End of an era for Berkeley Rustic Birdhouses, Birdland jazz

Michael Parayno, seen here with some of his rustic birdhouses, is relocating to Manila. Most of his birdhouses are on sale. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The story of a controversial community artist and jazz event organizer will come to an end later this month, at least locally, with the relocation of Birdman Mike from Berkeley to Manila, the capital city of the Philippines.

You may know of Michael Parayno because you’ve seen his truck parked across from the North Berkeley BART station, or over on Fourth Street, bedecked with whimsical handmade birdhouses for sale.

Or you may have heard about his efforts organizing Birdland Jazz, aka the Birdland Jazzista Social Club, which Berkeleyside has been covering over the past two years. The jazz and barbecue event, which Parayno says drew world-class performers the likes of which also perform at venues such as Yoshi’s, started in Parayno’s garage before moving to Café Yesterday in 2011.

Both efforts have fierce devotees as well as passionate detractors. Critics have pointed out Parayno’s lack of concern for municipal codes, while supporters argue for his unique contributions to community life.

In November, Parayno announced his plans via email to leave the area, noting a going-away party on Dec. 21, after 21 years of parties in “the community ‘garage'” and “after 15 years of providing affordable housing in the bay area for birds of all colors.”

In preparation for his move, Parayno is selling his remaining stock of birdhouses (all but 25 limited editions) for half-off in open studio events at his 1733 Sacramento St. home for the next two weekends. Most are in the $50 to $100 price range.

“I just want to thank all the people who have bought my birdhouses,” he said last week. “I think it’s time to retire on top, rather than recycling greatest hits.”

Parayno said he’s made more than 10,000 birdhouses over the past 15 years. He uses salvaged wood and other found materials. On a recent day, hundreds of birdhouses still lined the shelves following a narrow, uneven pathway through Parayno’s back yard.

Everything must go: Berkeley Rustic Birdhouses by Michael Parayno. Photo: Emilie Raguso

San Francisco Chronicle story on Parayno’s birdhouses from 2005 focused in on their nuances: “Door knobs serve as perches, door plates as front door decorations, discarded license plates and copper sheets as rooftops.… Each birdhouse also has a circular hole for birds to enter and build their nests. The size of the hole depends on the size of the bird that he is creating the house for.”

In recent years, Parayno says he’s “gone mainstream,” with Groupon and Living Social deals, and features on HGTV and Bay Area Backroads.

The peak years came from 2001 to 2005, he said, when “a lot of birdhouses were flying off the shelf.” He remembers one woman who came in from Napa, and spent thousands of dollars on birdhouses. Another customer “came by with her Land Cruiser and picked up 20,” remembered Parayno. “I got cleaned out.”

Parayno said he made the decision to move to Manila several years back. He was born in the countryside of the Philippines, and his parents immigrated to the United States in 1974.

“I’ve always romanticized going back,” he said. “I don’t know my province, so I don’t want to go to the countryside. I prefer to be in the city. I’m moving there really as an American, kind of rediscovering the Philippines 30 years later.”

Parayno has been going back to Manila several times a year since 2006. He’s already started a Birdland Jazz event there, which he said has been met with enthusiasm.

Parayno, a retired Berkeley City College professor who taught Asian American history for nearly 20 years, has also found a way to bring his birdhouse operation to Manila. He met an artist there who was installing LED lights at Birdland-Manila, and the artist said: “I do miniature birdhouses, too.” Parayno showed the artist how he makes his houses, let him use the name “Berkeley Rustic Birdhouses,” and gave him tools to do the work.

“I tell him: ‘Keep the profits,'” said Parayno. The artist sells the birdhouses at a monthly fair, making a couple hundred bucks at each show. “He does really good stuff. ‘Berkeley’ is spelled wrong, but who cares?”

It’s not the first time he’s used his birdhouse business to make a difference overseas. In 2005, Parayno went to Sri Lanka and taught 10 boys how to build 2,000 birdhouses out of tsunami debris. The proceeds helped rebuild 100 homes destroyed in the 2004 tsunami.

