Downtown Berkeley: A neighborhood of extremes

Jan 10, 2012

For anyone who’s been there, the news that Downtown Berkeley is one of the Bay Area’s poorest neighborhoods probably comes as a surprise.  The city’s median family income is $90,000, which is twice the national average.  And downtown doesn’t seem much different from the rest of Berkeley.

Walter Krosure has lived in Downtown Berkeley for 30 years. I met him at the Center Street Farmers Market, and he was eager to tell me about his Berkeley.  “There are some really nice success stories,” he says. “You’ve got what they call the Arts District – Freight and Salvage just moved in there.”

The Freight’s a Berkeley landmark known for bluegrass and folk shows that regularly pack the house. Across the street are the Tony Award-winning Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Aurora Theatre Company.

Along with a lively arts district are over 100 restaurants, many of which Krosure frequents. “There’s lots of really up-and-coming restaurants that are actually really making a name, you know. Revival, there’s this place that opened up. Phil’s Sliders – that’s actually a really nice place to go and get some hamburger.”

You can still see signs of poverty though. Shuttered storefronts dot many streets, and the neighborhood has a noticeably large homeless population. “You see a lot of folks that are either panhandling or asking for change and it’s not so bad these days, but it was at a point where I would go out of my way to make sure I wasn’t walking on Shattuck Avenue,” says Krosure.

Such sights are part of the neighborhood landscape, but they don’t dominate it. And they're not what gets the area on the list of the Bay’s poorest neighborhoods. That’s a different group. John Caner, the Executive Director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, explains.

“We really have three student populations, actually four,” says Caner.“We have the high school, which is part of downtown. We have Berkeley City College, which is on Center Street, right in the middle of downtown, with I think about 8,000 students. And then we have the University of California, with about 25,000 undergrads and about 10,000 grad students.”

Total it up, and you’ve got more than 40,000 students living in or near downtown. According to the 2010 Census, more then half of the neighborhood's residents are enrolled in some form of higher education.
And they’re the key to understanding why Downtown Berkeley appears to be a pocket of poverty.

Despite having no declared income, most college students aren’t commonly considered poor. They have support from family, access to student loans and financial aid. But census data doesn’t pick up on this nuance; it just shows people with little to no income. Because of that, the Brookings Institution usually tosses out any census tract that’s over 50% students, and it creates misleading results. Downtown Berkeley is at 58%, but they started the study before the most recent data came out, when there were fewer students. “If the Brookings Institute was doing this study today,” says Caner, “they wouldn't have even included this downtown census tract in the study because of 58% of them being students.”

In other words, claiming that Downtown Berkeley is economically similar to the Tenderloin or Richmond’s Iron Triangle doesn’t just seem wrong – it is wrong. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t poverty.

Tim Evans is the program supervisor for the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, which provides basic services to those in need, and he says his organization has seen a huge influx of homeless young adults. “The primary focus of homelessness is Downtown Berkeley,” Evans says.

Since 2009, the number of homeless families in Alameda County has fallen by more then 25%, but there’s been a 10% growth in homeless single adults. And many of them come straight to Downtown Berkeley and into Tim Evans office.“So people are coming in for case management, coming into our food program, coming into our shelters for just a warm bed," he explains.  

Belinda Gittens is one such person. “I live in Berkeley right now but I’m homeless and to make an income, since I don’t have ID right now, I sell Street Spirit,” Gittens says. Only a few years ago, Gittens had a stable life in San Diego. But a series of catastrophes, spurred by the economic downturn, took her job, her home, and her health. “And so I sell the Berkeley-printed newspaper that comes out monthly by the BART, by the escalators, and that’s how I get money to eat and to live,”  Gittens says.

Gittens came to Berkeley to be near her daughter. After her daughter left the country, Gittens stayed. “Berkeley is probably the best place to be homeless,” she says. “There’s a lot of services for people that are homeless such as free meals, shelters, people walking around with blankets, and just all kinds of things.”

Homeless Services Coordinator Tim Evans says that’s a common feeling, “We are having individuals who are coming out of state who are saying, 'I heard about Berkeley and the services in Berkeley, and where I was staying was not a good environment for me to be homeless, so I am here.'”

Downtown Berkeley houses some of the nation’s brightest students, many of whom will go on to be leaders in their fields. It also attracts some of the nation’s most disenfranchised: people who are living with no home and no stable income. It may not be one of the Bay Area’s poorest neighborhoods, but it is a neighborhood of extremes.