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.”

Related:
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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