political thought freely exchanged and the chance to join in a fight against the Establishment

The four blocks of Telegraph immediately adjacent to the south campus underwent a metamorphosis in those years from a sleepy, university-oriented shopping district to a convulsive symbol of radicalism. Sometimes it was a battleground for police, students and street people.

"I don't think much of the '60s is left," former bookstore owner Fred Cody said over lunch. "Telegraph still remains this weird sort of hangout, partly because of this innate toleration of a college town. We're less judgmental than most communities and the university itself serves as a magnet to pull people."

"But it's much different now from the '60s. The political turbulence has practically disappeared. There's no issue to mobilize people, such as the Vietnam War. Students don't seem to be oriented now toward the mass demonstrations."

And Andy Ross, who bought Cody's bookstore, said that although political books still are in demand, they are of the "armchair variety radicalism -- not the how-to-make-bombs stuff."

Another bookstore owner, Moe Moskowitz, said there are "still a lot of radical ideas kicking around" but conceded that the street hangers-on are a different type from the 1960s' hippies. "These are not the people who dropped out, but the people who were never in," he said. "What we've got now is a new kind of Skid Row -- a young Skid Row."

Moskowitz said the street people along Telegraph now "try to identify with the radicalism of the '60s, but it doesn't sound right somehow. They use the same buzz words and slogans." But he said it is now more an effort to justify bizarre behavior than it is a commitment to politics.

Many o the colorful characters who once were Telegraph habitues have moved on, to be replaced by dope pushers, the mentally disturbed, drug addicts.

Cody recalled a Persian known only as Hajji, who set up a street commune of "indeterminate numbers" and carried on his activities on the sidewalk in front of Cody's bookstore.

On the hapless trees of that beleaguered area were hung a succession of posters, banners, giveaway clothes and shoes and almost anything else that could be attached to the trunks and branches. A samovar was placed on a Persian rug and tea was served along with whatever food could be set out.

"When a sufficient crowd had collected, Hajji often ascended a box and delivered impassioned speeches. On one occasion I came out of the store to find a considerable crowd assembled around Hajji and an young couple kneeling before him. When I asked what was going on I was told matter-of-factly that Hajji was performing a marriage ceremony."

Two UC-Berkeley sociologists concluded in a study of Telegraph Avenue street people a few years ago that the street person of today is a "qualitatively different kind of human being that the hippie" of the 1960s. "There is a pervasive myth, extremely difficult to dispel," they said, "That the street person in an heir of the hippie, that he is today's version of the flower child....

"We have seen that street people are not very political. When pressed that might respond with leftish positions, but this is more a reflection of contemporary zeitgeist (spirit of the times) than of propelling conviction... Panhandling for many hippies was part need and part fun; for the street person it is, again, a necessity of survival."

The police who patrol Telegraph now fight a constant battle with dope pushers and users and with the mentally ill. On an office wall in the basement of the university's Sproul Hall is a rogues' gallery of Polaroid pictures under specific headings -- dope dealers, derelicts, alcoholics, mentally disturbed and those who have been labeled "anti-cop."

And although the avenue, now lined with street vendors selling jewelry, pottery and other craft works, is often colorful and dynamic, it also is mysterious and often dangerous.

"Some days on the avenue things feel nice," Harvey Smith, who recently worked for the Berkeley Free Clinic, told Steve Taylor. "Some days it feels like if you aren't careful you could lose your teeth."

Because of its proximity to the campus, Telegraph is patrolled under a joint agreement by police from the city of Berkeley and from the university.

"There are a lot of arrests made off the avenue and the surrounding area, including People's Park," university patrolman Rick Dillard said.

But the street vendors have added a dash of color to the street and have begun to have an impact, drawing back the middle-class shoppers who were scared away from the avenue during the explosive years.

John Talltree, a Pueblo Indian from Colorado, has been selling handmade moccasins on the street for 10 years. "The kids are more conservative now. But it's still the same/ Selling is pretty good. Sometimes you do good, sometimes you starve a little bit. But I make a living," he said.