Parayno said it’s not easy building the birdhouses, and decided it was time to retire after suffering a range of injuries from years of work. He’s been building the houses since 1997, and started selling them in 1999.

Berkeley Rustic Birdhouses, Manila edition. Photo: Joanna Ledesma

“My elbow tingles, my shoulder, too,” he said, as a result of stress from repetitive motion. “Carrying all that wood isn’t easy.”

Parayno’s clashes with the city over code violations and complaints from at least one former neighbor were one factor in his decision to leave the area. He said he’s had to pay about $30,000 in penalties for code violations related, in part, to having too many people on the sidewalk during his jazz events, and for “serving free food to the public.” He said he’s even been arrested over a dispute (with the same former neighbor) about his birdhouses.

He said, in the end, he’d rather take his event to a city that would offer a better fit for it.

“Asia right now is very dynamic,” he said. “In the Bay Area, things happen too slow. People were up in arms over eggs and sausage links. I thought, that’s the kind of stuff I’m going to have to deal with if I stay in Berkeley. I’d rather be doing something else.”

Parayno said his Birdland jazz events succeeded in part because of their relaxed “house party” atmosphere. He tried to move the event into a cafe on University, but it failed to gain momentum in its new digs. Still, Parayno said the event has spawned perhaps a dozen spin-offs in homes around the area, and drew questions from a San Francisco-based jazz school that wanted to do its own version of Birdland.

His driving force with Birdland, he said, was to make jazz “fun again.” Over the years, 400 jazz and blues bands have played the event, which Parayno said has to be experienced to be understood.

Parayno said his decision to leave isn’t all that emotional, and that he’s not one to spend a lot of time looking back over his decades in Berkeley.

Parayno in the “community garage” at Sacramento Street. Photo: Emilie Raguso (Click to view larger)

“All the things that have defined me for the last 20 years — teaching, birdhouses, Birdland — I’m letting go of everything at the same time,” he said. “For me Birdland is just a rolling party, really, to tell you the truth. People read a lot into it about community building and all this stuff.”

But after thinking it over a bit longer, he acknowledged that he does see his home as somewhat of a neighborhood epicenter, with dozens of friends honking ‘hello’ or pulling over to chat and hang out on a daily basis.

His events have drawn friends and neighbors, and welcomed everyone from day laborers and homeless denizens to strangers from the Berkeley hills (who are curious to see, said Parayno, the “raw presentations of human life, raw experiences” that they’re missing in their own neighborhood).

“All the misfits that can’t fit anywhere else, this is the place they can go hang, where they’re accepted no matter what. I’ve been blessed with the birdhouses, and with Birdland,” he said. “Birdland really is about the people who attended here, and the musicians. We’ve seen a lot of great musicians. We’ve built a lot of great friendships. But for me it’s like, well, they can always come to Manila.”

Pop-up spot Rogue Café goes private to comply with law [07.25.12]
Birdland Jazz finds a new home at Café Yesterday [08.26.11]
Birdland Jazz and Multi Culti Grill: Update [12.14.10]
Must-haves: A couch in the garage, a grill in the driveway [12.13.10]
What next for the Multi Culti Grill and Birdland Jazz club? [12.10.10]

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  • Big El

    Birdlands is an oasis in modern Berkeley, where freedom of expression and virtues of love have gone by the wayside to city ordinances and codes. Birdman Mike is a community builder thanks to his dedication to openness and music for the sake of music (NOT profits). We were joking with him about how amazing Birdlands is because we love it, but we could bring our grandmothers there and they would love it– but that isn’t a joke: that’s why birdlands is special–it transcends differences, and brings people together. That’s community building.

  • berkeleyhigh1999

    yeah, public safety is not as valuable. first world countries are safe because we acutally enforce “red tape” such as fire safety. I mean come on, it was great, i was there before. But are we grown ups here or what? The guy was a landlord charging rent to people then having a club that was not inspected or regulated below them sounds like a landLORD dictator, with surfs paying his way.

