Telegraph Avenue

Contact Amanda Ott at [email protected]

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Tom Bates

Listen to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates compare the character of Telegraph Avenue, in the 1960s versus today.

The audio clip is an abbreviation of an interview conducted by Amanda Ott of The Daily Californian.

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Once a center of political activism and intellectual thought, Telegraph Avenue has continued to attract world-wide attention long after the end of the Summer of Love.

But while the site of riots, protests and political debates of the 1960s continues to be a draw for tourists, many city officials and merchants say the avenue has lost its vibrancy.

“There isn’t really abstract discussions going on on the avenue, not like there was in the 60s and 70s,” said Al Geyer, who moved to Berkeley in 1967 and owns Telegraph’s Annapurna. “Telegraph, as of the 60s, started to be this focus and it was famous. Telegraph was very famous.”

Telegraph became the popular route for student protests into Oakland during the Free Speech Movement in the early 1960s because of its central Southside location.

The numerous cafes near campus, including the Caffe Mediterraneum, were filled with students, professors and intellectuals who came to experience the Berkeley “buzz,” Geyer said.

“It was a happening place. Everyone was very verbal,” he said. “Everyone was very political and much (was) discussed. This was the place to be.”

Businesses on Telegraph in the 1960s had a front row seat through the political turmoil in Berkeley, watching protests, riots and eventually the National Guard occupation in 1969.

“We used to sit in the front window here and watch, with the doors closed, demonstrators come up the street and the police in their riot gear fire canisters and push them back down,” Geyer said.

It was also this central location that breathed life into the Telegraph business district, feeding off both the student population and the influx of population the 1960s brought to Berkeley.

“People came because they were interested in these activities so the stores started merchandising to that group of people,” said Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 1961.

The avenue was characterized by a combination of several larger stores, including Fraser’s furniture store and a number of specialty stores for books, magazines and classical music.

“Telegraph was more of regional shopping. There was some high-end clothing stores,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, who began graduate school at UC Berkeley in 1966.

Many of the stores from the 1960s have not survived, including Cody’s bookstore, which closed last summer after 43 years on Telegraph. Still, according to Geyer, despite the downturn of business in the last 10 years, Telegraph has maintained its appeal but has replaced many of its cafes and bookstores with industries that are much more mainstream.

“If you go to the last block of Telegraph, you’ll find there’s not an original business on that block,” he said. “Every one is a corporation and every one is the same you’d see on any other block. It makes it vanilla.”

But Geyer said Telegraph can maintain its unique draw through a city-wide effort to elicit more original businesses.

“Berkeley still has a sense about it that seems to attract a lot of people,” he said. “I don’t want to see the reemergence of Telegraph be divisive of its character and its flavor.”

Over the years, Telegraph has moved to target the student population, adding more fast food restaurants and large companies, Geyer said.

But another component to sales still lies in the tourist attraction of Telegraph, and the historical significance.

“To other people, (Telegraph) looked distraught and not refined but it was happening, it was dynamic, it was famous. And that’s why it was called Berserkeley,” Geyer said. “Telegraph is world-famous and Telegraph had an image that was unique.”


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