  • Nina

    As a musician who has played at Birdland a few times I can say Birdland
    will truly be missed. Mike gets it. The relaxed loose vibe of it makes one want to play and take chances. I never feel pressure there like you have to bring a zillion people
    cuz people know it will be cool so they come out. Club owners often miss this nowadays
    and put all pressure on musicians to be promoters for their club on top practicing for 20-30 years. The audience there are warm and friendly. What a gem Be blesses. Mike!- Nina Ott

  • The Sharkey

    Three Reasons Why I Wouldn’t Open My Own Jazz Club:
    1.) I don’t have the same connections Mike does.
    2.) I am not a self-employed artist who gets to set his own hours.
    3.) I do not like most Jazz.

  • The Sharkey

    Custom birdhouse while you wait? Now that is seriously cool! :)

  • The Sharkey

    Yes, I recognized the irony when I wrote that, but here’s my reasoning:

    Berkeley has a neighborhood culture based on laws and codes.
    Always has, always will. All of us agree with some of those laws, and disagree with others. Different people agree and disagree with different laws.
    If you want to live somewhere where the neighborhood culture is “looser than that” then coming to Berkeley and asking for everyone to change to suit your particular needs might not be the best idea, unless of course you can convince enough other people to share your views and work to get the laws and codes changed.

    I am not saying that suckatash should leave Berkeley because I disagree with him/her. I do not particularly like the tradition of laws banning everything in Berkeley either. Rather, I am saying that suckatash might find the culture they are looking for somewhere else.

    In Berkeley you can either work within the structure of laws and codes, work to change those laws and codes, or break the rules and get busted.

  • The Sharkey

    Three Reasons Why I Wouldn’t Open My Own Jazz Club:
    1.) I don’t have the same connections Mike does.
    2.) I am not a self-employed artist who gets to set his own hours.
    3.) I do not like most Jazz.

  • Tropical Chic

    Good Luck Mike! I feel very grateful to have participated over the years – from selling your lovely
    birdhouses to attending Birdland events. It has been truly wonderful. I look forward to hearing about your
    creations and cultural, community-bonding events in Manila and hope to visit one day to check it all out in person. No doubt Manila is in for great things! Wishing you & family (including Ms. Pinky) much success!
    Stay “Chic” ;)

  • Howie Mencken
  • Simma

    Michael and Birdland embody the spirit of Berkeley to me. There is a feeling of community every time I go. The music is incredible, and so are the people. You never know who you’re going to meet or what language you’ll hear. It is a true multi-culti environment. While the bay area has a reputation for being diverse in population, all too often it’s “looks good in the company photo” At Birdland people who are different from each other actually interact. whether it’s listening to music together, waiting on line for barbecue or just hanging out and talking.

    As a diversity consultant, I can attest that Birdland is diversity in practice.

    Michael has re-democratized jazz, and blues too. With prices at Yoshi’s and other venues high for some people, or hard to get too, Birdland is only 10.00, and parking is easy.

    I hope that others continue the tradition, and Michael doesn’t stay away too long.

  • TheoXMachina

    The Sharkey today: “Berkeley has a neighborhood culture based on laws and codes.
    Always has, always will.”

    The Sharkey yesterday: “Amazingly, Berkeley continues to change and evolve.” (same comment quoted earlier)

  • The Sharkey

    Change and evolve within a framework of too many laws about everything. Not that hard to figure out, honey.

  • Michael Parayno’s impact can be felt not just in Berkeley, but in the greater Bay Area. Though he may have gained notoriety as the Bird Man, and reached even greater heights still as the rebel Jazzista, his roots are that of an educator. He was my first Asian American Studies professor at Berkeley, and brought fire to my mind like few had before or have since. He asked us to become involved in the community and support Asian Americans in the arts, and in all honesty, had he not done so, I may have never ventured into the Julia Morgan Theater to watch acts like the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, or Lane Nishikawa.

    Michael always stressed the community involvement aspect of the discourse. As much as we learned in his classroom, we were encouraged to take that knowledge and understanding and involve it in our daily discourse with the community at large. Mike traversed the Bay, from UC Berkeley, to SF City College, to the other various Jr. Colleges to spread that wisdom and illuminate minds that had otherwise been clueless to their history and place in American society.

  • The_Sharkey

    The UC has been in Berkeley since 1868.
    Birdland Jazz has been in Berkeley since 2010.

    Birdland has been part of Berkeley for 2 years

    The University has been part of Berkeley for 144 years.

    Chronologically speaking, the UC is much more “Berkeley” than Birdland is.

  • enc

    Ohhh, so sad about this. I’ve always wanted to check out Birdland, but when I first heard of it I had a baby and so kept postponing going until my child was older and could stay up later. Sadly, it sounds like I missed my chance. Anyway, it always sounded like such a warm, relaxing and fun event. Best of luck…

  • Ewa K.

    Birdland rocked my 1-year visit in Berkeley. I guess because of its totally mellow-yellow atmosphere and the people you could meet there. What impressed me the most was the inventor and the host of all that. Mike, thank you for all. You created local community, open to everyone (because it’s really “everyone” who I met there and I’m proud to be a part of that).
    As the police is concerned, it’s very Polish attitude to consider them as a bunch of idiots and to be in constant opposition to any kind of authority, so thank you for that, too.
    Good luck and see you in Manila!

  • GG Amos

    Birdland is one of the most magical places I have ever played in my decades of performing and I know most of my fellow musicians would agree ..the intimacy, the sound, the amaaazzing bands I heard that I hadn’t before, Michael’s iridescent fun personality, the love in the air, the food, the aroma of the food, the wine i brought, the beer we brought, the rum bar, little Pinky, big Herschel, the wonderful new friends and fans I had great conversations with, the backline!, the guarantee!, the park next door, the uneven bricks on the floor in my high heels, the green room tent, the hookah lounges in back, the couches, the sad beautiful Jobim song on the website, the amazing music on the ipod, working the door, working the room, i want to rent that room for my studio, send me a ticket to Manila, We will be there on New Year’s Eve -GG Amos Band -9pm ’til just about midnite.. Salsa band afterwards!.. Please come and let’s have another ball y’all at the miracle of a place called Birdland!

  • GG Amos

    oh and the lovely and brilliant neon bird-land sign..

  • jo&maya

    i love birdland manila!!!!

  • CB Cash

    I live in this neighborhood in an apartment and Ohlone Park (next to Birdland) is our backyard. We love it! and we love Birdland Berkeley. For my son’s birthday (he turned 10) I took him here with 4 of his best friends plus my 5 year old. I got fedoras for everyone and we listened to Jazz while eating ribs, chicken and a taste of grilled calamari washed down with Martinelli. The kids got a lot of approving looks and we all had a good time listening to high quality music. There were a few other kids in the audience as well and the atmosphere was quite pleasant. We left close to 10pm and we played kickball in the park next to Birdland until midnite. We had a ball!

    Thank you Mike. We will miss you.

  • narumon1974

    he does have a permit. He’s been back doing typhoon relief drives the last two weeks and have sent 24 cargo boxes to the relief effort in Samar and Leyte last Tuesday via LBC in Hayward. Call LBC to get your confirmation. Selling the birdhouses is also part of the continuing fundraising efforts. Stop hiding your name whoever you are, coward.

  • narumon1974

    he has a business license for 2013; he’s part of Berkeley Artisans Holiday Open Studios 2013. He came back to do two fundraisers for the victims of Samar and Leyte from Typhoon Yolanda and sent 24 cargo boxes via LBC. Call LBC in Union City, Bill of Lading 1051768586, LBC telephone number is 510-487-3765 for those who are curious and detractors of Birdman Mike. The items were donated by the neighbors and friends. The sales of birdhouses are part of the continuing efforts to help the victims of Typhoon Yolanda. Come by to assuage your Curiosity.